NYFF ’16: Raoul Peck talks doc financing and diversity

The Paris-based filmmaker tells realscreen why he hopes his documentary about writer James Baldwin will "go beyond" the film industry's conversations about race and diversity.
June 2, 2020

This article was originally published on September 29, 2016.

Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro debuted in at the Toronto International Film Festival amidst discussions of gender equity and diversity.

It seemed like an ideal forum for the Haitian-born director’s 10-years-in-the-making film about the prolific writer and prominent civil rights-era figure. Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was at TIFF to discuss the organization’s diversity push, while several dramas by black filmmakers, such as Moonlight and Birth of a Nation, were among the festival’s most-anticipated films.

However, Peck is less interested in talking about diversity than reframing conversations about race within issues of power and class.

“I cannot have a bigger philosophical discussion with you if we have to talk about race all the time,” he told realscreen a day after I Am Not Your Negro‘s TIFF premiere. “You have to open your mind to the bigger picture.”

The documentary springboards from a 1979 letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent describing Remember This House, a planned book about the lives and successive assassinations of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin, who died in 1987, never finished the book and his 30-page manuscript was entrusted to his estate.

In 2006, Peck decided he wanted to make a doc about Baldwin but his lawyer warned him that the estate had a reputation for turning down film options. He ignored the advice and wrote Baldwin’s sister, Gloria, who responded three days later by inviting the Paris-based filmmaker to meet in Washington, D.C.

A fan of Peck’s 2000 narrative film Lumumba, Gloria Baldwin immediately got along with Peck and the estate granted him “a very, very cheap” two-year option. Although it took him four years to work out a creative approach, the estate never asked to renew the option.

“They said forget about that – let’s just concentrate on making this film,” recalled Peck. “Not to have any money pressure on my shoulder was a very improbable and rare situation to be in as a filmmaker.”

Peck reread Baldwin’s body of work, and incorporated his writings and the manuscript into a 70-page treatment. He then spent six years making I Am Not Your Negro.

The film mixes the writings of Baldwin – read in-character by actor Samuel L. Jackson – with Baldwin interviews, photos, archival footage from the civil rights and Black Power movements, recent clips from anti-police brutality protests as well as snippets of films such as King Kong, Stagecoach and Elephant.

The result is more essay than biopic, as Peck’s collage of images underscore the urgency and continued relevance of the late writer’s social critiques around race, class, justice and cinema.

The message clearly resonated when the film world premiered in Toronto: I Am Not Your Negro won the festival’s People’s Choice Documentary Award and landed a theatrical deal with Magnolia Pictures.

Produced by Peck’s Velvet Film in association with Artemis Productions and Close-Up films, I Am Not Your Negro‘s major funders were ITVS and France’s ARTE. It screens at the New York Film Festival this weekend, at DOC NYC in November, and will air on PBS in the U.S. following its theatrical run.

What was it like raising the financing for this project?

There are several things that make this project rare. First of all, I’m an old enough filmmaker. I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve survived the system. I have a body of work that allows me to have certain allies. As a young filmmaker, I would never be able to raise that kind of money for this kind of film. I also have the advantage to work in France where my work is respected and you can find money to develop such a project. I have enough recognition as well in the United States so that I could also find partners who had the patience to support me. In this case, it was ITVS and Lois Vossen.

At the outset, did you identify potential funders that would be sensitive to the subject?

We usually have a list of people that we felt would be sensitive to the issues, but also the point of view we were bringing. Some of them came to us. Others hesitated and others said no. It is a film that started on the editing table. Once we had the text, we started researching archive and found images that we used as placeholders to show how it would be constructed. We didn’t go out and shoot a film and then edit it.

We showed some people a teaser that was 20-25 minutes in which I tried to have all the different approaches the film would take: the use of Hollywood movies, the use of Baldwin interviews, the use of voice over, and civil rights images. Some people felt that was not enough. Or they didn’t trust it. Can he hold an audience with that for 90 minutes? It was always about trust. Funders came on board step-by-step. It was a very different process. Normally, people get on board early or at the end. To come on board throughout the process was a very unique way to finance the film.

Diversity in Hollywood is a big topic of discussion this year and your film directly addresses representation in Hollywood. Does that make the film extra timely for distributors and audiences?

If I was coming from the exterior I would say yes, it’s timely. But don’t forget, for me and for us – and when I say us, I mean not only black people but people who are on the other side of the wall – diversity is nothing new. Diversity is like, “Please be polite now. Respect the other. They exist. See them as they are.” At this stage, it’s just a conversation. For us, it’s a struggle. It’s a fight. It’s our existence. I’m at the stage now where I’m old enough to say I don’t care. I don’t care how you see me. I’m just doing what I have to do. I’m not waiting for your permission.

There’s an American philosopher, Walter Benn Michaels, who wrote a book [The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality] and said the whole issue of diversity is a way of saying let’s be nice with everybody. Let’s recognize that everybody should be recognized as a human being. At the same time, it’s a way to elude the whole economical issue. Let’s respect the poor instead of saying let’s make sure they are not poor anymore. That’s what the diversity debate is putting aside. It’s about poverty. It’s about class. We push down the class issue and put up a politically correct diversity issue. Let’s be brothers and sisters, but let’s not touch the economical divide because the economical divide has consequence if you want to solve it. It means to break the profit-driven system. And they’re not going to let you do that.

What needs to happen to ensure that people from different economic backgrounds can make films?
If I can boil it down to one word, it’s power. As long as you don’t have a black person, a woman, an Asian person or a Latino person who can greenlight a film without having to ask to anyone else, nothing will really change. If you cannot change the power structure, we will have this conversation on and on for the next 60 years.

Let’s take I Am Not Your Negro. I get in room with an executive who can greenlight the project. I have 30 minutes. If I have to spend 25 minutes explaining to him who Baldwin is, why Baldwin is important to me and other people and educating him or her about Baldwin, I have five minutes to pitch my project. That means I lose already. And it’s going on and on. Any black person, or any person who is not mainstream, who have those meetings have gone through those experiences. When you don’t have to do that, it’s a game changer. You’re not in my head. You never went through the experience I went through. You don’t see the world that I see. Most of the time I spend with you is trying to educate you.

As Baldwin says in the film: “You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.” And that’s the situation. There are no people who have enough power and I’m not talking about the Oprahs or all the usual the names you get. Oprah can do Oprah as long as she does Oprah, but that’s not the real power. The real power is whether you can greenlight and take a risk on certain films without having to ask permission. That’s the real change.

How do you plan on keeping the conversations around these issues going as the film rolls out?

We want to energize the discussion because it’s not a film about yesterday – it’s a film about today. It’s a discussion piece with the words of Baldwin and the authority of Baldwin. It’s a film you can see several times. Every bit is profoundly truthful and gives you a line to follow. Another aspect of the film is that is shows how all the [civil rights] fights until today were organized. It was not just spontaneous. It was sit down, think and create organization that can take this fight on with allies. The civil rights movement was about organization. And we lost this ability. We lost our leaders in the last 30-40 years.

Most of them were killed, bought, went in exile or went to prison. That was decimation of a whole leadership. The new leadership is not there or not organized enough. We are still very separated. Baldwin gives you the keys to that; he gives you the analysis and he points his finger to the enemy and the citadel. The citadel is not the little fight about segregation or about race. It’s bigger than that. If I wish that something will happen with the film, it is to go beyond the conversation.

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