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'Eyes On The Prize' Producer On Making A Civil Rights Documentary Before Its Time

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'Eyes On The Prize' Producer On Making A Civil Rights Documentary Before Its Time

Television

'Eyes On The Prize' Producer On Making A Civil Rights Documentary Before Its Time

'Eyes On The Prize' Producer On Making A Civil Rights Documentary Before Its Time

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The 14-part PBS series covered 30 years of the civil rights movement, winning two Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards. Producer and cinematographer Jon Else says only primary sources were on screen.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

In 1987, the documentary series "Eyes On The Prize" changed the way Americans remembered the civil rights movement. The 14-part series on PBS covered 30 years of the civil rights movement from Emmett Till to the Black Panthers. It won two Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards. "Eyes On The Prize" recounted the struggle for civil rights through almost forgotten footage and interviews with people who lived through it.

Now, 30 years later, series producer and cinematographer Jon Else has written a book "True South" about the making of "Eyes On The Prize" and about Henry Hampton, the filmmaker who spent decades bringing the project to the screen. Jon Else joined us from the campus of University of California, Berkeley where he is the Northgate chair of the UC, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

I started by asking him about what sparked Henry Hampton's idea to explore the civil rights movement in a documentary.

JON ELSE: Henry, standing there on the Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, looked around him at all the television cameras, and he thought to himself someday this is going to make a great story. He tucked that idea away for about 10 years and made his first attempt at "Eyes On The Prize" in 1978.

SINGH: Can you think of the moment, though, that you think finally sort of catapulted him into the frame of mind of making this film?

ELSE: I mean, the deep roots of "Eyes On The Prize" for Henry Hampton go back to his teenage years. When he was 15 years old in 1955, a young man, Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in Mississippi. Henry had grown up in relative privilege in St. Louis, Mo., and suddenly he realized that his young, black life was worth nothing in a lot of parts of this country. That same year, Henry was struck with polio, and he emerged first as a quadriplegic and then finally after about a year of physical therapy was able to regain the use of everything except one leg. So he spent the rest of his life walking with a brace.

His sister told me Henry never understood what it was to be an outsider until he had polio. And I think the combination of the polio and Emmett Till really set the course that led him to that revelation in Selma. He started a film production company in Boston, a documentary production company. And out of the blue in 1978, he got a call from Capital Cities television, and they were casting around for minority producers to do a project of their choice. And Henry said it took him about 10 minutes to decide that he wanted to do the history of the civil rights movement.

Now, this was at a time when virtually no one knew how to do big, historical programming on television. This was long before Ken Burns. It was long before the "American Experience," before the History Channel. No one knew how to do it, including Henry Hampton. But off they went.

SINGH: And the production company that he eventually opened, Blackside, it went through one heck of a turmoil in those years to finally get to "Eyes On The Prize." Can you just take us through a little bit on what Blackside had to go through to get from point A to point C?

ELSE: The first attempt to make "Eyes On The Prize" went down in flames, and the company came within an inch of completely folding. It was down to one employee that was Henry Hampton. But he, you know, he refused to let this thing die. He just was not going to let it go away partly because there were - there had been other documentaries about civil rights that were being made in the late 1980s, but they were all about Martin Luther King and his charismatic leadership. They were all by white producers, most of them with white presenters on camera.

And Henry was determined that he was going to put the ordinary, Southern black folks who drove the civil rights movement into the forefront of their own story. And that's why he refused to give up. You know, and he was - you know, funding documentaries has always been a struggle, but in the 1980s, funding documentaries about the African-American experience with an African-American executive producer was tripley (ph) hard.

SINGH: And in this particular way because the interviews in "Eyes On The Prize" are only with people who were actually there when the events occurred.

ELSE: Yeah.

SINGH: It doesn't really include historians, academics or, you know, experts of any kind, only the key players themselves. Those were the experts. So what was the thinking behind that decision first?

ELSE: You know, the rule of Blackside was if you weren't there, you can't be in the movie. If you were not in Birmingham, Ala., in the summer of 1963, you can't be in that episode of "Eyes On The Prize." But it's really important to remember that we had tremendous ongoing, lengthy, detailed input from lots of academics and scholars. There - they were never on camera, but Henry employed this wonderful device that he called school.

And before we started any big project at Blackside, we convened in Boston for about a week or two all of the very, very best scholars, academics and journalists to really have a sort of a graduate seminar about the subject. And that's exactly what happened with "Eyes On The Prize." So the academics and the scholars are there, but they're there behind the scenes.

SINGH: Jon, some of the most riveting interviews I found in "Eyes On The Prize" are with white Southerners who fought hard against the progress civil rights workers were trying to make.

ELSE: Yeah.

SINGH: And you talk about these heated debates with the film crew about what to call the segregationists and the film's narration. And eventually the decision was made to refer to them as resistors - right? - instead of racists. Why did the filmmakers choose to soften the language it seems and use resistors?

ELSE: Yeah. Throughout the making of "Eyes On The Prize" Henry Hampton was determined that he was going to make this television series accessible to ordinary Americans of all political persuasions, of all colors, of all ages, of all classes. And so he was very, very gun shy about alienating any of his potential audience, and he felt - and I think he was right that the minute a narrator in this film began to describe segregationists as white supremacists - that would be a channel changer for a lot of the people that Henry wanted to reach.

It was decided after a lot of debate back in Boston that it was our job to let them speak their truth, not our truth. It was our job to - if we really wanted to get at what happened in the 1960s, we had to create an atmosphere in which people would not edit their own speech because of who was in the room.

SINGH: You know, you talked about "Eyes On The Prize" when it emerged it was one of kind. Nothing like it had ever been done before. But since then, there have been other documentaries, productions that sort of tried to capture what "Eyes On The Prize" managed to capture. What's your take on the legacy of that project, of the legacy of "Eyes On The Prize?"

ELSE: When Henry started his company way back in 1968, he founded the company partly to produce films about the African-American experience, but also to produce young filmmakers of color, and he succeeded in both. I mean, he did that until his dying day. And one of the great legacies of Blackside is the diaspora of hundreds of filmmakers of all colors who went through the shop in Boston over the 20 years that it was in operation. And they are now out there all over the United States, all over the world actually making films. And, you know, I think they try to keep that Blackside spirit alive.

SINGH: Jon Else joined us from Berkeley, Calif. He was here to talk about his new book "True South: Henry Hampton And Eyes On The Prize, The Landmark Television Series That Reframed The Civil Rights Movement." Jon, thank you.

ELSE: Thank you.

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