“The way we talk about Black genius always denies craft, skill, virtuosity. It is described as innate… [As if] there is no interpretation, there is no style, there is no experimentation,” Samantha Sheppard, an assistant film professor at Cornell University, said in an interview following the panel that closed the New York Film Festival.
The geniuses Sheppard refers to are James Baldwin and Muhammad Ali, the subjects of the documentaries “Meeting The Man: James Baldwin in Paris,” and “Muhammad Ali, The Greatest,” which were part of the Revivals section that concluded this year’s New York Film Festival. To celebrate the occasion, the festival’s final panel discussion, “The Artist, the Athlete, and the Revolutionary,” brought together scholars and critics to reflect on how Black celebrity functions both in the documentaries and the larger worlds of Baldwin and Ali. The discussion pushed audiences beyond simplistic questions about the responsibility of Black artists, the palatability of their work for white audiences, and how celebrity supposedly removes them from their community. Instead, the entire talk was, as Sheppard put it, “a reframe,” inviting consideration of Baldwin and Ali’s engagement with local and global communities, and the connection of both men to current struggles.
Moderated by freelance writer Nicholas Russell, the panel featured culture critic and 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist Soraya Nadia McDonald, New School literature professor Rich Blint, and community organizer and writer Kazembe Balagun, in addition to Sheppard.
The panelists reframed two oft-asked questions. First: What is the Black artist’s responsibility to their community? Blint emphasized that this is actually a question of how far Black artists can push their public critiques of their society and still get paid. Second, with the topic of white audiences using Black artistry as a "how to" tool to try and be less racist, the panelists emphasized that the onus is not solely on the work of Black artists, but on white people themselves to work to dismantle racism. They reminded audiences that the evidence of white supremacy’s deep harms is unavoidable; there is thus no excuse for white people to avoid confronting their own roles in continuing anti-Blackness.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists connected both figures to the larger struggles of their (and our) times. The panelists used the Baldwin documentary to discuss the Black radical tradition as a fundamentally international one, and Balagun pointed out Baldwin’s relationship to the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, as well as Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. With the Ali documentary, they pointed to his status as a spectacular figure in the athletic canon, and McDonald emphasized the way that Black public figures like Ali (and, more contemporarily, Naomi Osaka) are labeled as “ungrateful” when they speak out against racism. The panelists noted how focused both men were on Black youth as a central part of their politics and community.
Sheppard, in a later interview, exposed larger threads of artistic craft for Baldwin and Ali. She emphasized Ali’s skill as an orator and public speaker, and his athleticism as an art form he perfected over time. She also pointed to Baldwin’s veracity as a film critic in “The Devil Finds Work,” where he was “trying to engage with Black spectatorship.” Focusing on this craft allows audiences to go beyond simply engaging with Black art as an, “instructional tool,” and instead engage with it as an “imaginative practice.”
Within the context of artistic craft, she emphasized how sometimes, Baldwin and Ali’s words were and are deradicalized in an attempt to commidify them: “[The immense visual archive of Ali and Baldwin is] used and misused and I would even say, at times, abused by various cultural industries who want to monetize a revolution into sound bites and visual vignettes that divorce it from its more radical politics.”
The Film Festival Talks co-programmers, Devika Girish and Maddie Whittle, emphasized that the talk grew out of the desire to highlight the rarely-seen Baldwin documentary, which then got paired with the more well-known Ali documentary in a drive-in screening. Girish noted that the Talks program is meant to “cross-pollinate” filmmakers across the festival, and Whittle mentioned that it was not an intentional choice to have this talk conclude the series, but that it nonetheless provided a moving finale.
“I felt like having so much brilliance in one place and us just sort of being able to gather people around and say, watch this brilliance, as a way to close the festival was really powerful for me,” Whittle said.
“It hopefully made the point that this [panel] is a discussion that encompasses the entire festival... this is not about these two films or, you know, this particular section of the program. [Centering Black voices] is what should be on all of our minds,” Girish said.
Reflecting on the panel, Sheppard said she wanted audiences to remember both the deep criticism and the potent emotion contained in these documentaries. “We left the films a lot to discuss larger concepts like celebrity,” she said. “But I just want to remind people that the films are really, really beautiful.”