Entertainment & Arts

Racism is sheer ignorance, says director

A scene from I Am Not Your Negro Image copyright Dan Budnik
Image caption I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin

The director of Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, a commentary on the history of US race relations, says America's problem "is not just racism - it's sheer ignorance."

Haitian politician and film-maker Raoul Peck, who spent a decade making the film, says he also believes "the class discussion in America is crucial right now".

"When your ideology is that everyone can become a millionaire or billionaire - this is nonsense," he says.

"The American Dream has continued to be offered in the form of reality shows - and says that if you are lucky, or beautiful, you can become a celebrity.

"There is nothing in life that is easy. You need to build up your life and take responsibility.

"Make America Great Again - every word of that sentence is a lie... But it's easier to accept that slogan instead of deconstructing it."

Image copyright Altitude Films
Image caption Raoul Peck says his film "confronts the audience with their story"

I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished book, Remember This House, by African-American author James Baldwin.

Peck uses Baldwin's essays to build up a non-linear history of racism in the US and urges both black and white to take responsibility for their attitudes and actions.

"Many people have told me how timely this is," says the director. "I'd been working on it for a decade - before Obama, before Ferguson and before Trump."

Image copyright Altitude Films
Image caption Peck calls Baldwin "a scientist of the soul"

As well as an Oscar nomination, the film has won 15 other international awards to date and made $6m (£4.8m) at the US box office within a couple of weeks of release.

"It's incredible and just a great response to James Baldwin and his work," says Peck. "The phrases he wrote 50 years ago are so impactful and modern, you would think he wrote them this morning.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionRaoul Peck tells Today writer James Baldwin's words were "current and precise"

"The film confronts the audience with their story, whether they are black or white.

"Baldwin tells us that 'as a black person, I did not invent slavery, I did not invent racism. You, the white majority, who do not consider yourself racist - what is your role in this society? Come and take back your history because you created it'."

Peck says he discovered Baldwin's writings when he was a teenager. He calls the writer "a scientist of the soul".

"He knew a soul could contain a monster, or an angel, or everything else in between," he continues.

Image copyright Altitude Films
Image caption The director says his film shows peaceful protest is more effective than violence

Peck was Haiti's minster of culture between 1996 and 1997 as well as a film-maker. He says his ideal of race relations is "like Baldwin's - turning the burden to the wider society".

"If you want to change your world," he adds, "you don't do it by being angry, sitting on a sofa and sending a few tweets, or even just by going to a protest.

"We are so stuck on the next big tweet, or the next outrage in the 24-hour news cycle, we are missing the point. Karl Marx didn't change the political landscape of Europe by demonstrating - he went to the library.

"Read a book. Educate yourself. You need to be able to have a discussion and to argue with others, and make allies.

"By all means, you can be angry as your first step, but after that you have to go and do your homework," Peck concludes.

"That's actually what James Baldwin did - and eventually he built something solid, in the form of the writing he gave back to the world."

I Am Not Your Negro is out in the UK on 7 April.

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