Students, parents, faculty, and community members filled Goergen Hall’s Sloan Auditorium on Oct. 13 to see Raoul Peck speak about his Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Following the screening of the documentary, Peck took a few minutes to speak before he took questions from the crowd of about 70.
“I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin, tells the story of Baldwin’s view of the civil rights movement by focusing on three central figures whom Baldwin had personal relationships with: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck spent 10 years collecting archival footage, working with Baldwin’s estate, and, in Peck’s words, trying “to the grasp the real James Baldwin.”
Peck’s life has taken him from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of Congo to New York and everywhere in between, with stints as a film student in New York, an industrial engineering student in Germany, and the minister of culture in Haiti. All the while, he said, he took his love of James Baldwin with him, sparked when he the read Baldwin’s book-length essay, “The Fire Next Time,” as a teenager.
Fighting valiantly through some microphone issues, Peck described the process of “reestablishing James Baldwin as the monument that he is.” Over the 10-year process, Peck agonized over which material to use, whether to use a narrator (he did, eventually choosing Samuel L. Jackson to read Baldwin’s words as the only narration), and how “to go as far as possible in terms of form and content.” Peck also discussed the ways in which the election of Barack Obama changed the the country that Baldwin wrote about, and the ways in which it stayed the same.
Using only archival footage and Baldwin’s words, Peck said he sought to create not a biography of the writer, but rather a portrait, a snapshot of one reflective moment in Baldwin’s life and how it still resonates today. He spliced footage of black protesters set upon by white cops in Selma and Montgomery with videos from Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland.