The late James Baldwin was one of the most influential African-American writers to emerge during the civil rights era. During the late 1950s and 1960s, he traveled through the South and addressed racial issues head on.
In the course of his work, Baldwin got to know the civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. He was devastated when each man was assassinated, and planned, later in life, to write a book about all three of them.
Though Baldwin died in 1987 before that book could be written, the new Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, draws on his notes for the book, as well as from other of Baldwin's writings.
Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, who directed I Am Not Your Negro, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that working on the film allowed him to learn more about an author who had influenced him greatly.
"James Baldwin was one of the first authors ever where I felt not only at home, but he was speaking directly to me," Peck says. "He gave me very early on the instruments I needed to understand and to even deconstruct the world around me."
The audio link above features a 1986 interview with Baldwin, followed by a recent conversation with Peck.
On how growing up in Haiti and the Congo, and experiencing political instability in each place, impacted him creatively
When you grow up in so many different places, you tend to take the good part of it, which is, again, this possibility to have different perspectives, and it gives a sort of lightness to the way you look at things. My whole life I tried not to have a heavy burden on me, you know, ... to [not] have this sort of weight that forbids you to take risk, you know? ... When you know that you can leave next year or leave in the middle of the year and be somewhere else, because you have gone through that experience, it's very liberating. At the same time, in order to understand what's going on in your country or in another country, the fact that you are far away helps you to see what is important and not important, because you can compare.
On seeing governments change and fall at a young age and how it affected his view of authority
I learned very early on what fear could be, what arbitrary could be, and injustice. If there is something that determined my motivation in the work I do [it] is the sense of injustice. This is something that I cannot accept, on every level. And the fact of abuse, abuse of authority.
I have a very vivid memory at a very young age of road blocks by the army. In fact, the night my father was arrested [in Haiti] my mother took me in the car, and it was a late night, there was a curfew, and I remember being in my pajamas in the back of the car, and my mother driving through the city trying to find where my father was, because she thought he might be in a friend's house or in the hospital, and there was a curfew so it was very dangerous. I remember very vividly the road blocks.
And in Congo, a few years later, there were ... several rebellions, and of course the army had road blocks and the U.N. had road blocks, so ... my relationship to authority and to police and to army was a relationship through road blocks, because on these road blocks, it was always about how does the conversation go? You need to give the right answers to the questions, and depending on the answer you gave, you know, you could be arrested as well.
On what he learned from James Baldwin's writing
What I learned from Baldwin is this way of questioning something that might seem solid. Nothing is solid, and this sort of agility, of mental agility, and intellectual agility to question everything, I think Baldwin helped me to have that very early on in my life.
On why Baldwin chose to live abroad for much of his life, particularly in France
He found a sort of space where he could write. He could have peace. He described very clearly how the pressure of being a black writer in America was a pressure, a fear even, to be killed or to not be able to control your anger, because ... there were so many instances in a day, every day, where you would be confronted with racism in all its different forms.
Sometimes it's a very subtle racism, but Baldwin with his intelligence and his very sensible and sensitive emotion, he would react to it. He would get himself in trouble. So being abroad was not only saving him from himself, but also he learned to know other people, to have different perspective. This is also very valuable for a writer, because when you are far away from your own country, this is the best viewpoint to really understand what is essential, what is less essential, what is superficial, and what is fundamental.
On Baldwin coming back from France to the U.S.
The notion that he likes to use all the time [is] about being a witness. You know, in order to be a witness, you have to be there. You have to be also part actor. You have to be in the middle of the battle in order to be able to write about that battle.
On the power of film and his responsibility as a filmmaker
I don't think film can change the world or film can change the fate of a country — people change the fate of a country. But at the same time, I know ... that film can change a person, because it [catches] you at the right moment and helps you do the necessary change. ...
As a black person and as a third-world person ... I don't have my own narrative in this medium, which is cinema. Since the discovery of cinema others have been the one telling the story. ... A Native American could redo all the John Wayne westerns from a different perspective. This is what we don't have, we don't have our own visual history. So being a filmmaker for me was also trying to save part of our memory, part of our images, part of our stories. I saw it as one of the responsibilities to have to make sure that we are not totally dead in the picture.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")
JAMES BALDWIN: If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death, the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one. And everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won't be any more like him.
GROSS: That's the voice of James Baldwin. It's one of the archival clips from the new documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," which is nominated for an Oscar. The film is about Baldwin and his views on racial politics in America. Baldwin was one of the most influential African-American writers to emerge during the civil rights era and addressed racial issues head on. Reviewing the documentary in The New York Times, A. O. Scott praised it for insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history. Baldwin chose to spend much of his adult life outside the U.S. He moved to France in 1948 at the age of 24, but in 1957, the civil rights movement drew him back to America. He traveled through the South and wrote about it. He got to know Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and was devastated by their assassinations. He'd started a book about them which remained unfinished when he died.
The documentary draws on his notes for that movie, as well as other writings. Those writings are read by the actor Samuel Jackson. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the director of "I Am Not Your Negro," Raoul Peck. But first, we're going to listen to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with James Baldwin in 1986. He died one year later at the age of 63. We began by talking about his father, who was a preacher in a storefront church.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
BALDWIN: Daddy was a old fashioned fire and brimstone hellfire preacher, you know, very direct, very chilling sometimes. His orders were not only coming from him, but from the Almighty. So in a way to contest him was to be contesting, you know, the lord, to be fighting the lord. Of course, my father was not slow to point this out.
BALDWIN: There was something very frightening about it.
GROSS: You became a preacher when you were 14.
BALDWIN: That's right.
GROSS: Why did you do that?
BALDWIN: Well, it was almost inevitable, you know, being raised that way. And after all, I'm not doubting anything my father said, not doubting the Gospel, not doubting the church, you know. And at the time of puberty when everybody goes through a storm, you know, the storm of self-discovery, the storm of self-contempt, the storm of the terror who is this self, which is suddenly evolving, you know, suddenly you distinguish yourself from other selves.
And all of these things - and the sexual question, of course, you know. All of these things sort of coalesce into some kind of hurricane in a way, you know. And in that hurricane, I do - what do I do? I reached out for the only thing I could - which I knew to cling to, and that was the Holy Ghost.
GROSS: So by being a preacher you didn't have to - you were able to, like, put on the back shelf for a while sexuality and entering adulthood and those kinds of things?
BALDWIN: Well, it didn't work, actually. You know, I mean, I was in the pulpit for three years. And all those - you know, all of the elements which had drawn me in the pulpit, you know, were still there, were still active, were still - I was not less menaced. And in those three years in the pulpit - it's very difficult to describe them, I probably shouldn't try - there was a kind of torment in it, but I learned an awful lot. And my faith perhaps - I lost my faith, or the faith I'd had - but I learned something else. I learned something about myself, I think, and I learned something through dealing with those congregations. After all, I was a boy preacher. And the people I was - congregations I addressed were grown-ups.
And boy preachers have a very special aura in the black community. And that aura implies a certain responsibility, you know, and the responsibility above all to tell the truth. So as I began to be more and more tormented by my crumbling faith, it began to be clearer and clearer to me that I had no right to stay in the pulpit 'cause - and I didn't know enough. I didn't - the suffering of those people, which was real, was still beyond the kin of a boy 14, 15, 16. You could respond to it, but I had not yet entered that inferno. Then you said about being a nigger, which I was only just beginning to discover, and it frightened me. So for those reasons and complex reasons, I left. I left home. I left the church.
GROSS: What did you do to try to get your foot in the door somewhere as a writer?
BALDWIN: Well, I wrote all the time, you know. I worked all day, and I wrote all night. And I learned a lot. I began to be being published when I was 22. I had a fellowship when I was 21. And something else was happening too, though I didn't quite see it. I was just - I was defined as a young negro writer. And that meant that certain things were expected of a young negro writer.
And what was expected - I was not - I knew I was not about to deliver. What was expected was to - I'm putting it very brutally - but what was expected was to accept the role of victim and to write from that point of view. And from my point of view, it seemed to me that to take such a stance would simply be to corroborate all of the principles which had you enslaved in the first place.
GROSS: "Go Tell It On The Mountain" was a fairly autobiographical novel. And it really won you a lot of attention and prestige in America. Your book of essays, "The Fire Next Time," which was published in 1963, was I think perceived by many whites as an attack against whites, like, he's threatening us with the fire next time. Did that happen? Did some white people see it that way? And did it change your reputation to becoming more of a controversial writer?
BALDWIN: Yeah, but that had happened - that'd been happening already without my quite noticing it. 'Cause long before "The Fire Next Time," which was not an attack on white people, they flatter themselves.
BALDWIN: Long before that when I first got South - went South and tried to begin to - 'cause I went as a reporter, and I tried to get the story published, you know. The first few times I - first few magazines when I came back did not want to publish the reports because they accused me of fomenting violence. Now, I was describing violence, which was not - violence which I was in no way responsible. And I thought that people should know what is going on and why it's going on. And in the battle, you know, to do this, I became notorious.
In any case, the battle I was fighting it seemed to me was not simply about black people but also - my position as it concerns white America was it's your country, too. It's your responsibility too, you know. And "The Fire Next Time" is probably the combination of all those years, you know. It was when I was being called the angry young man on the white side of town and being called an Uncle Tom on the black side of town.
GROSS: You've been very outspoken about civil rights issues and about black issues in America, but you've been much less outspoken about homosexual issues.
BALDWIN: Go ahead.
GROSS: And I'm just thinking that, in a way, homosexuals have been marginalized in both the white and black parts of American culture.
BALDWIN: Well, there's no point in mixing the two questions, only leads to terrible confusion. And in America in any case, the homosexual question is tied up with the whole American idea of masculinity, the whole infantine idea according to me. And absolutely untrue, to be a man is much more various than the American myth has it. It seems to me in the life I myself have lived and the life that I've observed that love is a very big - love is like the lightning of a life. Love is where you find it, you know? And your maturity, I think, is signaled by the depth or the extent to which you can accept the dangers and the power and the beauty of love.
GROSS: Some of your writing has really been, I think, very important to gay people and people in the gay movement in America. And I wonder if the gay liberation movement had any effect on you, if it was important for you to have, you know, a movement...
GROSS: ...About that.
BALDWIN: No, no, no. Head of the church when I was 17 and have not joined anything since. You seem to have (unintelligible) this country. I had been afflicted with so many labels that I'd become invisible to myself. No, I had to go away someplace and get rid of all these labels to find out not what I was but who. You see what I mean? And the - the gay liberation movement is ideally an attempt precisely to find out not what one is but who one is, and also to have no need to defend oneself, you know? So it was a very simple matter for me, in any case, to say to myself, I'm going this way, you know, and only death will stop me, you know? And I want to live my life, the only life I have, in the sight of God.
GROSS: James Baldwin recorded in 1986. He died one year later at the age of 63. We'll hear from Raoul Peck, the director of the new documentary about Baldwin - it's called "I Am Not Your Negro" - right after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Raoul Peck, is the director of "I Am Not Your Negro," the new film about James Baldwin which is nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. Peck was born in Haiti, but after the country fell under the rule of a dictator when he was 8 his family fled to the Congo. Peck has also lived in Germany, France and the U.S. He briefly served as Haiti's minister of culture.
Let's hear another clip from the Baldwin documentary. It begins with archival footage of James Baldwin speaking at a public forum in 1963 and ends with a passage from Baldwin's work read by Samuel L. Jackson, who reads from Baldwin's work throughout the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")
BALDWIN: Most of the white Americans I have ever encountered really, you know, had a negro friend or a negro maid or somebody in high school. But they never, you know, or rarely after school was over or whatever, you know, came to my kitchen. You know, we were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore, he doesn't know - he really does not know - what it was like for me to leave my house, you know, leave the school and go back to Harlem. He doesn't know how negroes live.
And it comes as a great surprise to the Kennedy brothers and to everybody else in the country. I'm certain again, you know, that like - again, like most white Americans I have, you know, encountered, they have no - you know, I'm sure they have nothing whatever against negroes. That is not - that's really not the question. You know, the question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance which is a price we pay for segregation. That's what segregation means. It - you don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall because you don't want to know.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (As narrator, reading) I was in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the great black hope of the great white father. I was not a racist - or so I thought.
GROSS: Raoul Peck, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did James Baldwin mean to you when you were first starting to read serious literature and to become aware of the civil rights movement in America?
RAOUL PECK: Well, first of all, I learned about him very early on between end of high school and beginning of university - of college. And the first book I read was "The Fire Next Time." And at that time, you know, in the '60s there were not so many examples. There were so many authors I could read and find myself at home. You know, everything I would read, whether it's French literature or American literature, I was always suspect of each page because you would, you know, turning the page and bump on to a racist remark and then realize that that book was not about you and that you were not included in the picture.
So James Baldwin was one of the first authors ever where I felt not only at home, but he was speaking directly to me. And he was translating feelings and thoughts that I never had in a very structured way. And he gave me very early on the instruments I needed to understand and to even deconstruct the world around me.
GROSS: Can you give me an example of something he wrote that stayed with you that you read when you were young?
PECK: "The Fire Next Time" was not only for me the story of an elder who's trying to teach a younger nephew, you know, the facts of life. What I probably got from that is the notion of different perspective, that, you know, it was legitimate to see the world totally differently than the dominant way, you know, which is the Western dominant way of seeing the rest of the world, you know, whether it's Europe or North America, you know, there is always this incredible sense of, you know, we are the world, we are the center of the world. And we see the rest of the world from that center.
And Baldwin helped me understand that this was a political standpoint and that we were legitimate to question that and to see ourself as as well the center of the world or at least as important or as valuable, you know, to have a different perspective on that. So it's really - that's why I always said what I learned from Baldwin is this way of questioning something that might seem solid - nothing is solid - and this sort of agility - of mental agility and intellectual agility to question everything. I think Baldwin helped me to have that very early on in my life.
GROSS: There's a fascinating part of the film in which you have archival footage of a 15-year-old African-American girl who's integrating a white school. She's the only black student, as far as I can tell. And she's being sneered at and insulted and surrounded...
PECK: Dorothy Counts, yes.
GROSS: Yes - and mocked. And she's just, like, standing up to it. She's just, like, looking straight ahead. She has this look of determination on her face. And you quote Baldwin as saying, you know, that he felt someone should be there with her. And he was living in France at the time. And this had a pivotal role in his life. Would you describe the story of this girl and her impact on James Baldwin?
PECK: Well, as always, Baldwin is always somebody who can, you know, change the perspective. You know, we all saw those pictures. You know, I was too young, of course. But even later on when, you know, we used to see those images of those, you know, desegregation moment where young black children were going into white schools and sometimes with their parents. But the parents would leave them the whole day in that school. And nobody really thought about that. You know, what do you do as a young child, you know, of 15, 16, 17, and you are alone in basically enemy territory as a child?
But Baldwin not only felt that but he tried to tell that part of the story that we, frankly, never guessed, you know. And so when he saw that - that's what I used in the film - and watching that photo, his reaction that some of us should have been there with her. And it tells the whole tragic - and you see the face of this young girl, you know, basically alone against a hundred people and young kids, adults, you know, women and men, you know, yelling at her, basically, and, you know, mocking her. And that's such a tragic scene. And Baldwin caught it.
GROSS: My guest is Raoul Peck. He directed the film "I Am Not Your Negro" about James Baldwin. Here's the part of the film we were talking about where Samuel Jackson is reading from Baldwin's writing about the photo of Dorothy Counts.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")
JACKSON: That's when I saw the photograph. On every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaped boulevard in Paris were photographs of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, N.C. There was unutterable pride, tension and anguish in that girl's face as she approached the halls of learning with history jeering at her back. It made me furious. It filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her.
But it was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France. I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues. And it was time I went home and paid mine.
GROSS: I'll continue my conversation with Raoul Peck, the director of "I Am Not Your Negro," after we take a short break. We'll talk more about James Baldwin and we'll talk about Peck's experiences living under dictatorships in Haiti and the Congo. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Raoul Peck. He directed the new film about James Baldwin called "I Am Not Your Negro." It's nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. The film focuses on Baldwin's views on racial politics in America. It uses archival footage of Baldwin and archival news footage as well as Hollywood films that Baldwin thinks both reflected and shaped American perceptions of race. Here's another clip from the documentary featuring Samuel Jackson reading from Baldwin's writing about a teacher who had a profound effect on his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")
JACKSON: (As narrator, reading) By this time, I had been taken in hand by a young white schoolteacher named Bill Miller, a beautiful woman - very important to me. She gave me books to read and talked to me about the books and about the world - about Ethiopia and Italy and the German Third Reich - and took me to see plays and films to which no one else would have dreamed of taking a 10-year-old boy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING KONG")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, unintelligible).
JACKSON: (As narrator, reading) It is certainly because of Bill Miller, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people, though God knows I have often wished to murder more than one or two. Therefore, I began to suspect that white people did not act as they did because they were white but for some other reason.
I was a child, of course, and therefore unsophisticated. I took Bill Miller as she was, or as she appeared to be to me. She, too, anyway was treated like a nigger, especially by the cops.
GROSS: As far as James Baldwin's own school experiences, you quote him as saying that, you know, he was taken in by a young white schoolteacher who gave him books and talked with him, took him to plays and films. And he says that, in part because of that, he never hated all white people. And that...
GROSS: ...Seems to be such a kind of crucial part of his formative experiences.
PECK: Well, you know, all of us, probably, we all - childhood experience are an incredible influence in the rest of our lives. And as for Baldwin, he learned very early on that there are differences and that the main differences are not always about the color of your skin. It was much more about what went between two persons, independent if they are black or white.
And what he cherished was his relationship with that young white teacher who did open his mind, who brought him to places where normally a young black boy, just by the fact that he is born in a certain class and in a certain, very often poor, community that he - you know, he would never think or his parents would never think to bring him there. So he learned very early on that there are differences and the real differences are not always a matter of skin.
GROSS: What's your understanding of why James Baldwin spent so much of his adult life living abroad, mostly in France?
PECK: Because he found a sort of space where he could write, he could have peace. He described very clearly how the pressure of being a black writer in America was a pressure, you know, the fear even to be killed or to not be able to control your anger because with somebody like Baldwin, who felt everything through his body - he was an intellectual, of course, but he was physical. So there were so many instances in day every day where you would be confronted with, you know, racism in all its different forms. Sometimes, it's a very subtle racist. But Baldwin, with his intelligence and his very sensible and sensitive emotion, he would react to it and he would get himself in trouble.
So being abroad was not only saving him from himself but also he learned, you know, to know other people, to have different perspective. This is also very valuable for a writer because when you are far away from your own country, this is the best viewpoint to really understand what is essential, what is less essential, what is superficial and what is fundamental.
GROSS: You know, your film is so much about, you know, a black man in a country that is not giving black people equal rights and how that's affected Baldwin's life, how he's trying to deal with that personally and artistically. You grew up in Haiti, which is a country that is primarily black, in which slaves rebelled and won their freedom. So when you were growing up in Haiti - and you were there until about the age of 8 - you were not in the minority. You were in the majority.
And then Papa Doc Duvalier took over the country and turned it into a dictatorship. So before we get into the dictatorship, what was your sense of what it was like to be black before it meant being a minority?
GROSS: Like, did you even think of yourself as being black because, like, you were surrounded by people who were mostly black, right?
PECK: Well, I had a different sense - and that's where Baldwin was somehow very precise in his analysis - is that, indeed, Haiti is a black republic and, by the way, the first free republic of the Americas. There is something else that is more subtle in Haiti. It's the difference between if you belong to the bourgeoisie or you belong to the poor, peasant caste. So there is this subtlety of light skin and white skin from immigrants, from Arabs' country - from Syria, from Lebanon - and even from France, Germany. We have Haitian of all those descents. So there are all also, you know, lighter skin. But it's linked to a class difference, you know, that...
GROSS: Where did you fit into that class system?
PECK: My father was an agronomist, so I would say middle class. But he came from - you know, he grew up in a very difficult condition in the province. And when he came to Port-Au-Prince for his studies, you know, he didn't have every day, you know, the opportunity to eat correctly. And he would rely on, you know, friends and mothers of friends who would, you know, take him home. But I still was privileged in the context of Haiti. But the race issue in Haiti is very different because it's based on a very strong identity because Haiti being, you know, a country where slave have liberated themselves, they had a very strong sense of their place in history.
But at the same time, I was watching American movies in Haiti. So the idea of the rest of the world that I got through Hollywood, including a film like "Tarzan," you know, it wasn't until I went to the Congo as an 8 year old that I realized that it was basically a lie, that African men and women were not savages dancing in the forest. So it was my first confrontation about the lie of the Hollywood dream machine. It was through that that I, very early on, discovered that, well, film is much more dangerous than it looks - you know, that film is not so innocent. And later on, Baldwin explained to me, you know, what was the content of films besides just the story and great actors - that film is also ideology.
GROSS: The kind of covert messages about race, class, gender (laughter)...
PECK: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: ...That are in films.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Raoul Peck. He's the director of the new documentary about James Baldwin, which is called "I Am Not Your Negro." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Raoul Peck. He's the director of the new documentary about James Baldwin, which is called "I Am Not Your Negro."
When you were 8, the Duvalier dictatorship took over the country. Your father was imprisoned. What was he imprisoned for?
PECK: Well, you know, in Haiti, you (laughter) - in terms of the dictatorship, you didn't need to do anything to be imprisoned. But like many dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, if you were not obviously an openly and very vocally a partisan of that regime, you would basically lose your job, and that's what happened. He was a professor at the - agronomy faculty in Port-Au-Prince. And he lost his job, like many other of his colleagues.
And he went back to the province to try to do some agricultural projects. And he would come every six months to the capital in order to sell his coffee to the exporters. And one day, you know, somebody who probably had some problem with him and denounced him as if he was trying to form a sort of resistance with the commerce sector in order to topple the regime, which was not at all true because my father was not, you know - was not so much political active in that sense.
So, you know, you didn't need really any excuse to be arrested. You know, sometimes it was just the way you looked at somebody or somebody thought you looked at him or you didn't look away with respect. And that was enough. That's what dictatorship does, you know. And you don't have to do something.
So he was lucky enough that he didn't stay too long because the regime was not yet established everywhere, so people intervened on his behalf and so he was freed. In that period - and we are talking 1960 - the U.N. came to Haiti with 400 contracts to recruit Haitian doctors, engineers, agronomists, teachers to go to the Republic of Congo to replace the Belgians who had fled the country. And so my father was among this first group of 400 intellectuals and, you know, academic people, etc. - educated Haitians who went to Congo to work for the new Congolese government.
GROSS: When you got to Congo, it had just won its independence from Belgium. Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically elected prime minister. You made two movies later about Lumumba. One was a narrative film with actors...
PECK: "Death Of A Prophet."
GROSS: ...And the other was a documentary.
But anyway, so you get there in 1960 and then Lumumba's assassinated in 1961.
GROSS: So I'm thinking - like, you were exposed to a lot of political instability as a child. First, like, Haiti's taken over by dictatorship. You leave Haiti and you go to Congo, and the democratically elected leader is assassinated. You must have thought, like, politics was a really iffy thing when you were growing up, that government could change and go bad any second.
PECK: Yeah. Well, I learned very early on what fear could be, what our betrayal could be and injustice. If there is something that determines my motivation in the work I do, it's the sense of injustice. This is something that I cannot accept - and on every level. And the fact of abuse of authority - this is, I learned - and I have a very vivid memory at a very young age of roadblock by the army. In fact, the night my father was arrested...
GROSS: In Haiti.
PECK: ...My mother took me - in Haiti - my mother took me in the car. And it was late night. There was a curfew. And I remember being in my pajama in the back of the car and my mother driving through the city trying to find where my father was because she thought that he might have been in a friend's house or in a hospital. And there was a curfew, so it was very dangerous. So I remember very vividly the roadblocks.
And in Congo a few years later, there was also problem. There was several rebellions. And of course, the army had roadblocks, and the U.N. had roadblocks. So I have - I remember one of the thing - you know, my relationship to authority and to bullies and to army was a relationship through roadblocks because on these roadblocks it was always about, you know, how does the conversation goes, you know? You need to give the right answers to the questions. And depending of the answer you gave, you know, you could be arrested as well.
And in fact, this is a scene that I use in several of my films. I use it in "Lumumba." I use it in "Sometimes In April," the film I made about the Rwandese genocide. And the moment of abuse at a roadblock, this is, for me, like, the perfect example of what it means to live in a dictatorship.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you also related to James Baldwin as an emigrant, you know, because he left the United States for Paris and lived there or in other countries abroad most of his adult life. And you and your family left your country of Haiti when you were about 8. You moved to the Congo. And then you lived in, I think, Switzerland, Germany. You studied in France. Of course, Baldwin lived in France for a long time. You lived there for a while. So did you relate to the sense of displacement or voluntary, you know, like, self-exile?
PECK: Well, I never considered myself as somebody in exile because different to my father who, yes, was in exile because he left Haiti as an adult, for me it was just to be somewhere else. I carried Haiti with me everywhere, but I also carried, you know, my youth in a public school in Brooklyn. It's part of who I am as well. So I...
GROSS: I didn't realize you went to public school in Brooklyn.
PECK: Yes, I went a full year to public school in one year that we had to be evacuated from Congo because there were, you know, another rebellion again. And we couldn't go back to Haiti, of course, so we stayed in New York. And we had family in New York. I had uncles and aunts, et cetera. So - and I had to be put in school. And they just dropped me in a public school without even - at the time I didn't speak English, and I had to learn very fast.
So this - you know, when you grew up in so many different places, you tend to take the good part of it, which is, again, this possibility to have different perspective, you know? And it gives a sort of lightness to the way you look at things, you know? You - I - my whole life I tried not to have a heavy burden on me, you know, to - wherever I am not to be installed, you know, to have this sort of weight that forbids you to take risk, you know?
But when you know that you can leave next year or you can leave in the middle of the year and be somewhere else because you have gone through that experience, it's very liberating. At the same time, in order to understand what's going on in your country or in another country, the fact that you are far away helps you, again, to see through what is important and not important because you can compare.
GROSS: My guest is Raoul Peck, director of the new James Baldwin documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Raoul Peck, the director of the new James Baldwin documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," which is nominated for an Oscar.
I'm assuming that given the kind of political instability you've been exposed to over the years living in different countries, including Haiti and Congo, that you believe that film has an important place in the world and that it's worth making movies no matter what's going on in - around you in the world.
PECK: Yes and no. No because I don't think film can change the world or film can change the fate of a country. People change the fate of a country. But at the same time I know, because it was the case for film and books, that film can change a person because it just, you know, cut you at the right moment and help you do the necessary change. But there is another aspect that is linked to my biography, is that as a black person and as a third world person - is the fact that there - I don't have my own narrative in this medium, which is cinema.
Since the discovery of cinema, others have been the one telling the story. But I had so many things to catch up that, you know, I could reflim the whole Western - you know, I think, like, a Native American could redo all the John Wayne Western from a different perspective. You know, this is the - what we don't have. You know, we don't have our own visual history. And so being a filmmaker for me was also trying to save part of our memory, part of our images, part of our stories. It's - I saw it as one of the responsibility to have to make sure that we are not totally dead in the picture.
GROSS: One of the things you've done is purchase a movie theater in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Is the theater itself significant? Tell us about the theater that you bought and what your plans are.
PECK: After the dictatorship, after Jean-Claude Duvalier, Baby Doc, left Haiti, I start going more often to Haiti. It was '86. And at one point I felt that there was a need to create a place where artists could meet, where film director, theater director, playwrights could have a place for discussion because that's one of the things that dictatorship does, is to eliminate all places for exchange, all places of free thinking. And that was missing in the new Haiti.
So I borrowed money. I found, you know, some foundation money as well. And I took some money from my father, who loaned me as well part of it. And I took a bank loan. And I bought that place. And I created a foundation. And the idea was - and I asked, you know, the major filmmakers and director of the time to join me, which most of them did. And we create displays. Unfortunately, it was, you know, the political situation of Haiti had so many ups and downs, and it was very hard to maintain that project at the level that I wanted.
So we did all sort of, you know, it was a place for all the schools in that particular part of Port-au-Prince where, you know, you had 40,000 children going back and forth in front of that school of that cinema. So we organized cinema club for them and several, you know, it was a place you could rent for very little money. And so it went like this for a long time until I decided to close it down in 2006. And...
GROSS: See, and I thought you were just starting it (laughter).
PECK: No, no, no, no. It's - I...
GROSS: And it turns out you closed it years ago.
PECK: It was bought in 1994. No, no, it's a long story. No. And - but we - it's one of the project I hope to revive in the coming years when I will have more time obviously, because we still don't have a real cinema in Port-au-Prince. Since the earthquake, every single cinema that existed disappeared. So today I can't even show my film in Port-au-Prince.
GROSS: Wow. So where are you living now?
PECK: That's a good question.
GROSS: (Laughter) You're not sure?
PECK: Well, I try basically to follow my work, first of all. And then I tried to be in a sort of triangle which is, you know, France where I am also the president of the French National Film School - La Femis. So I have to be there several time in the year. And I am also trying to be to Haiti as much as possible, and of course here because I'm a resident here. And I'm - tried to be in New York and in Miami where I have a home. So it's a matter of, you know, what is more urgent in the particular year and where I spent more time. But I go back and forth, you know, I think monthly in of these places.
GROSS: Well, Raoul Peck, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
PECK: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Raoul Peck directed the new documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." It's nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category. This past weekend, Peck's latest dramatic film "The Young Karl Marx" premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Andrew Revkin, senior reporter on climate and related issues at ProPublica. We'll talk about how the Trump administration is responding to climate issues. Revkin has been reporting on global environmental issues for over 30 years. We'll also talk about the stroke he had in 2011, and how being a science writer affected how he processed what was happening. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.