Skip Norman: Here and Now at the National Gallery

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The National Gallery of Art’s retrospective Skip Norman: Here and Now on December 9-10, 2023, is a long overdue homecoming for a talented Black filmmaker with strong connections to the region, whose small but compelling filmography and unique life story merit a fresh look.

Born in Baltimore and raised in DC, Norman (1933-2015) joined the inaugural class of DFFB, the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, in 1966. The NGA screening series includes several documentary and experimental shorts directed by Norman shortly after his graduation, one that analyzes colonialism (On Africa, 1970), and two shot in DC on the history of racism in the US and the role of the Black Power movement (Washington D.C. November 1970 and Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation). 

The series also includes Norman’s collaboration as cinematographer with acclaimed DC-based director Haile Gerima on the feature film Wilmington 10—U.S.A. 10,000 (1979), which explores the story of 10 civil rights activist wrongfully convicted of arson in the North Carolina city in 1971. Norman served as a lecturer on film and photography at Howard University alongside Gerima from 1976-78.

While other independent Black filmmakers of this era, such as those affiliated with the LA Rebellion like Gerima, are increasingly recognized, Norman’s work and biography remain largely unknown. Norman’s shorts, in particular, have likely had few, if any, screenings in the US since their completion more than 50 years ago. 


Still from Haile Gerima’s Wilmington 10 – U.S.A 10,000 (1979) courtesy Haile Gerima NGA

Skip Norman: Here and Now, featuring recent restorations of all the films, is “an exciting point of discovery for folks who might be curious to know what kind of work was being made in the 1970s by a Black man who was obviously incredibly talented,” said NGA’s film programmer Joanna Raczynska, but who “had little luck finding [financial] support for his art in the United States during his lifetime.” 

“These lesser-known names [like Norman], but not the lesser artists,” she added, “are incredibly important to the history and practice of independent filmmaking.”

Initially produced as one film before being separated for distribution, Washington D.C. November 1970 and Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation offer rare contemporaneous footage of Black Power activities in DC from late 1970. Washington D.C. November 1970 captures images from the registration site of the Black Panther Party Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. This gathering, organized by the newly set up DC chapter of the BPP, was intended to draft a new US constitution but foundered over poor logistics and run-ins with uncooperative local authorities.

Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation focuses on the drug treatment program, as well as a range of other self-help initiatives, of a nationalist group of that same name in the District. This group had deep roots in DC, robust membership, and even garnered public funds to support its drug rehabilitation activities, explained University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Dr. G. Derek Musgrove. Dr. Musgrove, an expert on Black Power activism in the capital, said in an interview that while some photos of the Blackman’s Volunteer Army of Liberation from that era were available, he hadn’t seen and wasn’t aware of other film footage of them as extensive as Norman’s film. 

The two films demonstrate Norman’s keen interest in race, leftist politics, and structural critiques of systems of oppression but also the range of his approaches and aesthetics. Washington D.C. November 1970 has an experimental tone, combining narration readings from W.E.B. DuBois and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver with montages of portrait stills of American presidents contrasted with Black leaders, occasionally overlaid with sketched drawings. 

Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation uses a sympathetic but more straightforward, almost news reportage style to document the group’s activities, including interviews with its leadership, clients, and wives of the members as voice-overs to the visuals. Both films are valuable in adding images from the District and of this particular homegrown DC faction to the small body of Black Power films from that time period, such as Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers (1968) and Leonard M. Henny’s Black Power: We’re Goin’ Survive America (1968).

Wilmington 10—U.S.A. 10,000 situates the plight of political prisoners wrongfully imprisoned in the 1970s within the history of systemic racism and Black resistance in the US through interviews with the Wilmington 10, their families, and Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur. In a conversation from March 2021 recorded between Haile Gerima and his wife and collaborator Shirikiana reminiscing about Norman, the director recalled Norman’s still photography impressing him enough to ask him to do Wilmington 10’s cinematography. They also remembered Norman being very sensitive in his craft, even at one point starting to cry and leaving the camera while filming an interview with one of the prisoner’s mothers, Shirikiana said “because he was so moved by the way she talked about the incarceration of her son.” 

While the NGA series focuses mostly on this DC chapter of Norman’s artistic output, the equally interesting periods before and after have been explored elsewhere as part of a concerted effort over the past five years to increase attention to Norman. Skip Norman: Here and Now series curator Jesse Cumming traces his involvement, for instance, to a screening in Germany in 2018 of Norman’s shorts, which provided, he related in an interview, “an introduction to an artist with incredible political clarity and aesthetic distinction that I had never heard of before.” 

This inspired Cumming, who will appear in pre-recorded introductions to the NGA series, to carry out his own research on Norman. He also gives great credit to a number of colleagues in Europe for unearthing Norman’s works from various archives and reconstructing his life trajectory, resulting in a dedicated issue of the Rosa Mercedes online journal and various international showcases, most recently at London’s Open City Documentary Festival in September.

Underlying these efforts is the question of why, given Norman’s own evident cinematic talents and affiliation with iconic filmmakers like Gerima and Berlin classmate Harun Farocki, is his work only now coming to light? Curator Cumming hypothesizes several potential dynamics at play. He notes, first, that Norman largely came of artistic age in Germany and, as a Black expatriate, might not have slotted neatly into either the European or American film movements of the era. 


Still from Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation by Skip Norman
Skip Norman's Dunbar High School yearbook photo, courtesy of the Dunbar Alumni Federation

Second, Norman was a bit of a jack of all trades, equally dexterous at directing, cinematography, and acting, as well as photography. That flexibility of artistic practice, while further proof of his gifts, also allowed him to explore different areas of interest rather than exclusively film. (In fact, Norman’s photography and teaching seem to have superseded his filmmaking as time went on. After earning an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in anthropology, sociology, photography, and cinema in 1984, he went on to serve on the communications faculty of a university in Cyprus from 1996-2010.)

But another factor was certainly the sheer difficulty of Black filmmakers gaining access to the resources and respect to carry out their work in the 1970s. As Norman reported in a 1984 film school alumni survey, “One of the motivating factors for being an independent [filmmaker] is control over content. Obvious disadvantages of independent production are the difficulties in gaining financial support and the limited opportunities for exhibition and distribution.”

Independent filmmakers “walk a cultural tightrope because of the ethnocentricity of the majority culture,” he goes on to note, since “most decisions in these agencies, that broker the little money available, are made by members of the majority culture.” 

And the fate of Norman’s films highlights that even those that do manage to get made can still be obscured over time. “With Black film, you really have to be in a constant posture of discovery, because so many filmmakers and so many films have been lost to structural neglect of different types,” Dr. Terri Francis, University of Miami Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts and expert in American Black film history, explained in an interview. 

“So, am I surprised that I haven’t heard of Mr. Norman before now?” she continued. “No, but I’m absolutely looking forward to learning more.”

There will be plenty more opportunities ahead to do so. Aside from the NGA showings, a few of Norman’s films will play in January at the Museum of Modern Art’s archival festival To Save and Project. Following that will be a major retrospective of Norman’s films at Anthology Film Archives in New York, around which independent curator and writer Greg de Cuir Jr. will be organizing a day-long symposium on Norman and his legacy at Germany’s cultural institute, the Goethe Institut. Skip Norman is a missing link in the history of the Black avant-garde in film,” De Cuir wrote in an email, “in need of rediscovery.”

It’s fitting then that the US stage of that rediscovery will begin in Norman’s hometown with Skip Norman: Here and Now. Continuing to fill in the genealogy of Black film by excavating forgotten or overlooked Black filmmakers like Norman is vital because, argues Dr. Francis, “You don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve found it.”


The National Gallery of Art screenings of Skip Norman’s On Africa, Washington D.C. November 1970, and Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation start at 2 pm on December 9, and of Haile Gerima’s Wilmington 10—U.S.A. 10,000 at 2 pm on December 10. Free, advance registration required.


Header Image: Still from Joey Gibbs and Skip Norman’s On Africa (1970) courtesy Farocki Institute

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