Students who work at the Rutgers television station have an Academy Award nominee advising them.
Hébert Peck is up for an Oscar at Sunday’s 89th Academy Awards for the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
“To me, working with the students is an incredible experience because they have a thirst for knowledge,” said the assistant director of broadcast operations at the university’s RU-tv Network. “These projects enrich your intellectual life and they enrich your heart. What you do with that is transfer your best to your students and do the same with your colleagues.”
Peck shares the nomination for Best Documentary (feature) with fellow producers Rémi Grellety and brother, Raoul Peck, who is also the film’s director. The project, which took a decade to complete, premiered at the Toronto film festival in September where it was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and released Feb. 3 in New York.
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 Oscar nod 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.”
Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures - 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.
To that end, Peck and his fellow producers are exploring ways to distribute I Am Not Your Negro as an educational tool to schools, community centers, houses of worship and law enforcement in tandem with panel discussions. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Felicia McGinty is coordinating a free screening of the film sometime this semester at Rutgers.
“I think it’s a movie that should be seen by every American,” he said. “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.”
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, who is in Los Angeles for the awards ceremony. “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. His students and colleagues threw him a send-off celebration on Tuesday.
“The students are very excited about the film and the nomination,” said Chloe Cooper, a senior journalism and media studies major who has worked at RU-tv for nearly two years. “We talk about it all the time. We’re lucky to be able work with someone who is so accomplished. For all of us future filmmakers, it’s really inspiring to learn from someone whose work is being recognized in the highest way possible.”
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.”