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Going straight to the source for a film about James Baldwin, 'I Am Not Your Negro'

James Baldwin is the subject of the documentary,
James Baldwin is the subject of the documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro."
Dan Budnick
James Baldwin is the subject of the documentary,
Haitian filmmaker and political activist Raoul Peck. His documentary about James Baldwin, "I Am Not Your Negro," is nominated for an Academy Award.

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The Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” is filmmaker Raoul Peck’s tribute to the life and work of writer James Baldwin.

Baldwin is regarded as one of the most influential African-American intellectuals of the 20th Century. Peck's documentary is unusual in that, instead of interviewing other people about his subject, the film uses only Baldwin’s words. They’re read by actor Samuel L. Jackson or taken from archival recordings of Baldwin himself.

The main source for the film is an unfinished manuscript called “Remember This House,” which Baldwin planned to expand into a book about three civil rights leaders who were assassinated in his lifetime:

Interview Highlights:

On the timeliness of the film's release:

That was the scary part of the whole process. I thought I was making a film that was to bring back this incredible writer that Baldwin was — probably one of the most important writers of this country. The more I was working on it, the more it became vital. It became an important piece of work. It was always, for me, How do I bring him into the forefront? That's why the film is raw. It's direct Baldwin. It's not about me as a filmmaker. It's you confronted with these words and these images. You cannot be an innocent person after watching it. He's putting it on the table for you and he's telling it to you, directly looking at you.

How the media and pop culture present a false image of America:

I knew that very early on. I learned through Baldwin and older authors to deconstruct the images I was seeing. I was born in Haiti. When I left Haiti I was eight. I went to the Congo where my father was working. The only images that I had were the images of Tarzan. That's what I thought Africa was. Of course, the first day I arrived there I thought I would see a lot of savages dancing on the tarmac. That's the strength of the Hollywood image and why we call it The Dream Factory.

I grew up learning how to deconstruct that machine and how to try and find myself, even though I could not see my face on the screen. I had to find a way to bring myself as a human being in those stories. Baldwin is perfect for that. He's one of the best film critics ever.

On Baldwin's interview with Kenneth Clark:

That was in a time of really hard civil rights unrest where [Clark] interviewed Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Those three men were really, at the time, the icons of black America. Although, Baldwin really saw himself more as a witness than as an actor or as a leader. But he was the most important black writer and intellectual of the time. He was in every magazine. He was invited on Dick Cavett to have almost 40 minutes to himself. At the time, there were only three TV channels in this country. That showed you the importance of his voice at the time. He says [what is] basically the profound meaning of the film: Don't let me as a black person solve that problem alone. It's not my problem. You invented it. I don't wake up in the morning and tell myself I am a negro. He turned the question to the white establishment. You invented the n----- and you have to ask yourself, why did you need to invent the n-----? That's an important question.

On language and using the N word:

I think this whole discussion about what is politically correct — sometimes you have to name the name. You can't hide it. Politeness is good if it's not hiding the truth. It's like if you were speaking about rape and not using the word rape a single time. It's part of the problem: Who dictates the rhetoric? How do you speak about something? The way Baldwin does it, it's a take-no-prisoners attitude. Let's speak honestly about what is at stake. When he said, I'm not your n-----, he's just sending that word back to whoever invented it.

Again, it's about who bears the weight of this. Baldwin, at one point, said in one of his essays, I did not invent the n-----. If you invented it, it's yours baby. Take it. I like that attitude. The title of the film is as well. I know people might feel uncomfortable with it, but it's just a word. I don't take that word as me. It doesn't define me. Why should I be upset about it? It's not my problem. It's your problem, whoever you are using that word. When I wake up in that morning, I am a human being. I am not just an angry black man. I am much more than that. That's the conversation that we need to have. We need to make sure that it's not a black conversation. It's about whoever used that word, whoever invented Jim Crow, whoever used slavery, whoever decimated the Native American. This is the real question. The real question is not us.


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