Later this month, Haitian-born director Raoul Peck will be sitting in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles waiting to see if his searing new documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” is awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary. But no matter what happens that evening, Peck has a simple goal for his movie. He hopes the film reintroduces James Baldwin, the man at the center of the movie, to high school and college classrooms across the country and to the national dialogue about race, civil rights and social change.
“Baldwin was a star,” Peck says.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was prolific author and social critic. His works include novels (“Another Country” and “Giovanni’s Room”), poems, plays (“The Amen Corner”) and essays (“The Fire Next Time,” “The Devil Finds Work” and “Notes of a Native Son”). He was also a passionate and eloquent public speaker, appearing frequently on televised debates and on talk shows like “The Dick Cavett Show.”
“He was probably one of the biggest authors of his generation, black or white” Peck says. “He was an important witness to the Civil Rights movement. He was gay. He was an intellectual. He had an immense celebrity. He was friends with people like Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne and Nina Simone.”
Peck’s movie is inspired a book that Baldwin never finished, “Remember This House.” In 1979, Baldwin write a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, a revolutionary account of the lives and deaths of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind only 30 pages of the manuscript.
Peck’s documentary envisions the book that Baldwin never finished. Using only Baldwin’s words, as spoken by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film is a radical examination of race in America from the past of the Civil Rights era to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. Using music and a wide variety of archival materials, Baldwin and Peck examine black representation in Hollywood and the broader media landscape and draw deep connections between the three slain leaders. Ultimately, Peck says, the film challenges audiences to reconsider what it is to be American.
Baldwin has always been a touchstone for Peck. When he was a teen, Peck’s parents introduced him to Baldwin’s writing.
“I was shocked,” Peck says. “Suddenly he was putting in words things that I felt and with the intensity I felt. I was mesmerized by his words and by his language. I was discovering that the world was not the way I had been taught and I was discovering that you could express that in a very forceful, eloquent, radical way.”
Peck highly recommends Baldwin as a guide for everyone during these challenging political times. He suggests starting with “The Fire Next Time.”
“It’s a short book,” he says. In the first essay, a letter to his nephew, “Baldwin is telling his nephew there is a bigger story and you are part of that story and you need to see all the dimensions, and you are not alone. There are not a lot of authors who can do that kind of work.”
For LGBT readers, Peck also recommends “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), Baldwin’s ground-breaking novel about gay and bisexual men in Paris.
“To write about a gay couple in the 1950s? He was way ahead of his time. And he paid the price for it,” Peck says. “He had the capacity to be extremely personal, extremely intimate, and yet at the same time pit everything in historical context, a political context, to make you feel like you are part of this history. That you are not just a victim or a witness, but that you are an actor. The rest of the story depends on you. He asks you to give a response, to be a part of that history. I hope that’s what this film can do.”
Before he flies to Los Angeles, Peck will appear at the Berlin Film Festival for the premiere of his latest film, “The Young Karl Marx.”
“It’s the first movie about Marx and it will speak to our current political situation.”
It’s set in Paris in 1844. Marx and his wife Jenny meet Friedrich Engels, and the passionate trio “decide to change the world. That’s the story I’m telling,” Peck says.