Why you should care

His next project is a creative documentary about James Baldwin.

“Shoot,” says the filmmaker, but I don’t know how to begin. I laugh, embarrassed, and try to remember my questions.

Raoul Peck is a postcolonial public intellectual. It seems a throwback thing to be. His accent is Francophone, his shirt is linen, and we’re meeting at a cafe with brick walls in Greenwich Village. Peck cares about power, capital, relations between rich countries and poor ones. The right, he’s got no time for. The left, it’s indolent. His movies are political, which normally means overwrought, preachy, predictable. But no. His work is visually stunning, rich in human drama. Betrayal, loss, terror, perfidy — Peck shows how these occur between lovers, within families, between states and citizens, and how state power affects love, intimacy.

Patrice Lumumba beaten up in the back of a car…

Certain scenes stick with me, for years. Patrice Lumumba beaten up in the back of a car in the Congo, en route to his murder; the Belgians burning his clothes in the blue night. A small girl hiding in a high-ceiling closet in some dusty, sunbaked Haitian town, so scared of the Macoutes — Haitian paramilitary — she pees her pants. The widower who’s lost his children, too, to the Rwandan genocide, kicking a soccer ball in an empty hotel pool in Arusha.

Same with Fatal Assistance (2013), his documentary about foreign aid in Haiti. It’s about bureaucrats, mostly, and somehow it rivets. Peck films inside the gate of a fancy white house. The day is cloudy and green, as besuited foreign dignitaries enter the house, one by one, plotting the ouster of the Haitian president, Rene Préval.

“At the time I didn’t know that’s what they were going to talk about,” says Peck. “And I was surprised that the mainstream media did not pick up on that. Because you have basically the head of the U.N. mission, designated by the Security Council, who decided to do a coup d’état — because that’s what it was. And it was sure to succeed, if it hadn’t been for the Brazilian representative to the OAS.” Peck’s no fan of Préval, but he wanted to show the ineptness and imperiousness of foreigners, instead of critiquing recipient-government leaders.

…characters become human and three-dimensional, not symbols or tokens.

Mainstream narratives about poor countries often feature privileged white characters saving the day. That would never happen in a Peck movie. Congo, Haiti, Rwanda — these are countries, not other countries. His movies point up the distortions in our usual narratives about poor countries and dark-skinned people. Peck’s characters become human and three-dimensional, not symbols or tokens.

With his excited, serious talk and round face, Peck seems mid-to-late 40s, but he was born in Port-au-Prince in 1953. It was the eve of great liberation movements — decolonization, civil rights — and a time of hope for the oppressed. Not quite in Papa Doc’s Haiti, though. Peck’s family left in 1961 for a newly independent Congo. There they joined Haitian exiles brought in to replace the Belgian professionals who fled after independence. Peck’s father was a U.N. agronomist.

The Pecks left again for the United States. Then to France. Peck spent his teenage years as a trans-Atlantic tennis ball. He still bounces back and forth: Haiti, Germany, the United States, France, where he is president of the Fémis film school and sits on the jury at Cannes. He just finished filming in Haiti for a feature that sounds delicious: a murder mystery set after the earthquake, when expats flooded into Haiti. A prosperous, progressive Haitian couple rents out part of their house to an expat, who promptly moves in his 17-year-old Haitian girlfriend. Murder ensues.

Close up of man in vintage glasses

Lumumba Tucha Basto

“Can you tell me who dies?” I ask.

“No,” he says.

“No? Oh, come on!”

“No!” says Peck. “That’s easy. That’s too easy.”

“And one of them is the murderer…” I say.

“Or maybe all of them,” he says, playful. “Agatha Christie!”

Lately he’s been in New York, a scholar-in-residence again at the Tisch School of the Arts. The project is a documentary about the African-American writer James Baldwin, “but a very creative documentary,” says Peck. “It’s not a news documentary.” Some time ago he came upon a letter Baldwin wrote to his agent. Baldwin sets out a masterpiece, about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., three friends whose lives ended in assassination. Baldwin wrote that he knew the book would be difficult, and that it wouldn’t sell, but that he needed to do it.

“And of course he never wrote the book,” says Peck. “So the starting point of the film is to say — yes, he wrote it. He just didn’t bind it together, but if you go through his work, the film is there.” Peck has some 30 pages of Baldwin’s notes for the project, and the rights to all of Baldwin’s writings besides.

“Why did Baldwin never write it?” I ask.

Democracy doesn’t mean that when you cast your ballot the work is over.

Raoul Peck

“Life. Tiredness. You know, he was sick at some point. You know there are some things like this where you say, That’s my main work, and you never get to do it.”

Why Baldwin? “Because Baldwin is my life,” Peck says. “I started reading Baldwin when I was 14 or 15, and I realized as an adult a lot of the things I was saying came from him.” He looked up to Baldwin, he says, the same way he looked up to Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, revolutionary Marxists.

Older now, Peck sounds at a political loss, more befuddled than defeated. Around the world, democracy feels hollowed out. Among leftists, he sees a lack of political engagement. Older generations seem tired, and the younger ahistorical or apolitical.

“Democracy doesn’t mean that when you cast your ballot the work is over,” he says. “If 500,000 New Yorkers had been on the street protesting for health-care reform, that would have been something different. What about your role? You know — organize. And that’s what I call the lazy left.”

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