Raoul Peck is happy James Baldwin is back in the news. With the rise of Black Lives Matter came frank talk about race. That talk has often been peppered with Baldwin quotes. In the likes of his novel “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and his essay book “The Fire Next Time,” the legendary writer proved himself one of the most insightful, passionate and articulate commentators of the civil rights era. And alas, his words still ring true in 2017.
“When you read Baldwin, you feel like underlining everything,” Peck tells us. Many of those underlined passages wind up in Peck’s new, presently Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film essay that’s no mere primer on the author. Instead it uses Baldwin’s words to construct an argument, linking the fight for equality in the 1960s with the racism that still exists today.
It also helps bring Baldwin even further back into the limelight — not only his words, but the man himself.
“He’s totally underknown and underrespected in this country,” Peck explains. “People don’t know about his eloquence, about his ability to convince people. He had very sharp eyes when it came to this country; he saw through everything. And he wrote about it in a way that was intelligent, funny, poetic, humanistic.”
Baldwin could also communicate his righteous fury. “He had the ability to speak to intellectuals and artists, but at the same time the man on the street can understand what he’s saying,” Peck says. “He would reach out to make something complex understandable. That is a rare, rare faculty to be able to do that, to be able to reach out to anybody — the man on the street, the man in the south, the man in the north — and stay human.
“People can be angry, but not the way Baldwin was.”
Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He emigrated to Paris in 1948, where he lived until the 1950s, when he realized he was needed back in the States. During the civil rights era, he was friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But he eked out his own position on race relations, often appearing on television to argue his case with disarming calm and charm.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is littered with some of these TV appearances. When he’s not onscreen, his words are read, quietly, by Samuel L. Jackson. During these passages, one admires not only his clarity but his artistry.
“He’s a major writer. Not a major black writer; he’s a major writer,” Peck argues, echoing Baldwin’s own statement that he wanted to be classified by his profession, not his ethnicity. “He really invented a language. People like Toni Morrison are totally in debt to him. A lot of eminent white writers also say Baldwin was someone who helped them become writers.”
Still, not everyone was as fan. “Truman Capote said, ‘Baldwin is not writing, he’s typing,’” Peck says, with a chuckle.
Peck thinks there are many reasons for Baldwin’s re-emergence in the cultural discourse.
“A lot of things have changed. But fundamentally there’s not been a huge change,” Peck charges. “Some [people] will easily forget that there are a huge majority of black people who are still in danger, who still don’t get the schooling they need or the homes they need or the jobs they need. It’s as if civil rights produced a buffer, but it’s coming back again. And you can’t hide it for too long.”
Peck also thinks that Americans have forgotten our own history.
“You have a generation that just had to find out for themselves how to fight, [or] even how to interpret history,” says Peck. “You can say, ‘Well, we have Black History Month or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.’ But they’re already routine. Seventy years after the Holocaust, you have children learning about it. And they do learn. But nothing can match bringing a class to Auschwitz — the kind of jolt you get when you’re there. No classroom can give you that. And it’s the same with racism. Unless you bump your head on it, you won’t understand what it means.”
Though “I Am Not Your Negro” draws much of its prose from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” it also includes passages from 1976’s “The Devil Finds Work,” which is largely devoted to movies. Therein, Baldwin susses out the hidden meanings in films like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” charging that their noble liberalism is usually lacking. And he points out that Hollywood films often contain hidden messages. When Gary Cooper killed Native Americans in Westerns, Baldwin felt that he was subtextually killing black people. The message being sold, Baldwin claimed, was white privilege.
“In diplomacy we call that soft power. That’s what Hollywood did throughout the world,” Peck says. As a boy in Haiti he watched Hollywood films. When his family emigrated to Congo, he was shocked that Africa was nothing like he had seen in Tarzan movies. "That's when You realize the image you’ve been fed is not totally the reality."
Reading Baldwin at a young age helped him articulate that disconnect. "What Baldwin helps you do is deconstruct that, to see that images are never innocent. They carry ideology, they carry a way of life, a way of seeing you. It tells you if you belong or not. As a black person there was a time I would innocently indulge myself of these films. But at one point you have to ask yourself, ‘Where am I in this? What is it saying to me?’”
Peck thinks we need to return to Baldwin, to help us steer the conversation to the right track: “The importance of Baldwin is he brings you back to the fundamentals — what is not solved, what will come up again and again.”