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Authenticity, Biography, and Race: A critique of the 2013 Film Festival Circuit

By Roya Zahra Rastegar

As a festival curator and scholar, I constantly grapple with the tension of how to talk or write about films that have yet to—or may never—reach broader audiences. The intention of this article is twofold: first, to highlight films that have circulated through domestic film festivals in the first half of 2013 and are relevant to American studies scholars working on questions of race, sexuality, gender, and national identity; and second, to raise a concern with the conditions in which films about race gain visibility, and the limits these conditions pose for the recognition and future development of a more capacious independent film culture.

Let me begin with a word about the significance of film festivals for independent film culture. The ability for independent films to gain broad visibility or “break out” to national audiences is subject to the curatorial selections of high-profile film festivals (in North America, this includes Telluride, Toronto, Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, Seattle, San Francisco International, and the L.A. Film Festival, among others). Based on the decisions of individual festival programmers, filmmakers gain access to a festival platform and an audience of critics, sales agents, and distributors. Selected films also become part of a framework in which film professionals and press identify “trends” around popular culture and society as they manifest in films. Identifying a larger trend lends further value and relevance to a few key films—among thousands made each year—which are posited as reflective of not only current film culture, but also shifts in public opinion and thought.

So it is interesting when the current proliferation of biographical documentaries about intellectual and political leaders working around questions of race, culture, and social justice is not called out as a “trend.” In the past year, these include Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, Stephen Vittoria’s Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, Frieda Mock’s Anita, Ava DuVernay’s Venus Vs., Pratibha Parmar’s Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, Bill Siegal’s Trials of Mohammad Ali, and Marina Zenovich’s Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.1 Are these documentaries reflective of a cultural shift in how race is being engaged in society?2 Or do these films signal a popular recognition of the contributions of Black intellectual thought and cultural formations to our contemporary society? The curious disregard of thinking about these documentaries together precludes a sustained investigation and analysis necessary to address these questions. Further obscured are how these documentaries challenge conventions of biography and expectations of authenticity in order to create more expansive contexts for how the lives of people of color are read on-screen.