“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” -James Baldwin
This could be constituted as more of a personal journalistic entry than a review or some cinema history lesson. Cinema is the premier modern art form that encompasses all aesthetic values to entertain, teach, and make us ask questions. Always ask questions.
Raoul Peck is a political activist Haitian born filmmaker who eschews the ordinary conventions of documentary film-making and embraces the fundamental fulcrum; question everything. Peck was schooled in the United States and France which, in his words, has made him appreciate the subtle identity of being American.
Peck has released a new film that is up for an Academy Award in the best documentary feature category. The film is getting a lot of attention for it speaks upon the subject of race in the immortal words of writer James Baldwin. Baldwin is a deeply personal subject for director Peck and it is as if this is an artist commenting on an artist. The film is not about Baldwin per se, but a commentary on how far we still have to go in so many ideological and sociological spheres. “I Am Not Your Negro” is receiving critical acclaim and it is my intention to see it very soon.
The Lincoln Center For The Arts and Film Comment recently put forth a podcast of an interview with Raoul Peck by Eric Hynes (associate curator of Museum Of Moving Image) that is an excellent introduction to what drives him aesthetically and politically with film. “I did not get into film because I wanted to tell stories.” He got into films to question everything, to expand his ideas in an art form that would pull together many different sources into a cohesive statement. He states he came from the sixties and seventies documentary world with shaky camera work, out of focus shots, and no particular attention to the actual craft of film. Peck prides himself in making a film first, then delving into the subject…meaning he cares about choosing his shots carefully, making full use of the cinema tricks to bring across to the audience all perspectives clearly before asking all his questions. Peck came across as one of the smartest individuals working in film today with this interview, but extremely humble about his career and his craft. James Baldwin is a hero to him and as a child, saw himself in his writings. He points to trying to find himself in William Faulkner novels, one of the few writers at the time actually writing about African Americans, but discovered how skewed the “inner voice” was that Faulkner was displaying. Upon discovering Baldwin soon after, Peck found his voice and his identity, or at least a road to his identity.
During the podcast, we discover it took ten years to make his latest film. It is a labor of love and a striking example of an artist given free reign to “find the film” as he was working on it. Peck was given free access to all of James Baldwin’s material, including personal letters, to find those interconnecting stories between his own words and his life. Peck is well aware of the difference in making a film with a political stance, as opposed to making a full out propaganda film. He constantly states that we always need to question everything. If we don’t, we are simply pawns in someone else’s arena.
Why is the subject of “I Am Not Your Negro” relevant today? As eloquently explained in the podcast, Peck’s sole decision to tell this story evolved over time when recent events mirrored what his hero wrote and talked about over thirty years ago. As time went on, he saw the connections that we are still trying to achieve today and uses the film to question why we still have a long road to travel. After listening to this wonderful interview, the urgent need to see this film became ever more stronger and necessary. A follow-up piece will be forthcoming after viewing Peck’s much lauded film.
Question everything. A mantra that is much more resonant in today’s times.
“I Am Not Your Negro” (2017) produced and directed by Raoul Peck with narration by Samuel L. Jackson.