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.