'I Am Not Your Negro' Gives James Baldwin's Words New Relevance Filmmaker Raoul Peck's latest documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is based an unpublished book by James Baldwin, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
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'I Am Not Your Negro' Gives James Baldwin's Words New Relevance

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'I Am Not Your Negro' Gives James Baldwin's Words New Relevance

'I Am Not Your Negro' Gives James Baldwin's Words New Relevance

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Filmmaker Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" is nominated for an Oscar. It features the work of the late James Baldwin, American writer, poet and social critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JAMES BALDWIN: The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.

CORNISH: Baldwin explored race, class and sexuality in Western society. At the time of his death in 1987, he was working on a book titled "Remember This House." His notes for that project became the foundation for "I Am Not Your Negro," which premieres in theaters today. NPR's Mallory Yu has this report. And a note, it includes archival audio of James Baldwin using a word that many find offensive.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: James Baldwin first laid out his plans for the book "Remember This House" in a letter to his literary agent in 1979. In it he wrote that he wanted to explore the lives of three of his civil rights contemporaries and close personal friends - Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Here's actor Samuel L. Jackson, who reads Baldwin's writing throughout the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (Reading) I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and used their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they love so much who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.

YU: When filmmaker Raoul Peck first read Baldwin's letter, he knew he had the basis of his film.

RAOUL PECK: Which was, how do I make sure that people today come back to Baldwin and the important words that he have written and this well-needed confrontation with reality today with words he wrote, you know, 40, 50 years ago.

YU: The Haitian-born filmmaker has been a fan of Baldwin's work since he was a teenager.

PECK: He helped me understand the world I was in. He helped me understand America. He helped me understand the place that I was given in this country.

YU: And Peck wanted to do the same with "I Am Not Your Negro." In the documentary, he weaves together archival images and footage to illustrate the impact Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had, the ways in which they were different and more importantly the ways they were alike. But it is not just a history of the civil rights movement or its key players. The film also examines, as James Baldwin did throughout his life, institutions of racism and the way they have been upheld throughout the years in American society, by people in power, even by Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JACKSON: (Reading) Because Uncle Tom refuses to take vengeance in his own hands, he was not a hero for me. Heroes, as far as I could see, were white and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.

PECK: It's about the deconstruction of Hollywood and all the soft power that Hollywood means and the lies that is also transported in those films. This is something that we need to confront ourself with.

YU: Confronting ourselves is at the core of "I Am Not Your Negro." When Peck began working on the film 10 years ago, he says he meant to rely mostly on Baldwin's words, but as he worked the narrative shifted.

PECK: It became scarier and scarier because I realized I was making a film where the reality was galloping even quicker than I was making it. At the time my concern was, how do I put these important words of James Baldwin on the front row? You know, how do I make them accessible to the new generation? And as I was editing this film, we started to have those images of young black men being killed - of the resistance, of Black Lives Matters, of young people again going on the streets to protest. And it was incredible to see. It's exactly - it's happening again, almost the same words and the same anger. And then you see that, my God, nothing have changed fundamentally.

YU: So Peck turns Baldwin's words into a mirror on modern audiences by mixing the archival tape with carefully chosen contemporary footage - the first Obama inauguration, Black Lives Matters protests in Ferguson, Mo., photos of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. This juxtaposition is particularly strong when Baldwin muses on a 1963 television segment titled "The Negro And The American Promise."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: How precise are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how you are going to communicate to the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?

YU: Raoul Peck says Baldwin spoke directly to his audiences then and even now. And he put the onus of change squarely on people in positions of privilege and power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: I'm not a nigger. I'm a man. If I'm not the nigger here, and though you invented him - you, the white people invented him - then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether I was able to ask that question.

YU: Because, as James Baldwin wrote, not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. Mallory Yu, NPR News. and.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY FEHRENBACH SONG, "INDIGO ROAD")

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