The credits of Raoul Peck's stunning documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro" list the subject of the film, James Baldwin, as its screenwriter because all of the words are Baldwin's own, through archival footage and narration by Samuel L. Jackson. But Peck's direction provides the shape and structure of the film, which matches Baldwin's words to images from popular culture and contemporary events, underscoring the vitality and applicability of Baldwin's commentary written nearly half a century ago.
In an interview, the Haitian-born Peck said that Baldwin "was a constant personality around me," from the time he first read The Fire Next Time as a teenager. "I've read everything and re-read and went back to it to depending on what period of my life I was." He worked on the film for ten years, spending much of that time doing research to find archival material that had not been seen for decades. "I have a very creative way to use archives. In the case of this film I did not want to use the usual civil rights images that we all know and all the black-and-white clips that we have seen." Some of the footage he found was shot in color but had only been shown in black and white. Seeing those images in color for the first time gives them a fresh, contemporary feel. Peck also showed images from the present in black and white to emphasize the continuity of racial controversies and confrontations from Baldwin's time to today.
It's part of also the approach of the film because it's about images. It's about these images that were created. It's about the Hollywood images, the creation of the mega, etc. So I also had to formally play with those ideas. That's why I put in images of Ferguson which we shot but I put them in black and white. It gives you the full circle of the history happening again and again. It's always for me a confrontation with the image as well and what they're saying and what are their contents and even the artistic way you are using them. It's the same with the photos where I don't just use a photo but I go inside the photo, I dissect the photo, I put movement on it for very specific reasons.
The film also includes clips from the pop culture of Baldwin's era, including Doris Day movies.
He loved movies as well and he wrote extensively on Hollywood movies. He wrote a lot of pieces on exactly what does an image like Doris Day mean in the Hollywood world. It's our own mythology. And he used that image, an image of purity. I was amazed how white some of these films were. Look at "The Pajama Game." I saw the film when I was very young and I saw it again while researching and it just dawned on me, "My God! It's talking about workers, it's talking about unions, a social fight, and then there is not one black or dark face in the film." So, it makes you aware of how ideology works and how mythology works. You are victim of it without even understanding that it is happening.
He originally planned to use a clip from the better-known technicolor version of "Imitation of Life," a scene featuring the young black girl whose mother did not know she was passing for white. "And then I discovered in my research that the young actress who actually played the role was a white actress, so then I went back to the original 1934 version where it was actually a young black actress playing the same role. So, it's like doing archeology somehow. There are many layers in the film and I just make sure that the film has all those layers. The audience might not see it but it adds to the richness of the film."
The documentary shows that the problems Baldwin described so powerfully have proven even more intractable than he thought. One reason may be revealed in a clip from a network talk show that pointedly features not starlets or reality show performers but two public intellectuals. Baldwin is joined by a Yale professor who clearly respects Baldwin's work but cannot resist condescendingly whitesplaining racism to him. As dispiriting as that exchange is, it was still at a level of civility and substance that has been overtaken in the media by shrill, partisan squabbling and "alternate facts."
Like Baldwin, who left the United States to be able to write about it, Peck has drawn from the perspective of being an outsider.
I have this whole experience myself all my whole life. I grew up in Africa, I grew up in France, I grew up in Brooklyn, I grew up in Germany. So with that you always have a way to measure where you really stand in your life and where the people in those different places stand in the history of the world. So, you always have a measuring stick. You don't just totally immerse in a reality, you're immersed at the same time you can look at it from another perspective and that's very valuable, very important. You need that distance. Each time I spend a long time here, when I watch TV, whether it is "Real Housewives of Atlanta" or CNN, if you watch for two straight hours you have no distance anymore because they are so convincing that it's reality. At some point after two, three months of that you have no distance, so how can you resist that? So with a documentary, with what every artist tries to do, we create the necessary distance from a very personal, intimate point of view but also to try to take out the essential of what really is and bring it back in a very artistic way, emotional way. That's what as an artist you always try to do. To try to be a sharper mind than the average person.