“The Future is What We See It to Be”: Raoul Peck on James Baldwin, Karl Marx and The Young Karl Marx
The Young Karl Marx is the latest film from Raoul Peck, a filmmaker who still believes in the intelligence of the audience. It’s his first film since his incredible success with the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin. Like so many radical filmmakers he has found acclaim when he has been able to marry his own political beliefs and curiosity with society’s infatuation with celebrity. The film on Baldwin came at the right time and struck a chord at a moment when #BlackLivesMatter entered the public consciousness and the realisation that the election of an African-American president had not changed the behavior of law enforcement.
Now Peck arrives with his most conventional film, a period drama and love story based around the young Karl Marx. It’s almost a decade on from the 2008 economic crisis, even as markets rise, the fallout of that collapse is still being felt around the world. Instead of philosophers asking if we’d reached the end of history, the question has been, “Are we reaching the end of capitalism?” Peck’s film looks back into the past to ask questions of our present society. The film is also being released just as many will celebrate what would have been Karl Marx’s 200th birthday in May.
Filmmaker: Why did you want to make The Young Karl Marx?
Peck: Because for me it’s the basis — first, all I am today is thanks to that structure that I got when I was young, studying the work of the young Marx. That’s my life. I studied in Berlin, and at that time, in the 1970s and 1980s, you needed to confront yourself with those books, because it was your past, it was your present. It was part of your general knowledge to understand the society you are living and in which you are an actor. And if you wanted to be an actor, you needed to know how society functions, and Marx is the key, he’s the only one that has really good, very deep analysis to explain with arguments, with numbers, with history, with philosophy what is this historical, clearly defined capitalist society.
Filmmaker: Do you believe in his ideas and philosophy?
Peck: Marx never wrote any utopia. In the film you see the people who wrote utopia were Proudhon and Weitling, which was based on a certain assumption or idea of humankind. Marx told both of them, “Let’s stick to reality, let’s develop something from reality.” Marx never prophesied anything, except sometimes just as a joke or as a conversation. Nothing in his work says it’s going to be like this.
Filmmaker: Are his teachings still relevant today? Capitalism, it’s in quite a different form than it was during the 19th century.
Peck: I can tell you one thing — take The Communist Manifesto, it’s a small book. You sum up the articles and it’s exactly the description of the 2008 crisis. It’s like the children’s book of the history of capitalism, and you can trace it until today. So what other proof do you need? So why go back to that in the film, and exactly that particular period of the creation of all that — it’s because I tried to go to the fundamentals, to the instrument because that’s what he left that is most important: how do you use this instrument to analyze your society at a precise moment, like today, for example? I didn’t made a film about the past — I’m not interested in the past in that way. I’m interested in the present where I can use instruments in order to explain why Trump has been elected.
Filmmaker: Well that may be your opinion of The Communist Manisfesto….
Peck: This is not a world of opinion. It’s really work. Hard work. Inquiries. Engels spent a lot of time in the slums of Manchester, and he interrogated a lot of people. It’s about empirical material and how you work on empirical material. It’s not about having the best ideas. The whole work of Marx was always based on the work of many other scientists before him, or economists or philosophers before him. And he criticized from a strong, argumentative position. This is the same history going on. So what Marx provided us with are just the instruments — the logical, the political, the scientific elements to understand and to analyze again and again each moment of this society. But it’s the same historical society that started with the industrial revolution to today.
Filmmaker: Do you see a connection between the young Karl Marx and James Baldwin, whose writings formed the basis of your Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro?
Peck: There are areas where they are similar, but another important area is me — both changed my life. I learned Baldwin when I was 17, and I started working on Marx when I was 19. Both struck to my head differently, but also when Baldwin in my film says, “White is a metaphor for power, and it’s another way to say ‘Chase Manhattan bank,'” — that’s Marx’s analysis. So, they are not two things that are different, they are some similar perspective in the way [for them] to see their societies. And race is just one emanation of capitalism, like the whole thing about the refuges today. It’s not about the color of the refugees, it’s about capitalism doing its job, separating people, dividing, and also the certain path who want to protect their privilege.
Filmmaker: Was it important for you that I’m Not Your Negro got so much awards recognition?
Peck: As a filmmaker, it is important to be recognized by some of my peers. At the same time, I am old enough not to get crazy about it. I feel I survived all that time, and okay, I have it. More important is the return of Baldwin in the discussion, Baldwin being one of the most important writers and a sharp mind who is extremely relevant today. All he says in the film, he wrote down 50 years ago. And it’s exactly as if he sat down and wrote them today. You can analyze the whole situation in America today through his writing of 50 years ago. It’s for me the same movement to go back to the important references and fundamental analysis, because those are important instruments in our totally cloudy world of today, where you don’t even know what to believe. What is fake news, or what is opinion, when a president can say that climate change doesn’t exist. The scientist who spent 40 years of his life researching it is saying, “There is a big problem here.” Both are opinions and the guy at CNN says “Well, the president said… well, we are undecided.” That’s the reality of the world.
Filmmaker: Does that have to be the reality of the world?
Peck: Both Baldwin right away and Marx said, “The future is what we see it to be.” We choose to be in a democracy as democracy is the most effective form to be together. By the way that was before capitalism, it was in antiquity that democracy was discovered. Capitalists inherited that, they didn’t invent democracy. Once we accept that idea, whatever we decide or whatever we want it to be, it’s going to be, if we have a majority. If we agree on the diagnostic and if we agree with the solutions, maybe there are multiple solutions — there is not one recipe, and those solutions will ask a lot of work for us — but we are in a moment in civilization where everything should be easy, everything should have recipes. When you are asked a question, you should answer yes or no. There is no context anymore, so it’s very difficult. But I am not a prophet. I know humankind can change its fate, but it’s always a matter of do we sit down together and have a long conversation?
Filmmaker: And what of the changes that have come about in society. Before President Trump we had a black president. And you became the first black chairman of the board of La Fémis, the prestigious French state film school in 2010. Is this a sign of society moving forward?
Peck: Yes, but the real change has to be structural. Baldwin had a great sentence about Obama … Not about Obama [specifically], but journalists asked, “What will it be for you when you have the first black president?” His answer was, “The real question is not when there will be a next black president, the real question is, what country will he be the president of, that’s the fundamental question.” It’s not who, [because] our president can do so much. If by example, again though my idea of us agreeing on the agenda, if the majority of the people who voted for him, instead of sitting on their couch watching the president trying to do something, were in the streets, we would have better healthcare, we would have better stronger, change in laws to protect the ecology, etc. But we were spectators and that changes all. We are again in a democracy, meaning there are structures like congress in the U.S.. If you don’t have any influence on your congressmen, the lobby will have it. So how do you fight that lobby if you don’t go in the street, you don’t call your congressmen everyday? This is work, this is strategizing, this is organizing. But we are not equal, we as individuals, to face that lobby, I need a lot of days and nights of discussion with my neighbor, with my brothers, with my uncle so that I can build a coalition. The lobbyist, he just needs the money and he pays whoever he wants. He pays the campaign for the congressmen, he pays the campaign for the senator, etc. This is how it works.
Filmmaker: But it’s still democracy?
Peck: Well, that’s the question. Democracy is not something that is fixed once and for all. I came from a country that had a lot of dictatorship, and I fought a lot for the restoration of democracy. I know the price of being able to vote. In the west, people use voting as a consumer good, that you vote and you can sit down on your couch and watch a reality show. This is not democracy. Democracy is to be an active citizen. To question every day what you do in your job — you guys as well. The way you interview or not, your choices you make every day in your life. This is democracy.
Filmmaker: You talk about spectatorship but have cinema, television and now the internet not taught the people to just be spectators?
Peck: Well it’s part of the industry, of course. In my film Baldwin, he wrote 50 years ago when there were just three American national channels, he said, “The industry works in a way that is similar to the use of narcotics.” That was before all those reality shows. I’m sure most of your companies are owned by big companies — you’re just a little piece. And the type of freedom that journalists had — strong opinion, argumentative opinion — you can’t really have that today. Somebody up there will say, “No, you should go elsewhere.” That’s the reality. It’s much more difficult to fight today. Not only have we become lazy, but we’ve become reset, we have felt that they won so there is nothing. After the Berlin Wall fell down, there was nothing — no more history, or the end of history. Imagine today, we actually have a sort of democracy where if you are a celebrity and you are a billionaire, you have much more of a chance to become the president. Is that democracy? No. That’s the perverted situation that we have now. In my own country, in Haiti, the last president was a singer.
Filmmaker: When did you decide you had to become active as a filmmaker that was interested in analysing geopolitics and society?
Peck: I came to Europe to study when I was 17 and at the time there was a dictatorship in my country. Jean-Claude Duvalier “Bebe Dòk” [Baby Doc], was the president. So the people who studied before me, there was a small group of 10 Haitian students who had finished and went back to Haiti, and they were all killed. The CIA had already told the regime, “Those guys are organized.” They were killed. So I was the next generation and I knew I was going back to Haiti. I came to the world in a political field, it was about fighting the dictatorship, and most of my friends were people from SWAPO, from ANC, from Nicaragua, from Brazil, from Iran, from Turkey, and we were together on the streets fighting Reagan policies in Berlin. That was my education. So, at the time I remember even at film school to go and work on TV you were a traitor. Now everybody today goes there. There at the time — and that was in the ’80s — to go have a job as a journalist on TV you were a sellout because you were working for big capital. Imagine now.
Filmmaker: You chose cinema as your tool of expression and for many people that’s an entertainment tool…
Peck: For me, my father used to have photographs of art at home… but for me it was always a hobby and I never make any connection. I came to Berlin because I knew Berlin was a very political place but also a very cultural place where you could do a lot of things. I spent a lot of time going to theater, to jazz festivals, to the Berlinale etc. It was very energizing — the whole world was here. And it took time for me to accept the idea that film could really be an instrument of politics. I studied something else, I studied industrial engineering, and then I studied a PhD. And I would have probably gone all the way and done my doctorate but after two years my father died in an accident so I had to stop, and I didn’t want to go back and start again. That’s when I decided to go pass the exam for film school. But there was always the idea to go back to Haiti, to use film as a medium and to transmit content and not just entertainment. And I also came up in the generation after what we call militant cinema, [a term] which came to a place where it was not efficient anymore, where it was not about images or good sound, or good editing. It was about the slogan, the propaganda. And I grew up with it, but for me it was a dead end and the audience was not responding anymore to that. So we had to create something different. The idea of making the more… not commercial but more open type of film with a strong content was not a contradiction. It’s difficult for many reasons, aesthetically and financially, but it is doable. If you see my filmography, all my films were complicated, but I did them, I managed them without feeling that I’m selling out, without feeling that I censor myself. Most of them I had total freedom, otherwise I would not have made them.
The Young Karl Marx is out now.