The imaginary locus of the New York Film Festival shifts across the globe year by year, depending on where the heftier selections cluster. Some past editions have made me feel as though I’d spent a lot of time in Taiwan, Iran, or Romania, though the primary dream site has most often glittered about 3,600 miles to the northeast of the festival’s home. I’ve sometimes left Lincoln Center after a full day of Francophilia and fantasized that I’d stumbled into Paris’s previously undiscovered 21st arrondissement, when I was really just blinking at Broadway.
Imagination came to rest differently at this year’s festival, the 54th, settling not on one locus but on every place where African Americans have struggled, suffered, and invented themselves. In a decision that broke with the past, since no previous opening-night selection had been a documentary, the festival began with Ava DuVernay’s burningly urgent 13th, a historical survey of white America’s hands-on methods of keeping black America down, from the years of post-Reconstruction terror through our present era of stop-and-frisk and “stand your ground.” Then came the films that bulked out the impression of a festival where black lives mattered: Raoul Peck’s knotty essay about race in America, I Am Not Your Negro, proudly bearing the credit “Written by James Baldwin” because it is based entirely on his texts; Barry Jenkins’s moody, impressionistic Moonlight, a drama about a gay youth’s coming of age in the Liberty City section of Miami; and I Called Him Morgan, Kasper Collin’s archival reconstruction of the loving, fatal convergence of the lives of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife Helen, a proudly independent woman who first rescued him from the streets and then murdered him.
Four overlapping aspects of one vast subject; four distinct methods of bringing that subject to the screen. (For a fifth, I might look beyond the festival to Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.) Maybe the best way to begin mapping this cinematic territory is to refer to one of the passages that Samuel L. Jackson recites on the soundtrack of I Am Not Your Negro—a fragment, I believe, from Remember This House, Baldwin’s unfinished meditation on what he’d known firsthand of the life and death of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Starting from a recollection of the time Evers asked for his company on a murder investigation, Baldwin took flight into an aria about the Deep South towns he’d just passed through, the civil-rights campaigns he’d observed without sweating out the calculation of how many people might be injured or killed, the groups he’d known well (from the NAACP to the Nation of Islam) but had not joined. As Peck’s complex, often allusive montage of archival images plays across the screen—film footage of Evers in the driveway of his home and Freedom Riders on a bus, still photographs of civil-rights workers in coffins and an old-time NAACP chapter posing on risers—Jackson’s soundtrack recitation rises to Baldwin’s moral climax. He had chosen to be a witness, Baldwin wrote, rather than a participant; and as a witness, his responsibility was to move as freely as possible.
In 13th, Ava DuVernay comes down on the participants’ side of this divide. With the aid of co-screenwriter Spencer Averick, she marshals witnesses and facts, constructs arguments and charts, buttonholes you in your seat and then tries to yank you upright, not to applaud but to act. Because she bears down so forcefully on her material, and on you, DuVernay also constrains herself. Her use of archival images, for example, is never allusive or evocative, like Peck’s, but strictly illustrative, nailing exactly the point she intends to make. But then, DuVernay is not aiming for freedom of movement in 13th. Her goal is inexorability.
Essentially the film version of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 13th lays out a history of the successive means by which black Americans have been clawed back into the economic and social servitude from which the 13th Amendment was meant to free them. No citizen, according to the amendment, can be held captive and compelled to labor except as “punishment for crime”—a reasonable stipulation, perhaps, but one that quickly became an escape clause for those who find it convenient to remove black people (men especially) from the free workforce. In the years since the Civil War, African Americans have been variously defined as vagrants, loiterers, disturbers of the peace, rapists, insurrectionists, and (in more recent decades) murderous drug dealers. Who benefited as the prisons filled and a black man’s odds of being incarcerated at some point in his life rose to one in three? White politicians, from Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton and Donald Trump; a multitude of corporations, whether they’re outsourcing jobs to penitentiaries or operating prisons of their own; and a large cadre of lobbyists, consultants, broadcasters, moviemakers, editorialists, and think-tank blowhards who have profited by converting mass incarceration from a brutal method into (God help us) a culture.
As an artist, DuVernay naturally pays close attention to the promulgation of that culture. Her film is full of depictions of the black criminal, from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation through newscast videos of the Central Park Five. As she presents testimony from interview subjects that include Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and (for a surprise) Newt Gingrich, posing them in workaday loft or office spaces (or, in the case of Angela Davis, a magnificent ruin), DuVernay repeatedly loops back to the old images, reinforcing the argument that African Americans have been subjected to wave after wave of criminalization. Meanwhile, her hip-hop soundtrack (with lyrics flashed across the screen) and dreadful montage of recent police killings drive home the message that every part of our history is still fully present, and still cries out to be addressed.
I cannot tell you how it might feel to watch 13th as an African American. My response is that of a supposedly white person (as Baldwin might have called me) who had many of the facts already at his command when he entered the theater but was not prepared for the cumulative force that DuVernay gives them. She piles up information until it becomes emotional knowledge—and it’s awful.
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With I Am Not Your Negro, it’s not necessary to speculate about how an African American might have felt about the matters under discussion. One particular black man told us, with an eloquence almost unmatched in American letters.
His words ring through the film in three different voices. One, as I’ve mentioned, belongs to Samuel L. Jackson, who recites various passages by Baldwin, inhabiting the words without imitating the author’s podium manner. Since so many of these texts are recollections, let’s call this the autobiographical voice. The second voice is public: It belongs to a Baldwin seen in archival footage as he lectures, debates, and holds forth with various talk-show hosts. From this voice, you get entire paragraphs unfurling like defiant banners in a high wind. The third voice also comes from the archives—a television interview conducted by Kenneth Clark in 1963—but this Baldwin speaks haltingly, testing his phrases before uttering them, even seeming to weigh the words before he’ll let them off his tongue. This is the writer’s voice, which you’re privileged to hear composing authentic James Baldwin sentences in real time.
Memoir, analytical polemic, and behind them both the restless movement of an intellect fearlessly probing both itself and its situation in the world: Raoul Peck combines all three in I Am Not Your Negro. The images, as you might expect, are not always straightforward. While the texts that Peck has chosen address many of the issues covered in 13th—for example, the violence inflicted on people of color by self-designated whites, in the streets and on the movie screen—the accompanying pictures might show anything from the shadows cast by elevated railroad tracks on a ghetto street to a view of Mars from a science-fiction movie. You can’t predict their rhythm, either: A shot of the New York City subway begins during one of Jackson’s monologues, and only after half a minute does the text arrive at Baldwin’s recollection of a clandestine meeting on a platform. This isn’t just a matter of expert, often associative, editing, but of keeping time according to a moral clock. A mention of Baldwin’s return to New York from Paris in the 1950s summons up a view of Times Square today. A talk-show discussion about the perilous state of America, recorded in the late 1960s, merges without comment into still photographs of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
This is what I call freedom of movement. As much as I admire what DuVernay has done, and as much as I respect her choice of the participants’ side, I think that if the New York Film Festival had chosen its opening-night selection on artistic merit alone, the slot would have gone to the moral witness of I Am Not Your Negro.
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Barry Jenkins has at least this much in common with DuVernay and Peck: He is concerned with the passage of time in Moonlight, one of the most anticipated films on the main slate of this year’s festival. As the title might suggest, though, he’s interested in a temporality that is sensuous and nearly palpable, as experienced by a character whose consciousness is governed more by the seasons and tides than the historical moment.
Little, Chiron, and Black are the names by which this protagonist is known in the three sections of Moonlight. These chapters show him in his days as a silent, watchful pip-squeak (played by Alex R. Hibbert); in reedy adolescence (Ashton Sanders), during which he almost emerges from himself before being bludgeoned back; and at last in an adult body (Trevante Rhodes) that is bulked up as a buffer for a bruised heart, as well as for professional insurance. He has gone into the drug trade, in emulation of the one older man who was ever kind to him.
One of the themes of Moonlight is that you get your tenderness where you can. Nine-year-old Little one day flees from schoolyard bullies into a deserted crack house and so wanders into the amused, protective company of a Liberty City drug boss, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Is this powerful man recruiting his next underling? It seems more likely that he just wants to feel helpful to someone, and gentle, as when he takes Little on his first outing to the beach and (in one of Moonlight’s many lyrical moments) teaches him to swim. You feel how the child is buoyed up; you know it’s by the same man who is guiltily but impersonally destroying Little’s crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris).
Moonlight also teaches that you give tenderness where you can. Little’s schoolmate Kevin (played in the successive chapters by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and the extraordinary André Holland) has enough swagger to disguise his own homosexuality and enough brains to recognize Little’s; and so he knows where he can safely offer friendship (to a kid who is otherwise isolated) and then love. Kevin also provides a shield, until he can’t.
There are opportunities in this story to digress into protest mode. Jenkins resists them. In some scenes, principally those between the protagonist and his mother, there are also opportunities for melodrama, which Jenkins is willing to exploit, just a little. Mostly, he keeps you immersed in one young man’s moment-by-moment sensations and emotions. That’s a lot; and in the long, quiet, intensely moving scene of reunion and reconciliation between Black and Kevin that brings Moonlight to its culmination, it’s all you could want.
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I will have more to say about the 54th New York Film Festival in my next column. For now, let me add quick notes about one more of its selections, Kasper Collin’s absorbing, kaleidoscopic documentary I Called Him Morgan, and about Nate Parker’s energetically marketed The Birth of a Nation.
People who love American music know Lee Morgan from his many recordings with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and his own ensembles and can be counted on to add the obligatory “the great” before his name. His fans also know that he was gunned down at a gig on New York’s Lower East Side in 1972, at age 33, by his wife Helen. Few of us have known who Helen was, or that she left behind a long interview, tape-recorded a month before her death in 1996. Collin has obtained the tapes and the cooperation of the man who made them, Larry Reni Thomas, as well as a multitude of magnificent archival material and fresh interviews with Morgan’s colleagues, such as Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin. Out of this material he’s made a film that is by turns invigorating, startling, mournful, and revelatory. It does not bring the past into the present; rather, it takes you into a period that’s gone and shows it to you with more richness than you’ve known.
As for Nate Parker’s dramatization of the Nat Turner rebellion: Although a recent article on The Nation’s website was no doubt right when it complained that The Birth of a Nation misrepresents the facts, I believe this is the wrong standard to apply. Instead of comparing the picture to historical sources, we should check it against Chris Rock’s Top Five. If you’ve seen that excellent production, you know that Rock plays a star of stand-up comedy and silly movies who has sought respectability by making an epic about the Haitian Revolution, titled Uprize! No one in Top Five doubts that the subject deserves its own movie; the problem is that Rock’s character is ludicrously inadequate for the job. With the release of The Birth of a Nation, Uprize! has at last come to the screen.