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Documentary about life of James Baldwin examines race in America

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Documentary about life of James Baldwin examines race in America
Acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck (Photo: Photo: Lyde/Sipa)

“I Am Not Your Negro” is more than a labor of love for acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck (“Lumumba” and “Sometimes In April”). “It was a duty for me. It was a way to give back,” said the director on making the powerful and very relevant documentary about the life of James Baldwin.

If you go

“I Am Not Your Negro” opens on Friday at The Coolidge Corner Theatre with a special screening on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2 p.m., followed by a post-screening discussion. To purchase tickets, visit: www.coolidge.org/films/i-am-not-your-negro

“My goal from the beginning was, ‘How do I make sure that he will never disappear?’ ‘How do I make sure that people will go back and read Baldwin?’ The way it was continuing, in 20 years, people would have forgotten who Baldwin was, except some experts and privileged people, but not in the way that we should embrace him in this very country,” added Peck.

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of James Baldwin, the documentary uses the words, images and interviews of the influential author, playwright and social critic to explore and analyze the issues of race in America.

Baldwin’s works and writings were a great influence on Peck while growing up. At the age of eight, he and his family fled their home in Haiti due to the oppressive Duvalier regime, and joined his father in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where his family resided for the next 24 years.

Upon arriving in the Congo, Peck realized how his way of thinking of the world and of Africans had been skewed. Peck envisioned that the Congolese and the Africans he would meet all would be savages. This was based on films he saw as a child, such as “Tarzan,” he said. He characterized his brain as being “already infected by the Hollywood iconography and storyline and narrative,” even at such a young age.

He then discovered, at 15, the words and writings of James Baldwin, which helped give him a better understanding and perspective of the contradictions that he saw in his own life and his environment. In his travels, he eventually realized that American films are used as a form of “soft power” to control how African Americans and people of color are perceived. As the “dominant cinema,” American films “kill all abilities to question images, narratives and to be critical,” said Peck. “Baldwin helped me to understand all this. He helped me structure all this in my brain and I used that all my life. It’s not something that I just read and put aside.”

Oscar contender

About 15 years ago, Peck says he felt a shift in American politics and in race relations in the U.S. So he decided “to go back to Baldwin.” As a filmmaker, Peck believes that it’s his job as well as the responsibility of other filmmakers and writers “to feel the air around us.” He goes on to say, “I felt, even before I thought about making this film, that there’s something really wrong going on, and we were going in a decline. We need the brains, the voices, to help us focus and to help us see through the haze of this confusion.”

The documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Documentary (Feature) last month, is a continuation of Baldwin’s final literary project “Remember This House.” The book was going to chronicle the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. But before the book could come to fruition, Baldwin passed away in 1987, leaving behind 30 completed pages of his manuscript.

Baldwin’s sister and estate executor, Gloria Karefa-Smart, gave Peck the rights to Baldwin’s entire body of work, telling him, “You’ll know what to do with this.” With her blessing in hand, Peck was able to document Baldwin’s life and thoughts on the state of the Negro and race relations in the United States.

By weaving archival images of police brutality from the 1950s and ’60s interspersed with stunning and vivid imagery from recent riots and marches around the country, including those in Ferguson, Missouri, and using film clips and several of Baldwin’s interviews and lectures, “I Am Not Your Negro” connects the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter, and shows eerily how much really hasn’t changed in America since that pivotal period in American history.