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Raoul Peck is not here for your propaganda

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ serves as a braking mechanism for a Tilt-A-Whirl of self-delusion

Even before the rise of the mendacious authoritarian currently occupying the position of U.S. commander in chief, the American populace was susceptible to falling for propaganda.

For evidence, you needn’t look further than Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s latest documentary, the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, currently in theaters. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson — the words of James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House serve as the dress form for the film filled in with other speeches and addresses from the author. And the words married to Peck’s meticulously curated selection of images connecting the past with the present complete the film’s shape. Peck, of course, offers up the unflinching social critique that defines Baldwin, but along with it, adds a work of Baldwinesque film criticism. And that criticism is this: The film industry has long engaged in a propaganda campaign in service to white supremacy, beginning with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was screened at the White House at the invitation of President Woodrow Wilson.

“My first image education were Hollywood films,” said Peck. “The image of the world that I was getting there was a very particular world where I couldn’t see my face on the screen. It’s not something that you realize consciously, but it’s there. As soon as you start playing cowboys and Indians as a young kid, when you start, ‘Who’s the cowboy? Who’s the Indian?’ Everybody wants to be the cowboy.”

In the film, Baldwin shares his moment of realization that he was not cowboy Gary Cooper, but very much an Indian.

“That’s why I make this film. As a response to my own frustration.” — Raoul Peck

“It teaches you something,” Peck continued. “You’re already impregnated [with] this ideology, which is what it is. Seeing Tarzan, you know, those black savages in the forest. There’s no way I could identify with them. I identified with Tarzan, or even with Cheetah, the chimpanzee, who was much more human than those black guys you would see in the forest trying to kill Tarzan. Baldwin came later, but he put words in all those things that I was seeing. He taught me how to watch images. He taught me how to deconstruct images, stories, narrative. I don’t know if there are many people who could do that in such an elegant way, political way, poetic way, and also humanistic way.”

Peck is part of a history-making class of black filmmakers this year. He’s one of four nominated for an Academy Award in the feature documentary category, a first in Motion Picture Academy history. Three of the four films are explicitly about race in America: Peck’s film, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. Roger Ross Williams, who already boasts an Oscar for best documentary short, tells the story of living with and overcoming disability in Life, Animated.

Taken together, the arguments in the three films from DuVernay, Edelman, and Peck form something of a bulwark against the White House’s attempt to besiege the country with an obvious form of psychosomatic rope-a-dope. “White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t,” Jackson-as-Baldwin intones, referring to now-infamous images of civil rights protesters being attacked by vicious dogs, police wielding batons, and water cannons that made the nation’s nightly news. “White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still. Less to act on the belief that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country. They don’t want to realize that there is not one step morally or actually, between Birmingham and Los Angeles.”

He could just as easily be referring to the context of police violence that set off the Watts riots in Los Angeles, yes, but also decades of police violence that took place before that, which Edelman illustrates in OJ: Made in America. Or he could be referring to the horrors of mass incarceration that eventually led to Kalief Browder eventually taking his own life, as DuVernay presented in 13th.

Birmingham most certainly is not on Mars. It is everywhere, and it is right this moment, as evidenced by the recent treatment of visa and green card holders caught in the dragnet of President Donald Trump’s executive order barring travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

“Trump did not start with Trump,” Peck said. “Trump started with Reagan. The deregulation, the assault against institutions, unions. All this. The intimidation about political correctness. You know, you can’t say anything against the system. You have to be balanced. You have to be — this thing now on TV that you have to have so-called people from the left, or so-called people from the right, and at the end of the day you have nothing, because you can’t follow that discussion because it’s not a discussion, it’s a shooting match. This confusion is part of it. It’s part of this big cloud so that we don’t even know where we come from.”

For Peck, propaganda doesn’t just exist in the form of Hollywood films that offer a circus-mirror reflection of whiteness and white innocence, which he capitalizes on with a particularly cutting quote from Baldwin, who says, “These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. This means they have become moral monsters.”

Television shows such as MTV’s Cribs and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta rankle the director, too. I press: Isn’t it possible to enjoy those things and still be aware of the broader context in which they exist? Do they have to be mutually exclusive, paying attention to what’s happening in the world around you and what it means and enjoying what is, admittedly, the television equivalent of a Costco bag of dyed, flavored, individually wrapped pieces of high fructose corn syrup?

“These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. This means they have become moral monsters.” — James Baldwin

“How do you do that?” Peck asked. “Explain to me. How do you do that? I understand what it’s doing. If you are totally imprisoned in your hard reality, a show like [Real Housewives], yes, allows you to evade, for a moment, but it doesn’t solve anything in your life. It just takes time, or uses the time for you to read a book, or have a good conversation with your wife, or your husband, or your children. That’s the time it takes. It makes you lazy, intellectually lazy, and it focuses you on money, wealth, comfort, success. A lot of values that are not values. They are just elements of that make-believe.”

If society is caught in a Tilt-A-Whirl of news bubbles, escapist entertainment, and self-reinforcing delusions, then Peck sees Baldwin, and by extension himself, as a vital braking mechanism, swooping in with sharp-eyed clarity.

“That’s why I made this film,” Peck said. “As a response to my own frustration. When I see the destruction of those last 30 years, and as an artist, as a filmmaker, yes, I need to give a response to that. I need to act on that, and the film, for me, does that too. It makes you … It confronts you to that reality, and asks of you, ‘Where do you stand on that? Where is your place? What is your role in that picture? Do you want to go on, and indulge in that, and be the puppet of this whole thing happening around you, or do you want to find your own way? Do you want to change that? Do you want to react to that?’

“Those are, for me, the fundamental questions. Everything else is not important.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.