Director Screens Acclaimed Civil Rights Documentary at Block Cinema

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October 18, 2017

Academy Award-nominated director Raoul Peck screened and discussed his documentary I Am Not Your Negro at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art’s Cinema space Monday, October 16.  

The documentary, which showcases the work of American writer and social critic James Baldwin, attempts to finish an incomplete manuscript about the deaths of Baldwin’s friends, Civil Rights activists, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and Medgar Evers while also drawing parallels to such modern movements as Black Lives Matter.

“Baldwin helped me understand my life and the contradictions I was living,” Peck told the sold-out audience before the screening. “If you haven’t read Baldwin, now is the time…. In times of despair, it’s always good to go back to Baldwin, because you will find a solution or a way forward.”

The documentary is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson but contains mostly original footage of Baldwin: speaking out about the complexities of race in this country and the injustices of segregation, voter suppression, and white indifference. During the film, Baldwin’s words are juxtaposed with footage of Black Lives Matter protests and of photographs of black teenagers killed by police.

“Something he wrote fifty years ago is just as much about today,” said Peck, who is also the 2018 Hoffman Visiting Filmmaker in Residence. “It’s brutal, but we’re obligated to take it. Baldwin is like a big brother telling us to stop dreaming.”

The event, funded by a generous gift from Jane Steiner Hoffman and Michael Hoffman, as well as support from Dwight A. McBride, a James Baldwin Scholar and former Northwestern TGS Dean and Associate Provost, was moderated by Kyle Henry and Miriam Petty, both associate professors in the Department of Radio/Television/Film.

“It’s such a remarkable film,” Petty said during the question-and-answer session following the screening. “It’s like a Baldwin text. Every time I see it, I see something new.”

Peck said he wanted to give audiences as much pure Baldwin as he could for that reason.

“There’s a reason why I didn’t put talking heads in this film,” he said. “My job was to put him raw to the public and let the public decide for themselves.”

It took him ten years to make the film.

“His estate gave me access to everything—private letters, unpublished books… and now, you have this treasure and you realize you can’t afford to make a bad film,” said Peck, who was born in Haiti but attended college in the United States.

Peck’s original intent, he said, was to refocus attention on Baldwin, who’d largely slipped out of the public consciousness. Now, he said, Baldwin’s books are back in print across the world, and sales are increasing. Initially, he went through traditional studios to make the film, which he originally thought might be a bio pic, but that he eventually decided to produce the film himself.

“The source of the money would have influenced the film,” Peck said. “The film would’ve been different if I’d made the project at HBO. Now, I’ve made a project with HBO. I have a good relationship with them, but I didn’t want to be influenced by them, or be pushed into a format. I had to give myself the freedom to experiment.”

During the 10-year production of the film, America’s social and political landscape shifted. It elected its first black president and concurrently saw an increase in awareness and protests of police brutality against people of color. In the film, Baldwin talks about the possibility of a first black president, even as footage of President Barack Obama and Michele Obama wave to the crowd during the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day.

“We worked for such a long time on a film and we had no idea this country would have its first black president. We had to face the reality of the film,” Peck said. “When I went back to Baldwin, I found that he was asked that same question, about what he would do when the first black president was elected, but he doesn’t respect that question. He says that question doesn’t matter. He says the question should be: What country will he be president of?”

Peck, the recipient of the Human Rights Watch’s Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award, is also known for his films Sometime in April and Lumumba. His new project, The Young Karl Marx, was released in March 2017.
Amulya Angajala, a senior at the McCormick School of Engineering, said she found the documentary and the question-and-answer session with Peck inspiring.

“I feel invigorated to go beyond the daily stresses and see what I can do to help people in my community,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s easy to let daily stresses distract us, but there’s important work to be done.”

- Cara Lockwood