Filmmaker Raoul Peck: Karl Marx, James Baldwin and me

by Helen Barlow / 28 July, 2017
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Raoul Peck. Photo/Getty Images

A film-maker focuses on two thinkers who questioned the social order of their day.

Oscar-nominated Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has risen to prominence in the past year, but it’s partly coincidence and partly the zeitgeist that his two films have emerged at once.

Both films were 10 years in the making, and Peck was spurred on to finish his feature, The Young Karl Marx, after I Am Not Your Negro, his film about writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, met with a hugely positive response and ultimately an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.

Both films focus on men he considers his “masters”. “They made me the person I am,” Peck says. “My way of thinking and the way I analyse society came from them.”

He had read Baldwin’s book of two essays, The Fire Next Time, at the age of 15. “It was a revelation for me.” Three years later, during his university studies in Berlin, he came across Marx. “I studied economics and engineering and I did four years of capitalism seminars,” recalls the 63-year-old, who is president of the Parisian film school La Fémis. “It was almost obligatory to be confronted with Karl Marx.”

Peck spent his first eight years in Haiti, before his family fled the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and settled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where his father worked for the United Nations.

In 2000, he made Lumumba, a drama about the last few months in the life of the murdered DRC leader Patrice Lumumba, and the success of the feature helped make the documentary. Baldwin’s younger sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, a fan of the Lumumba film and Baldwin’s literary executor, gave Peck the exclusive rights to all her brother’s published and unpublished material and to his private letters, photos and notes.

Stefan Konarske (left) as Engels and August Diehl as Marx in The Young Karl Marx. Photo/Kris Dewitte

Still, over the following four years, the film-maker struggled to make what he calls “the ultimate film” about the writer.

“I was trying to find a mixed form between narrative and documentary and really needed something original, something organic,” Peck recalls. “Then Gloria gave me a pile of notes, an unfinished manuscript of 30 pages for Remember This House, a book Baldwin wanted to write. He said it would be his most important book, the story of America through the lives of a few of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, who were all murdered between 1963 and 1968. Once I had these notes, I knew I had this open door for my movie.”

Peck decided that all the words in the film, including Samuel L Jackson’s voiceover, should come from Baldwin. “He wrote those lines 40 or 50 years ago, but we feel as if he wrote them this morning. Each one of his sentences is an incredible philosophical and political view. It’s very rich.”

He changed the title from Remember This House late in the piece.

“It’s provocative and unapologetic. He’s saying, ‘I’m not aggressing you, but this is who I am and deal with it.’ He was a humanist; he was not just about colour or race.”

The film largely reduces Baldwin’s sexuality to an entry in his FBI file. In 1956, he published his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, about an explicit, ill-fated gay love affair, and it was controversial and groundbreaking.

James Baldwin. Photo/Getty Images

“Baldwin’s gayness was part of who he was, but it didn’t make his life easier,” says Peck. “At the same time, his conflict about his sexuality as a young man made him sensitive to certain issues. His best friend committed suicide because he couldn’t find a solution for himself. They were in love, but they couldn’t express that, and they didn’t know what it was. They thought it was incredible friendship and at the same time Baldwin was having relationships with women. It takes time in life, especially when your whole environment doesn’t accept that or doesn’t even know that.”

Made in German, French and English, The Young Karl Marx is Peck’s first narrative feature since 2014’s Murder in Pacot, which was set in Haiti in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. The new film traces the origins of one of history’s most influential political thinkers and his meeting with Friedrich Engels in 1840s Paris.

“The idea was to show how they became fast friends and how Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, was there as well,” explains Peck. It was a Europe of repression and poverty and the three young people became rebels against it.”

Peck notes how they all came from wealthy backgrounds: von Westphalen from a well-known family, Marx from a long line of Jewish rabbis and Engels from a family of industrialists.

“I wanted to give a sense of who those human beings were, their concerns, their humour, their anger,” he says, pointing to the sexism of history. “Jenny’s contribution was important, yet history has forgotten her. She could have had a rich life; she was one of the most beautiful women in the city and decided to live a sometimes miserable life with Karl.”

I Am Not Your Negro and The Young Karl Marx are screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington. www.nziff.co.nz

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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