In the films of Raoul Peck, words matter
“I Am Not Your Negro” is steeped in statements about the chasm between white and black America. “The Young Karl Marx” waxes wise about the disparity between the wealthy and the working class. Both draw their existence from the real-life utterings of men concerned with divisions in their society – and in both, words matter. So, for audiences, the timeliness of the phrases and thoughts is contained within.
Considering racial and class divisions is all the more pertinent at a time when a wealthy leader constantly tweets about a ban based on nationality. For I Am Not Your Negro and The Young Karl Marx director Raoul Peck, however, it’s the past that dictates his narratives, and its relationship to the present, rather than the current figure ostensibly in control of the free world. "People forget that we had many other Trumps in the world before this one," he told a sold-out screening of I Am Not Your Negro at the 2017 Berlinale. The words of the film's guiding force, the late novelist and social critic James Baldwin, also summarises the position his movies encompass nicely. “We carry our history with us," Baldwin wrote. “We are our history,” he continued. Of Baldwin and his work, Peck told the Berlin crowd: “he basically changed my life.”
Consider, then, as voiced in the commanding tones of narrator Samuel L. Jackson, just how America has treated the topic of race. The Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro draws its content from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript about the murders of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and every insightful, impassioned and educative word lingers in the air like the angriest, most important lesson audiences will ever hear.
Much of what’s said about the reality African Americans have both historically and still face in the inventive essay-style documentary shouldn’t be surprising. The parallels offered between previous and current events and the oppressive treatment of non-white US citizens shouldn’t either. And yet, everything spoken is blistering and piercing down to the last syllable — and last letter, thanks to the signs shown in archival footage, the memos written upon the screen, and text in scenes spliced in from relevant films as well. Such granularity in an effort that thinks big rather than focuses small, and avoids simply constraining its perspective to its stated subjects, speaks volumes of course.
Next, ponder Peck’s follow-up, a feature seemingly dissimilar in approach, but intricately linked to its predecessor in its underlying aims and notions. Just what’s at the centre of handsome period biopic The Young Karl Marx is immediately apparent, as the titular character played by August Diehl meets, befriends and shapes his ideology with Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske).
Despite their varying backgrounds, they’re united and inflamed by the inequities between the haves and the have-nots in 19th century Germany, England, Paris and more — and so, swiftly, that fury and determination spills into words flung around with fervour, and then committed to the page in their famous manifesto. The movie provides an origin tale on several levels, not only of its key figures and their philosophy but equally of a line of thinking still at odds with contemporary politics and society, as its montage of recent history in its closing credits makes plain. However, what it also offers is another of Peck’s meaty, weighty and stirring showcases of talk, language, theories and concepts designed to express opposition, mobilise change and make a difference.