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Who Is Raoul Peck? (And Why You Should Know If You Care About History)

Culture Watch
tags: Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro



Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos, and a contributor to the volume "Raoul Peck: Power, Politics, and the Cinematic Imagination" (Lexington Books, 2015), eds. Toni Pressley-Sanon and Sophie Saint-Just.


Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro, which opened nationally in limited release on February 3,has been hailed by critics as one of the best films of the year. The film laces together different writings by James Baldwin, along with Hollywood film clips and news footage, to offer a devastating indictment of U.S. history. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott declared that “Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called ‘race relations’…, this movie will make you think again …. You would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force.” The Los Angeles Timess Kenneth Turan called it a “mesmerizing cinematic experience, smart, thoughtful and disturbing.” After a brief run in New York in October 2016, I Am Not Your Negro earned a nomination for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

I Am Not Your Negro is Peck’s first film nominated for an Academy Award. However, despite the fact that he is little known in the U.S., Peck is one of world cinema’s most accomplished directors. Born in Haiti, where he served as the Culture Minister, Peck is President of the Fémis in Paris, France’s state film school. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and has served as a juror at Cannes. His other films deserve more attention from American audiences – both the general public and historians.

As a scholar of film and history, I have argued previously that Peck is one of the most historically sophisticated filmmakers of our time. His films combine scrupulous attention to detail with a shrewd understanding of global history and trends. Born in Port-au-Prince and raised in Congo, with a university degree from Berlin and homes in Haiti, New Jersey and Paris, Peck is a true global citizen. He has witnessed a wide range of historical processes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from colonialism to dictatorship to the failures of international development. He is also keenly aware of the history he has lived, and thinks historically when examining the present. For him, as I have suggested in an article surveying his work, “History is Too Important to Leave to Hollywood.” Though I Am Not Your Negro is Peck’s first film focused wholly on U.S. history, his other films frequently examine the effects of U.S. policy abroad. I Am Not Your Negro also emphasizes themes that recur in Peck’s other works, such as the effects of history on the present and the role of media stereotypes in distorting reality.

Here is a guide to Peck’s previous historical films, beginning with those most widely available to American viewers.

Sometimes in April (2004): Stunning epic, made for HBO, on the Rwandan genocide and foreigners’ refusals to intervene. Starring Idris Elba, this superbly moving account of the genocide deserves to be much better known. Derided by Variety as a “feel-bad” film because of its depressing subject, it received but a single Emmy nomination: for its music. But as the American Film Institute recognized, Sometimes in April was one of the best productions of 2004, “a shining example of what television is capable of.” The film was also nominated for Best Picture (Golden Bear) at the Berlin Film Festival as well as for Television Critics Association and NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie. It remains one of the best cinematic treatments of genocide ever made. Available for DVD purchase on multiple sites (Amazon, Netflix, HBO, Walmart) as well as for streaming.

Lumumba (2000, biopic): Biopic on Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese freedom fighter who became the country’s first democratically elected prime minister after independence from Belgium. Offers a gripping biography while brilliantly exposing the challenges of postcolonial rule and the unwillingness of former colonizers to allow full independence to their liberated subjects. As Peck has said of the paucity of realistic black characters on screen when he was growing up, “I think of Lumumba as the film I would have loved to have seen when I was twelve, but didn’t because at that time such films didn’t exist.” Presented at Cannes, nominated for Independent Spirit and other awards. Available on DVD and for rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Netflix.

Lumumba: The Death of the Prophet (1990): Earlier documentary about Lumumba. Seeks to untangle the real Lumumba from Western media depictions of him. DVD from California Newsreel; rental from Vimeo or with a Fandor subscription.

Fatal Assistance (2013): Blistering chronicle of the international community’s failed effort to aid Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, filmed as it happened. Peck had unparalleled access to Haitian, U.N., and U.S. officials, as well as leaders of foreign non-governmental organizations such as Sean Penn. Fatal Assistance shows how these foreigners pushed Haitians to the side, and adopted ill-conceived “development” plans that worsened Haiti’s plight. Available on DVD from Velvet Films.

Murder in Pacot (2015): A dramatic companion piece to Fatal Assistance, Murder in Pacot tells the story of an upper-class Haitian couple who lost almost everything in the 2010 earthquake and need to welcome a foreign NGO worker and his Haitian girlfriend into their teetering home. As the Toronto International Film Festival described it, “With masterful pacing and precise performances, Peck's film explores the fundamental questions of citizenship, responsibility, and justice that have challenged Haitian society ever since it emerged from decades of dictatorship. Murder in Pacot is riveting, complex, and a veritable tour de force.” DVD available from Filmgalerie451 with English subtitles.

Moloch Tropical (2009): Peck’s controversial parody about a democratically elected populist whose greed and narcissism prevent him from fulfilling the promises he made to supporters. Ignored by his glamorous, model-thin wife – and holed up in his palace watching television to avoid facing his people - fictional Haitian leader Jean-de-Dieu Théogène sends his most fanatical supporters to beat up opponents instead of listening to their complaints. Set on the eve of his nation’s bicentennial, Théogène publicly celebrates his country’s ideals of freedom, while trouncing them in private. Peck has explained that, while Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the film’s immediate inspiration, Moloch Tropical offers a broader parable about the potential for leaders worldwide, even elected ones, to abuse power and betray their fellow citizens. Also explores the role of Washington in keeping tyrants in power when they are seen as friendly to American interests. Available on DVD from Velvet Films.

Profit and Nothing But!Or Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle (2001): Impassioned documentary on the nature of modern capitalism, as seen from locales around the world. Includes an analysis of the growth of the sweatshop industry in countries such as Haiti and an interview with historian Immanuel Wallerstein. Available in DVD for university libraries at Icarus Films.

Man by the Shore (1993): Peck’s effort to make sure future generations would understand what life was like under the Duvalier dictatorship. Chronicles the childhood of a girl named Sarah and her father’s treatment at the hands of the Tontons Macoutes. Inspired by Peck’s own youth in Haiti. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Available on DVD from Velvet Films.

Haitian Corner(1987): Peck’s first full-length film and his first attempt to create a new kind of black cinema. As Peck has explained in his book Stolen Images (a compendium of his early scripts and reflections on the films), “I had no real model for the kind of film I would make, at least none that described the world I saw around me…. All I knew, all I had been taught, was the dominant cinema of the time. There was no Spike Lee, no John Singleton yet. There were no black actors either, except in typecast roles. So I felt I had to uncode our own cinema, invent it out of whole cloth.” Haitian Corner examines a Haitian emigré poet in Brooklyn, still haunted by his past under Duvalier. Like all of Peck’s films, the film is concerned with history and memory, and includes a witness sequence, based on Peck’s interviews with real survivors of Haitian prisons. DVD available from Velvet Films.



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