Filmmaker Raoul Peck now uses cinema as a platform for social activism. On Monday, the award-winning filmmaker and director of the world-renowned documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” came to campus to participate in a Q&A following a screening of his film. On Tuesday, Meryem Belkaïd, assistant professor of romance languages and literatures, hosted a public discussion with Peck about his background and its influence on his work.
Peck begins these discussions with his provocative films. He hopes that students learn to be critical, especially in a media-dominated world where we are constantly bombarded by images.
“I hope that in universities you learn how to read images, how to deconstruct images or how to read the work of an artist,” said Peck. “An artist doesn’t just react to a society, there is something that they’re trying to convey and it’s our job to try to understand it.”
Peck was born in Haiti and has lived and studied all over the world, including in the U.S., France and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite this international lifestyle, Peck’s films discuss the universality and continuity of social issues.
“Movies, as innocent as they might appear, are vehicles for ideology, for politics, for culture, for merchandise,” said Peck during a Q&A session. “I came into the film industry because of politics, because of content—not because I wanted to make Hollywood films.”
Peck tells stories that otherwise would not make it onto the screen. He has written, produced and directed films about the genocide in Rwanda, the struggle for Congolese independence and the rebuilding of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He said he portrays these events from the eyes of the oppressed and hopes to give minorities a louder voice, while critiquing and countering mainstream American cinema.
“I am Not Your Negro” is an Academy Award nominated documentary film based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” a memoir of his personal experiences with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film discusses issues of race and power dynamics on a global scale. In “I am Not Your Negro,” he uses Baldwin’s words to convey this message.
“Obviously, Baldwin wrote [“Remember This House”] in another time, but everything in it is as if written today,” said Peck. “It says something about the way we see reality, the way we see our common history.”
“Baldwin says that ‘white is a metaphor for power’ … It’s not about race [alone],” said Peck. “Race is always a cover-up for many other things, for any different type of power relationship, authority relationship, economical inequality.”
This discussion of universal struggles resonated with students.
“[‘I am Not Your Negro’] talked about race in a way that I don’t in my day-to-day life, and I don’t think Bowdoin does come even close to that,” said Hannah Konkel ’20, who attended both events. “It was a really powerful film. Especially on this campus, where we talk about talking about race a lot but don’t actually ever do it. I thought it was a necessary [topic to discuss].”
Peck seeks to encourage audiences to think critically about a genre valued for its ability to entertain.
“Especially in America, cinema is an industry that claims that its purpose is entertainment … The tendency is to please the audience, it’s not so much to provoke,” said Peck.
Amie Sillah ’20 attended the Tuesday night event and appreciated this uncommon viewpoint on entertainment.
“[Peck], although he has lived in Western society, also has a good grasp and understands non-Western perspectives on social activism as well as non-Western perspectives on cinema,” said Sillah. “I thought it was awesome that Bowdoin was able to obtain someone in a different sphere.”
Peck himself appreciates diversity in conversation and discussion. During his talks, he urged students to exercise their freedom of speech just as he has through film.
“I think it’s always best, when possible, to have a very transparent, open discussion and bring people in who know more than you,” said Peck. “I’m open to learning and I want to have a discussion. I want to hear what you have to say. And I feel empowered when I learn something from you.”