Documentary Produced by Rutgers Employee and Student Mentor Receives PBS Premiere

Documentary Produced by Rutgers Employee and Student Mentor Receives PBS Premiere

Academy Award-nominated 'I Am Not Your Negro' to appear before nationwide audience on Martin Luther King Day

I Am Not Your Negro
I Am Not Your Negro is based on a 30-page letter James Baldwin, center, wrote to his literary agent in 1979 proposing a book about the lives of slain civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I Am Not Your Negro
9 p.m., Jan. 15.

Last year, Hébert Peck was up for an Oscar.

This year, the James Baldwin documentary he helped produce, I Am Not Your Negro, is poised for its nationwide PBS premiere on Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 15) at 9 p.m. 

Both honors, he said, are thrilling.

"The film has had a very successful theatrical run in the US and in over 60 countries, however, it is exciting to have it premiere on national television," said Peck, assistant director of broadcast operations at the university’s RU-tv Network.  “I think it’s a movie that should be seen by every American. What Baldwin tried to do is tell us that it’s all of our country. We can’t continue to be so compartmentalized in our experience as Americans.”

The film, which Peck worked on with fellow producers Rémi Grellety and brother, Raoul Peck, who is also the director, did not win the Academy Award for Best Documentary (feature), but The New York Times' film critic Manohla Dargis argues it should be nominated this year for Best Adapted Screenplay. The project, which took a decade to complete, also was nominated this year for a British Academy Film Award and has enjoyed critical acclaim since it premiered at the Toronto film festival in September 2016.  

On the surface, it sounds like a hard sell: A 93-minute documentary mining a 30-page book proposal about the lives of slain civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. that was never finished by a novelist and playwright who died 30 years ago. But the amalgamation of Baldwin’s words, Samuel L. Jackson’s voiceovers and imagery from the civil-rights era juxtaposed with footage from Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement has been lauded by even the most persnickety movie critics, including The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who called it “life-altering.”

“One of the things people say after seeing the film is that this is incredibly relevant today, yet these are words Baldwin wrote 40 or 50 years ago,” said Peck. “This means two things: One is that Baldwin is a very accurate observer of America and one of the most important writers of the 20th century. But also if you hear Baldwin’s words and they still feel powerful, as if he’d written them this morning, it says we have a long way to go as a nation.”

Peck – who before working with students at RU-tv was a senior producer with the university’s iTV Studio since 2005 – considers the importance of projects he’s produced with Rutgers’ top researchers and scholars to be on par with the commercial films he’s made during his off hours. It is Peck’s hope that any increased attention stemming from this film will benefit his students and lead to more Rutgers projects with the potential to affect social change.

“What I find myself doing a lot is translating scholarship into accessible language. I just love doing that, and that’s why Rutgers means a lot to me,” he said. “These are people dedicating their lives to change the world through their research, to help us understand our world so we can make it better, so I find it important to get that work into the public sphere.”

Hébert Peck
Hébert Peck is the assistant director of broadcast operations at the university’s RU-tv Network.
Photo: Nick Romanenko
To that end, Peck and his fellow producers have explored ways to distribute I Am Not Your Negro as an educational tool. They approached the Ford Foundation, which is funding an Outreach and Engagement Campaign scheduled to launch this year. In the meantime, PBS Independent Lens held community screenings across the country through its Indies Lens Pop-Up events and PBS Education's OVEE program is organizing an event on Jan. 17, 2018.

Peck’s role as a producer varies from project to project. For I Am Not Your Negro it meant a lot of shepherding from preproduction to postproduction and everything in between – including communicating with potential partners, scheduling crews to shoot at remote locations, and hunting down the rights to archival material or helping with creative decisions and marketing.

“Raoul is the final decision maker, but we are there to make sure he can execute his vision,” said Peck. “You need to deliver what is needed at all times. You need to anticipate and find solutions. At the end of the day, you have to be competent. Although Raoul is my brother, our family doesn’t go for nepotism.”

All insight and contacts Peck gains in his roles outside the university he cycles back to his students – both those he instructs as an adjunct with iTV Studio and as a mentor at the student-run RU-tv, where he has worked since 2014. 

Peck’s chief advice to up-and-comers: take advantage of every opportunity available at Rutgers to hone your craft.

“Passion will get you so far but, you have to learn the skills,” he said. “Everything is mostly free or affordable at the university, but once you are out, you have to pay for everything. So spend the time here creating and experimenting. Learn to come back from setbacks and learn to do it as fast as possible.”

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