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Credit: NYPL

In front of a packed house that included the likes of actress Yara Shahidi and director Spike Lee, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture presented Oscar-winning director Raoul Peck in conversation with Schomburg director Kevin Young and Paul Holdengraber, director of LIVE from NYPL, as part of its “Artists and the Archive” series.

Centered around the tragic trifecta of murdered civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, as recalled through the eyes of renowned author and playwright James Baldwin, Peck’s documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” became a phenomenon in the film world and among film audiences this past year. In describing the process of making the film to the Schomburg audience, the director emphasized that unlike most documentary filmmakers doing biographical works, he was granted full, as opposed to partial, access to Baldwin’s archives. The Schomburg recently acquired most of James Baldwin’s personal papers from the late author’s estate.

Peck also revealed that for a significant period of time while developing the project, he “planned on making both a narrative and a documentary,” “Like I did for ‘Lumumba,’” he said. Once he settled on doing the project as a documentary, he made the remarkable discovery of the unfinished manuscript left by Baldwin among his papers. He stated, ‘I didn’t know about that story. Other people knew about that book, ‘Remember This House,’ and for me the first shock was the way Baldwin linked Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. I never had the story told through that triumvirate; those three unique human beings.”

Most of the discussion was devoted to Peck’s latest film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” with the latter half focusing on the Haitian-born director’s other critically acclaimed films, including “Lumumba.” Peck, who studied industrial engineering and economics at Berlin’s Humboldt University, also discussed his upcoming film, “Young Karl Marx.” About his choice of Samuel L. Jackson as the film’s narrator and ostensibly Baldwin’s voice, he said, “I made a list of three actors I respect and whose work I love, and I knew Samuel had been onstage.” At that point, he volunteered a tongue in cheek estimation of Samuel L. Jackson’s acting abilities as, “a good actor despite Tarantino.”

Peck’s good-natured dig elicited laughs from the audience members, including Lee, who sat in the front row cradling a copy of Peck’s book, “I Am Not Your Negro,” on his lap.

Peck continued, “I knew that for the film to work, you have to create a character. It could not be a voice-over; it could not be a commentary. You needed the voice to be Baldwin because you see him, you hear his voice, you hear those words which are also Baldwin. So in cinema, the only way you can do that in a cinematic way is to create a character. A character was needed, not a speaker.” He knew Jackson would deliver the goods.

Filmmaker and Schomburg Moving Images division head Shola Lynch was also in attendance and talked about the organization’s relationship with Peck and “I Am Not You Negro.”

“We worked so hard to make sure Raoul came to talk about his work. ,” she said. “We showed ‘I Am Not Your Negro.’ When it was about to be out in theaters, we helped promote it. It’s our kind of film and with the Baldwin archives coming here, it was just a wonderful experience. So it was really important for us to have Raoul come and speak about how the process all worked and how the archive inspired him and how the archives inspired his work.”

She also revealed some information about a development for the Moving Images Division. “The renovation is complete and the new space will be the third floor in the Landmark building,” she said. “We’ve gone from the back of the Reading Room to our own division on the third floor of the Landmark building.”

Shahidi (“Black-ish”), who took to the stage to shake Peck’s hands after the event, revealed that she did not know she would be attending when she got up that morning. She explained that it was a surprise for her graduation. Ducking away from a circle of admirers for a moment, she talked about her feelings about the event. She said, “I did not know what I was doing here until he came out onstage, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is my favorite documentary right now.’ I am such a James Baldwin fan and I love his insight as somebody who had to work with these materials for 10 years, it is so invaluable. I feel like the telling of Black history by Black people is so rare. So to be able to have the creator of the documentary there and honoring Baldwin is surreal. To be onstage and shaking his hands is even more surreal.”

Asked if she intends to follow in Peck’s footsteps and make films herself one day, she revealed, “Actually I am moving into that space right now, which is what makes it so perfectly timely. The one thing that was interesting that I talked to Mr. Peck about for about two seconds was the fact that the last clip [screened at the event] really highlighted ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ in which the main protagonist is white. People of color have always had to understand, empathize, sympathize, with whites, and it’s never been true of the majority culture. It has now turned around and said ‘Look, I see you and I understand.’ What I love about film, too, is the

ability to shift that lens.”