Movies

James Baldwin’s vision comes to the screen in Oscar-nominated film

James Baldwin (center) in “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Dan Budnik/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
James Baldwin (center) in “I Am Not Your Negro.”

One of the three documentaries nominated for an Academy Award by black filmmakers on black topics, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” adapts in part an unfinished book by the great African-American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) about the history of the civil rights movement as seen through the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Each of these leaders, who were murdered for their beliefs, was also a friend of Baldwin.

Peck, 63, takes Baldwin’s prose (read by Samuel L. Jackson), which is eloquent, passionate, and grief-stricken, and illustrates it with a poetic montage of historical images and clips of Baldwin himself speaking on talk shows and during public appearances. Baldwin’s vision of the toll of racism on whites and blacks alike, expressed in classic, apocalyptic texts such as “The Fire Next Time” — is proving frighteningly relevant to our times.

The Haitian-born Peck discussed the film last week in a Boston hotel.

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Q. Congratulations on the nomination.

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A. Yes, it’s been a great year. A lot of filmmakers have done some great work, and I’m very proud to be among them. But we didn’t wait for the right moment to make our film. The films come usually from moments when we feel we have to answer some questions. Not because we read the press and think we should do something about this. I started this project 10 years ago, and it is serendipitous that it comes at this time with some other great films on similar subjects.

Filmmaker Raoul Peck.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Filmmaker Raoul Peck.

Q. What was your first exposure to Baldwin?

A. I learned early in my life to read Baldwin and felt totally at ease and at home in his work because he gave me a point of view and an analysis in a very structured, emotional, poetical way in which I could immerse myself.

The first book of his I read was “The Fire Next Time.” I was stunned that someone could dare write those words with no censorship and just tell you the way it is. As a young man I was already rebellious against the establishment but this book was further out than I thought I was. It was stuff that you felt without being able to put words to it.

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Q. In one scene in the film the talk show host Dick Cavett asks if Baldwin thinks things have gotten better for black people. How do you think Baldwin would answer that question today?

A. Since then a sort of respectability has settled in about the cause. It was another way to silence us like they silenced most of the leadership of that movement.

That is something we shouldn’t forget. This story did not end peacefully. It was stopped short. Of course there was some legislation, but there were also a lot of murders — Malcolm X, Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King. Many leaders of the Black Panthers and other movements were cut down or silenced. That means the generations after them did not get their leaders. The movement was decapitated.

So they replaced this activism by putting up these monuments and passing a few laws. But at the same time they put a lot of the black community in prison. Generations have grown up without their mothers or fathers. Ava DuVernay’s “13th” [also a best documentary nominee] is the perfect film to deal with that aspect. Meanwhile, they made sure that part of the black middle class became bourgeois and had new interests. They still felt the racism but they could also enjoy the wealth. Like the white bourgeoisie. So they divided us.

Crowd gathering at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Crowd gathering at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in “I Am Not Your Negro.”

Q. What impact do you think the film might have?

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A. It’s not easy to get an audience’s attention these days because you are so bombarded with what I call “stuff” that you basically don’t have time anymore to hear your own voice because of the Internet and all the screens you have all day, all night. We have reached the point when even a spokesperson for the president can claim “alternative facts.”

It’s done in a way to prevent you from real thinking and real criticism. It annihilates all critical minds and makes you lazy because you become the total consumer. Baldwin saw that 40 or 50 years ago. Back then he said the entertainment industry is a narcotic. And back then we only had three networks.

Q. Do you think if Baldwin were alive today he would tweet?

A. I think he would see Twitter as a narcotic also. A simulation of reality that accelerates everything and gives you no space for thoughts. People don’t think in 140 characters.

Interview was condensed and edited. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.