Berlin: Raoul Peck Talks 'The Young Karl Marx' and Why Beyonce Isn't a Revolutionary (Q&A)

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Raoul Peck

The Oscar contender discusses the art of making timely cinema and why reading a book is better than “being on Twitter every day.”

In the 10 years that Raoul Peck spent developing I Am Not Your Negro, in the running for an Oscar later this month, the celebrated Haitian director was also working on another long-gestating project (“I tend to do all the most difficult films in the world!” he says). And like his acclaimed documentary telling the story of race in modern America, this latest feature also lands at a rather uncannily poignant moment in time.

The Young Karl Marx, his first narrative feature since 2014’s Murder in Pacot, explores the early years of one of history’s big political thinkers, focusing especially on his close relationship with radicalized manufacturing heir Friedrich Engels that would flourish in the pubs and cafes of 1840s Paris. Before they were 30 years old, the two had helped alter the shape of society with the publication of The Communist Manifesto, one of the most widely read and influential texts of all time.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump — “It’s like we gave Attila the keys to the kingdom” — Peck discussed his film, Marxism and why Beyonce isn’t a revolutionary.

What’s your relationship with Marx?

I grew up with him. When I was studying in Germany, at that time in the ‘70s it was almost an obligation to be confronted with Marx. You were not at all credible without knowing some basic tools of his analysis. I spent four years on Das Kapital, in German, at [Humboldt] University in Berlin. I actually came to cinema because of politics. My dream wasn’t to make films and work with actors. But when I found a way to tell a story that was entertaining and at the same time had content and was educational without being didactic, that’s what I wanted to do.

What was Marx like in his youth?

He was extremely intelligent — we could even call him a genius, a very early PhD at just 19 years old, which was incredible in Germany at the time. He had big ambitions, not of changing the world — that was not how he phrased it — but fighting inequality, fighting poverty. He was a very humanistic young man, first a poet, a journalist and a philosopher, and then an economist and someone who was organized in politics. He basically influenced the whole of civilization, for good and bad.

Was it an instant meeting of minds with Engels?

They had briefly met in Germany, and Marx originally thought Engels was very pretentious and a young, rich brat and also a womanizer. But when those two met in Paris, after a short while they just started working together. They had 10 days that were incredible, and that’s when they became friends for life. They drank, of course, they played chess in bars and cafes. But most importantly they started taking notes and started working together. It was Engels who introduced Marx to economics, because he’d been working in his father’s factory in Manchester and seen how the workers were treated like animals.

What did you use for research?

We decided to work almost exclusively on their correspondence. When you read the letters between Marx, Engels, [Marx’s wife] Jenny and their friends, they’re incredible. It’s lively, it’s funny, it’s ironic. They were jokers with sharp tongues. In the letters they would make fun of other leaders. Engels would talk about his women, his relationships, the husband of one of his girlfriends who was coming after him with a gun. The whole story was there.

There was renewed interest in Marxism around the start of the financial crisis.

Yeah, I remember being in New York and every major economical newspaper and magazine had Marx on their front covers. But I’d been working for 10 years on the film. It was the same with I Am Not Your Negro. People were telling me, “wow, this film has come at the right time because of Trump.” But I’ve been working on it for 10 years already!

Is the interest in Marxism still there or have people swung to the right?

No, I think there are many people in universities and in the science world who really are returning to basics. People say the crisis is over, but it’s not true. But you need to sit down and read a book again, instead of being on Twitter every day. I had a young journalist say to me: “Yeah but things are better, look Beyonce raised her fist [at the 2016 Super Bowl].” You’re telling me Beyonce is a revolutionary? Thirty years ago you had those guys who raised their fists at the Olympic games and they paid 30 years of their lives because of that gesture. And you’re telling me a superstar who put one fist in the air is a revolutionary? But that’s the superficiality of this time.

Does Marxism have a chance to flourish in this new world order?

Of course, somebody like Trump will galvanize resistance, but we don’t know what form this resistance will take. Different sectors will react and fight differently, but the big question is if they manage to become allies and organize on a long-term basis. Whatever will happen has to be based on long-term policies and strategies of resistance. We had the Occupy Wall Street movement, but when they had to step up and organize in a more institutional way, the whole movement dissolved. One problem is that today we have far less powerful resistance organizations than in the 60s and 70s. But I do see a possibility. But will it be organized enough to sustain the time that is needed?