FREQUENT SMALL MEALS
Civil Rights on Film
February 20-28, 2009
curated by Andy Ditzler
Program 1: Life, Work, and Segregation in the South
All My Babies (George Stoney, 1952) 16mm, 54 minutes
Movies of Local People: Kannapolis (H. Lee Waters, 1941) 16mm, 10 minutes
Program 2: Inside the Movement: “Direct Cinema” and Civil Rights
The Children Were Watching (Robert Drew, 1961) 16mm, 21 minutes
Black Natchez (Edward Pincus, 1965) 16mm, 61 minutes
Program 3: The Fierce Urgency of Now
Black Power, White Backlash (excerpt) (CBS-TV, 1966) 15 min., color, shown on DVD
Perfect Film (Ken Jacobs, 1986) 22 min., b&w, 16mm
Malcolm X: Nationalist or Humanist? (Madeline Anderson, 1968) 14 min., b&w, shown on VHS
NOW! (Santiago Alvarez, 1965) 6 min., b&w, shown on DVD
I Have a Dream (speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963) 17 minutes, DVD
Phyllis and Terry (Eugene and Carole Marner, 1964) 36 min., b&w, 16mm
Program 4: “My name is Jason Holliday…”
Behind Every Good Man (Nikolai Ursin, 1965) 16mm, 8 minutes
Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967) 35mm, 100 minutes
Civil Rights on Film is co-sponsored by the following Emory University departments: the Studies in Sexualities Initiative, the James Weldon Johnson Institute, the Department of Film Studies, and the Office of LGBT Life
The explosion of moving image forms in the mid-twentieth century was a prism through which the complexity of African-American life was shown. The trajectory of nonfiction filmmaking from 1941 to 1967 coincided with the spectacular growth of the Civil Rights movement. Itinerant filmmakers working in the south captured images that are now precious glimpses into history. The mobile cameras of the cinema vérité movement documented both the epic freedom struggle and everyday African-American life with unprecedented intimacy. The news media reported the struggle, and became itself part of the story. And in the late 1960s, filmmakers began to challenge the notion of cinematic truth just as media-savvy subcultures were forming and new political identities were becoming more visible. While the vast subject of the Civil Rights movement cannot be covered in four nights, we can look back and see ways in which these trajectories coincided – how filmmaking captured a revolution in process, and how that revolution changed film.
From 1936 to 1942, photographer, itinerant filmmaker and North Carolina native H. Lee Waters made 252 films in 118 different counties. He would pull into town, his car covered with ads, and take moving images of the residents. A few weeks later, he would return to screen the developed film at local theaters, usually to large, curious crowds. Waters made five different visits to the North Carolina mill town of Kannapolis, and his film of the town exists as a three-reel, feature-length motion picture. Included in this program is the film’s third and final reel, which contains an extended documentation of the people of Fishtown, the city’s black community.
There is much to enjoy and admire in Kannapolis: Waters’s evident skill as cameraman; historical details, particularly clothes; the precious documentation of a culture now largely lost. But within the poignancy and playfulness of these images, we see a replica of Kannapolis’s segregation. Black people and white people are almost completely absent from each others’ half of this reel of film. At the same time, Waters showed this very film in theaters both in the black and white sections of town. So while the individual sections of the film are segregated (like the theaters), the film as a whole was not. And for a brief moment, desegregation flickered on the screens of Kannapolis.
Novelty obviously smoothed the reception of Waters’s project, but ten years later, another filmmaker working among white and black communities in the south had to tread much more carefully. In 1951, the majority of babies born to African-American families in rural Georgia were delivered at home by midwives. Seeking to decrease the rate of infant mortality in these births, the Georgia Department of Health commissioned a film for midwife training. Director George Stoney was given the task of translating into a cohesive narrative a list of 118 training points, ranging from basic rules of sanitation to larger issues such as how to make newly pregnant African-American women comfortable about going to white-run clinics for examinations.
Stoney wrote at length about the long process of gaining the trust of both white and black southerners for the project. White health officials, hotel managers, cab drivers, and filling station owners were duly apprised of the project in order to prevent problems. African-American midwives and pregnant women were reassured about the project’s intentions and uses. A northern film crew was found who could work sensitively within southern culture. It was clear that an exposé of black living conditions under Jim Crow would not be appreciated, yet the film had to be realistic enough to be trusted by the midwives. Coupled with the technical and scripting challenges, it was a daunting project.
From these circumstances emerged All My Babies, a delicately balanced, moving portrait of compassion in a difficult time and place. While it never directly addresses segregation, the film’s hybrid form slyly subverts rigid boundaries. Tightly scripted and obviously dramatized, it is nonetheless clearly a documentary film, punctuated by a remarkable sequence of actual childbirth. Though belonging squarely to the educational film tradition, its use of nonprofessional actors and gorgeous black-and-white photography show the explicit influence of the Italian Neorealist films which Stoney had seen.
The shape of the film’s narrative also subtly addressed the inequity of segregation. The film was made to train midwives as thoroughly as possible by showing two contrasting births – one in ideal circumstances and another in an emergency situation caused by dire poverty and the inability of the mother to adequately prepare for the birth. Through the contrast between these two births, All My Babies opened a window onto living conditions among blacks in the rural south and gained an emotional power (and now historical depth) far beyond the scope of its initial educational purpose. Though for years screenings were restricted to health professionals, the film was quickly recognized for its wider significance, earning documentary cinema awards, international distribution, a place in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and eventually – like Waters’s Kannapolis – was added to the prestigious National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
By 1959, Life Magazine correspondent Robert Drew was envisioning a new kind of documentary cinema, sparked by technical innovations and inspired by Life’s legendary staff photographers “with little cameras who got close to people and came back with emotional stuff.” Finding no equivalent for this emotional power in documentary film or television, he began developing mobile camera and sound setups, with the goal of capturing the heart of dramatic events in moving images the way Life photographers did with still cameras. Working with a future who’s who of 60s documentary film – Maysles, Pennebaker, Leacock – Drew produced Primary, a record of the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary, hotly contested between Senators Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. With its rough-and-ready spontaneous footage and riveting fly-on-the-wall intimacy, Primary was a harbinger of a new kind of film: cinema vérité.
“Cinema truth”: real life on screen. This was very much the goal of Drew and his team, and it gave rise to a new aesthetic, triggered not by words but by images. Even when filming famous people and historic events, the pioneers of cinema vérité often chose to linger on small details – like Primary’s long closeup of Jackie Kennedy’s white-gloved hands, while she nervously fiddles with them. In the context of cinema vérité, these spontaneously captured details magnified the sense of real life, providing not just visual interest but psychological insight, poignancy, a deeper truth than any scripted setup could provide.
The laborious process of finding institutional support for the technical and logistical challenges of this new cinema culminated in a 1960 arrangement for Drew Associates to produce twelve half-hour programs for ABC. One of these programs was The Children Were Watching. In late 1960, reading of the trouble surrounding attempts to desegregate elementary schools in New Orleans, Drew sent the brilliant and intrepid cameraman Richard Leacock to cover the story.
Leacock took every opportunity to capture dramatic footage, and there were many. Outside the school he filmed white women protestors determined to keep their daughters out of desegregated schools, capturing their uninhibited rage and invective. One woman even attacks the camera; the screen goes black for long seconds while the insults and threats continue on the soundtrack. The dramatic climax of The Children Were Watching revolves around an act of bravery and its consequences. Mrs. James Gabriel had defied the segregationists by continuing to take her daughter to the school after black children started attending. An angry mob has gathered outside her house. Mrs. Gabriel frets about her son, who is negotiating his way home from school alone through the mob, and her husband, who is due home from work. In the midst of this nightmare, over a chaotic, raging din, Mrs. Gabriel stares out the window at her tormentors and Leacock captures her sudden, quiet revelation: “These people don’t realize that by these actions they are crucifying their savior…as surely as if he was here in front of them. The true meaning of Christianity, what he stood for…they have forgotten it.”
A few years later, footage of events such as Birmingham police using firehoses and attack dogs on children and the violence on the bridge at Selma brought the full horror of southern racism into American homes. The Children Were Watching, which aired on ABC-TV in early 1961, was early in showing such imagery on television. But not all the children were watching. Alone among ABC affiliates, New Orleans stations refused to broadcast the show.
By 1965, the cinema vérité revolution was in full swing. In mid-June, with funding from Civil Rights activist friends and a rented camera which was hand-modified for mobile shooting, Edward Pincus traveled from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Natchez, Mississippi. Accompanying him was David Neuman, who recorded sound on reel-to-reel tape. The entirety of Black Natchez was shot by this two-man crew.
Natchez is located in southwest Mississippi on the Louisiana border, then one of the most dangerous areas in the country for African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan operated with impunity, and police protection for blacks effectively did not exist. By the time Pincus and Neuman arrived and began filming, tensions were beginning to reach the boiling point in the black community. Picket lines and marches protesting segregation were taking place. Black men were forming clandestine defense groups, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (FDP) was offering a radicalized alternative to the traditional measured approach of the NAACP, who were urging patience and trying to avoid bloodshed. Black Natchez is a study of the Civil Rights movement on the cusp of Black Power.
Pincus and Neuman followed a classic tenet of cinema vérité: observe only. “[Our] filmmaking technique was to not ever ask any questions.” The omniscient, all-knowing narrator of standard documentary film was avoided, and in its place was Natchez resident James Jackson, a kind of “everyman’s voice” according to Pincus. Jackson travels freely between the old guard NAACP leadership and the young men agitating for a violent response, yet it is made clear that he is just a participant in the events like everyone else. The intimacy of the footage in Black Natchez is remarkable both in content and look. Pincus deftly negotiates chaotic street scenes and a cramped, overwhelmed NAACP office. Mobile cameras allowed for unobtrusiveness as well as spontaneity. Watching Black Natchez, one feels privy to the inner workings and turmoil of the movement.
Recently, Ed Pincus commented on Black Natchez: “Imagine we had a film of a small town in France during the days of the French Revolution, a film that did not mention Marat, Danton, Robespierre, et al. but in which their ideas were played out by the citizens of the town.” One way in which cinema vérité loosened up documentary cinema was in its insistence that ordinary people and everyday life were compelling subjects for films. Eugene and Carole Marner’s winning Phyllis and Terry features a type of subject not often seen in any kind of film in 1964. Two African-American teenage girls in New York banter, play, reminisce, talk about their surroundings, their future plans, music, love, and happiness, all with a remarkable ease in front of the camera. The easygoing-but-tough Phyllis and the wily, mischievous Terry are an inspired choice for a documentary. Featuring an up-to-the-minute R&B music soundtrack, this exuberant film is a rare, sensitive portrayal of teenage life in black America.
The Civil Rights movement was, for many Americans, experienced largely through the prism of the news media. By autumn 1966, some younger activists were growing dissatisfied with Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach, and the nascent Black Power movement was gaining attention. In the CBS-TV broadcast Black Power, White Backlash, King was described as “on the defensive,” and an interview segment plays up the conflict, with King sandwiched between Mike Wallace’s incendiary interview with Stokely Carmichael and the notably hostile ruminations of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
Later in the 1960s, African-American filmmakers began producing their own shows as an alternative to the mainstream networks. Madeline Anderson was one of the very few African-American women filmmakers prior to 1970. Her film Malcolm X: Nationalist or Humanist? was broadcast in February 1969 on Black Journal, William Greaves’s pioneering black-produced public television series. The film focuses on Malcolm’s attempt to internationalize the Civil Rights struggle. It contains much interesting interview footage with Malcolm, as well as an appearance by his widow Betty Shabazz. The film ends with a rousing speech by Malcolm, who extemporizes on the conflict between “house Negroes” and “field Negroes.”
Two works in the series use media images as a source of material. Ken Jacobs’s haunting Perfect Film consists solely of outtakes from television news coverage of Malcolm X’s assassination, presented as found by Jacobs, without any comment or editing. Jacobs, a well-known avant-garde filmmaker, had purchased this reel for a few dollars from a flea market in New York. As he says, “my contribution was leaving [the footage] alone.”
"It was outtakes from a television studio, the news report. This was the stuff that they had discarded and someone, instead of just throwing it in the wastebasket decided, who knows, it might have some future use, so without any kind of order the film clips were attached one to the other. And that's how I found it. It was being sold for the reel, the metal reel it was on. And it was very cheap because this person selling it gave you the task of having to unspool all this discard. I looked at the discard and in my eyes it was good. Very revealing. So I just let the evidence be the way it was. I looked at it and said, 'perfect.' From beginning to end, 'perfect.'"
The main elements of
Perfect Film are a black radio reporter giving his eyewitness account of
the event, along with other interviewees on the street; a detective giving a
statement of the details of the assassination to reporters; cutaway shots of the
Audubon Ballroom and its environs; and a brief glimpse of Malcolm himself.
Besides the obvious historical interest of the footage, there is much in Perfect
Film to consider from an aesthetic perspective, as Jacobs did when he brought to
bear his long experience of viewing found footage. The unedited, outtake quality
of the footage, as well as its random organization on the reel, brings out
interesting connections. For instance, the eyewitness, the detective, and the
interviewees reappear at various times in silent shots. Occasionally there is
sound with no image, and sometimes the screen simply goes blank for many
seconds, where film leader was originally inserted. All of these elements and
more – the strange false start during the detective’s statement, the oddly
smiling faces gathered around the eyewitness, the repetition of images with only
slight variation (or sometimes no variation at all) – contribute to an eerie
sense of observing an event as if through a dream. Through random editing, we
see the eyewitness interviewed three times, which gives the film a classical
three-act structure, like a play or an opera – only this is an opera of
nightmares, with an absent hero.
”Give me two photos, music, and a moviola,” Santiago Alvarez once said, “and I’ll give you a movie.” As the director of the newsreel division of the Cuban Film Institute, Alvarez used this extreme economy of means to produce over 700 films, but surely nowhere to better effect than in NOW!, an agitprop film of extraordinary energy. Like Perfect Film, NOW! consists almost entirely of found media still images – in this case, still images of protest and revolt, set to a stunning music track by the great singer Lena Horne. But where Perfect Film is a meditation on media, NOW! is classic activist filmmaking. Throughout, Alvarez uses zooms and pans to constantly highlight the determination written on the faces of those in the photographs, creating a sense of solidarity with the protesters and complementing the urgency of the song.
Perhaps no event of the Civil Rights movement had as much effect on the American public as “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s incomparable speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Delivered against the overwhelming backdrop of 250,000 people around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, the sixteen-minute speech was broadcast live on American television, bringing King’s stunning oratorical gifts, and an enduring image of the American Civil Rights movement, onto the national and international stage. Many consider this March and its climactic moment, as broadcast on television, to be the very peak of the movement.
Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, in conjunction with the sweeping social changes of the 1960s, other minorities began more visible struggles for freedom. While a film student at UCLA, Nikolai Ursin made the eight-minute short Behind Every Good Man. This breezy, unassuming film is perhaps the very first to take as its subject an openly gay black man – and in this case, transvestite. Remarkably free of angst (especially in comparison to mainstream cinema’s later depictions of homosexual life), it has an appropriately hybrid form: opening and closing sections are a thinly veiled narrative about the protagonist’s search for love, with a middle section that is pure documentary: while on the soundtrack the man tells the story of a police bust with an improbable happy ending, we see him apply makeup and wig, and suddenly the man is a woman. “I’d like to live a happy life, that’s for sure,” he says, and one not only wants him to, but believes that it really could happen.
“My name is Jason Holliday,” says a bespectacled man looking straight into the camera. He tries a second take on the same line, then, laughing, confesses: “My name is Aaron Payne.” These opening lines have been preceded by offscreen voices saying “Miss Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason, roll one, sound one; sound rolling; camera rolling”; then Ms. Clarke herself says, “Okay Jason, go.” During this opening sequence Jason’s image begins in a complete blur and focuses just before he speaks. Thus, we see in the first few seconds of Portrait of Jason all the central issues of the film: self-invention, deception, what’s real and what’s not? Can you capture the truth on film? And who’s really in control of this film?
It is, of course, a set-up. Director Shirley Clarke conceived the film as a challenge to cinema vérité. Essentially, she asked: why do documentary filmmakers think they’re putting reality on screen when they’re simply editing their own version of reality, filmed through their own eyes? What would happen if you just sat someone down in front of the camera for 90 minutes and let him talk? So Clarke did just this with her black gay hustler cabaret-performer no-fixed-address friend. The result of this experiment in pure cinema vérité remains one of the most radical and riveting nonfiction films ever made.
Within the extreme limitation of Clarke’s set-up, unlimited possibilities emerge. Jason could say or do anything he wanted, and pretty much does – he performs, tells his stories, collapses, gets up, keeps going. There were no limits on subject matter: homophobia, childhood abuse, drinking problems, sex escapades, the constant hustle on the streets, all are played for comedy. But always, a deeply painful consciousness of race is just below the surface. Clarke intended the grueling twelve-hour filming (and the booze and the joints) to wear Jason down – to break through his easy charisma to the person underneath. His inevitable breakdown – prodded by ever-harsher offscreen comments, which hint that Jason deserves this cruelty for an unspecified past misdeed – is hysterical, tearful, disturbing. Yet through it all he is remarkably resilient – a true star.
The end of the film circles back to the beginning, shot twelve long hours before. We hear Clarke announce the end of filming, and she asks Jason how he feels. Drunk, stoned, exhausted, broken down utterly, with his face going out of focus one final time, Jason says, “I’m happy with the whole thing,” and you believe he could mean it, but it’s impossible to tell. “The end, the end, the end, that’s it, it’s over, the end,” Clarke says as the screen goes dark. But it’s really a beginning. For Portrait of Jason reinvents moviemaking from almost the ground up, as surely as Jason invents his own identity. The moment of new cinematic and social possibilities which the film captures so movingly resonate through the next decades of cinema. Portrait of Jason is really a portrait of freedom – and a prophecy of a future cinema.
Program notes 2009 Andy Ditzler
Sincere thanks to: Matthew Bernstein; Rudolph Byrd; Elizabeth Elkins; Jonathan Goldberg; Annie Hall; Regina Longo; Michael Moon; Yakingma Robinson; Doug Shipman; Michael Shutt; Duncan Teague; Gianmarco Torri; Travis Wilkerson.
Special thanks to the filmmakers who shared their memories and experiences making the films: Robert Drew; Ed Pincus; Wendy Clarke; and Robert Fiore.
CIVIL RIGHTS ON FILM is a Film Love event. The Film Love series provides access to rare but important films, and seeks to increase awareness of the rich history of experimental and avant-garde film. The series is curated and hosted by Andy Ditzler for Frequent Small Meals. Film Love was voted Best Film Series in Atlanta by the critics of Creative Loafing in 2006.
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