From Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro to Ava DuVernay’s 13th, the factual film-makers tackling race in the era of Black Lives Matter
By Steve Rose / The Guardian / Saturday 1 April 2017 02.00 EDT
Despite its best attempts to sabotage the occasion by almost crowning the wrong movie, this year’s Oscars will go down in history in terms of diversity, primarily thanks to Moonlight. But there was one Oscar category that had a different diversity problem. Four out of the five films competing for best documentary feature were made by African-Americans: Ezra Edelman’s winning OJ: Made in America; Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro; Ava DuVernay’s 13th; and Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated. The marginalised white film-making community had to make do with the Italian entry, Gianfranco Rosi’s immigration film Fire at Sea, which was still about Africans.
How to explain this anomaly? Was it simply a vintage year for African-American documentary? Was it the Academy compensating for the #OscarSoWhite debacle of the preceding two years? Or could we see it as as a sign that something has fundamentally changed?
The nominated film-makers themselves are reluctant to attach too much significance to the Oscars. Raoul Peck puts it down to “coincidence. Sheer coincidence.” Ezra Edelman agrees – “There’s no real ‘there’ there. There’s four different black film-makers who have a track record of making films in their own way, who happen to have made four cogent, well-received films in the same year.” Ava DuVernay is more interested in the fact that best documentary feature being dominated by black film-makers is news “when we’re looking at a category that for years has been dominated by non-black film-makers, and that’s never been a story”.
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But what’s striking is that, with the exception of Roger Ross Williams, these directors have all made documentaries dealing with facets of African-American history. And as we all know, race relations in America are not in a good place – #OscarSoWhite was just the tip of a great white iceberg.
In tandem with debates over representation in the film industry, the landscape outside has been riven by racially motivated killings, police brutality, racial injustice, riots, protests and counter-protests, all exacerbated by a white supremacist movement that’s travelled all the way to the White House. In this light, African-American documentary is a powerful tool. If you wanted to unpick America’s creation myths, in fact, it’s hard to think of a better triple bill.
As James Baldwin, one of America’s most eloquent and incisive writers on race, says in I Am Not Your Negro, “the history of the Negro in America is the history of America, and it is not a pretty one.” What’s at stake is the control of history. The authority to reframe it, reinterpret it, rewrite it.
“Baldwin said history is not the past; history is the present,” says Peck. “You are your history. It’s something that is always moving and, by the way, it is not multiple histories – we have exactly the same history. We are seeing it from different angles. What Baldwin tells us is we all need to teach our part of that history and take our responsibility for it.”
James Baldwin (right) joins civil rights leaders in New York, September 1963, to pay tribute to the four girls kikked in the Birmingham, Alabama bombing. Photograph: JH/AP