Despite the decades of protest and outcry over civil rights for all Americans, the documentary I Am Not Your Negro outlines just how far America has come, but how far it still needs to go on racial relations. Directed by Raoul Peck, the documentary enjoyed a limited release in September 2016 until Magnolia Pictures picked it up for a mainstream theatrical release.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and adapted from the James Baldwin script Remember This House, the 95-minute film goes in depth with the history of African Americans and their struggle to be recognized in the eyes of the law and white society at large. Peck spoke to Vulture about the topics covered in the title to illustrate how difficult the process was to endure.
Story Told Through Song
Taking the words off the page to mesh sound and cinematography all in the one project, how hard did Peck find the documentary to create?
"At first, it was the impossible project," replied the filmmaker. "I knew what I felt and why it was strong. I asked, 'How do I make the film?' I had to go as far as I could artistically — not only in terms of content, but also form. I had to make sure that I push the limits. And I had access to everything, which is unprecedented. I knew I better make something that’s really original and different. It’s like composing a symphony with many layers. My job was to make sure it was musical."
Utilizing the music of Kendrick Lamar for the closing credits, Peck explained that the artist is the perfect fit for a movie that is pushing a very specific message.
"I think that he is one of the most interesting voices right now," argued the director. "I have been skeptical, sometimes, about the importance of rap music, which I think is a capitalistic project to make money. Kendrick is a very particular poet, and what he says makes a lot of sense to me. He is strong; he has a very wise way of seeing the world around him. And I like his music, and I thought it was a perfect circle of this present generation, the voice that is following Baldwin, and a certain tradition of resistance and art and speaking up."
New Nominations Don't Change Culture: Peck
Going from no African American nominations for major awards in 2016 to a raft in 2017, does Peck think the change in the Oscars reflects a shift in attitudes?
"Last year, people reacted to the fact that there were no black or minority films in the Academy. This year it’s the contrary, but that cannot hide the fact that it’s a fundamental problem, which is that minorities are not in the position to green-light such films," he said. "We still depend on the generosity of a middle-aged white guy who barely knows anything about the rest of the world to makes these decisions. You know, you have to discuss for half an hour who Baldwin is and why he is important. As long as this is the situation, nothing will change. It’s a structural problem."
Digging deeper on the topic, Peck believes it will take the courage of conviction and a level of tenacity to push through this particular barrier.
"Well, the ones that are already in the system have no choice but to keep fighting and making films so that others can also come up onboard. It’s everyone’s responsibility, particularly those with power. Like Baldwin says, white is a metaphor for power. We just decided this color is power, but it doesn’t mean it has to be like this forever. So we have to challenge this power, this notion of whiteness, and change it."