Was the day we started to fight.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on."
-- civil rights freedom song
Last month, a documen-tary film producer in Boston died. He wasn't a celebrity or someone famous, but in a small way, he changed the world we live in. His name was Henry Hampton, and he was the creator of a series about the civil rights movement called Eyes on the Prize.
I first heard of Henry 16 years ago. I was a beginning filmmaker in New Orleans, trying to raise money for a documentary on black politics. A friend of mine who had worked for Henry thought we had a lot of interests in common. I wrote to him for advice and got back a detailed, encouraging letter, full of ideas. At the time, I figured everyone in the film business must be as helpful. In all the years that followed, I've never gotten another letter like it.
When I eventually finished my film, I flew to Boston, hoping to interest the producers of a PBS series. My meeting with them lasted barely longer than "we're not interested" and I found myself far from home with time to kill. Then I remembered Henry's letter and called to see if I could come visit his production office. Later, I'd become familiar with Henry's usually frenetic schedule, full of meetings, phone calls, and screenings. But that morning, he said he'd love to meet me, to just come on over.
I found Henry in a crowded, book-strewn office in Boston's South End, a short, stocky, conservatively dressed black man with a ready smile. Within a few minutes, we were talking about filmmaking and history and Southern politics -- the field that I'd done my graduate work in -- and about Henry's feelings that this series he was making, about the civil rights movement, might really make an impact. On the way out the door, he asked me if I might consider being an advisor for the series. I thought about it for a moment and said I rather help him make some of the films. He looked me in the eye for a minute, and then he said, "What an interesting idea." In time, I moved to Boston and was working on Eyes on the Prize.
Henry's dream was to make a history of the civil rights movement that would focus on the people who had made up that movement, mostly regular folks who'd risked their lives, endured beatings and jail time, and experienced the triumphs and tragedies firsthand. It would truly be a people's history. As Henry later said, he wanted to get away from the usual depiction of black Americans as simply "poor, downtrodden, and brutalized primitives" and show that "it was the strength of blacks that made the civil rights movement happen, with support from some whites." It would be their story.
Making a series about the civil rights movement in this country would seem to be the most logical of projects for public television. But back in the late 1970s, that logic was only clear to Henry. It took him 10 years of fundraising and false starts to raise the money he needed. A charismatic man who was always the center of any gathering, he never despaired. He always talked about never taking rejection personally, that someday, sometime, the people who were not willing to help now might do so later, and probably never remember their earlier rejection at all. And he was right.
Henry had an amazing ability to see what people, often without direct experience in making documentary films, might be able to accomplish. In hindsight, perhaps that might be expected, given his commitment to hire African-Americans to make films, people who had not had the opportunities to produce before. He convinced them that they could turn one of the most important moments in American history into sensitive, complex, emotionally compelling narratives, introducing a national audience to a cast of characters -- grassroots activists, firebrands, plain folk, and civil rights icons -- most of whom they'd never heard of, some when they really only knew as symbols.
For two years, our dedicated crew of independent filmmakers, whom Henry had assembled, fought over history as much as we did about filmmaking. Henry's idea to avoid complacency was to put together production teams of black and white filmmakers, usually one man and one woman, one black, one white, neither of whom had ever met the other before. It made for lively dynamics on the job.
We'd have meetings, sometimes lasting into the night, day after day, around the old Ping-Pong table that we sat around to argue story content. In retrospect, they were amazing meetings, black and white filmmakers fighting with real passion over whose history it was, what stories "had to be told," what history a national audience needed to know.
Our responsibility was to get the "history" right, because this might be the only chance to reach a wider audience with these untold stories. And I remember Henry Hampton, a black man born in a country obsessed with race and burdened by its history of racial oppression, always admonishing us to remember that we had to tell stories "that people in Peoria could understand and relate to." White people and black. If we couldn't make the history inclusive, then we were not doing our jobs.
Henry was the optimist. He always talked about moments in our shared American history when things might have gone better, when race relations or governmental policies might have changed for the better -- but always expressed with the belief that we learned from the roads not taken in the past. And that if we presented those stories clearly in our films, that maybe sometime in the future the dreams of people in the past might still be realized.
Henry's dream became 1987's Eyes on the Prize. The miniseries won every award given to television documentaries. It has been seen by over 20 million viewers. It came to exemplify what's best about public television, a national platform that can broadcast the realized visions of filmmakers who have something important to say.
More importantly, the films in the Eyes series can be found in almost every public library and school system in this country, where they continue to be shown to a new generation of students -- and are available to be seen by generations in the future.
Go to a library or a video store and watch one of the Eyes on the Prize programs. In its signature animated introduction, with the old freedom lyrics being sung, there is a line of black marchers. And they're holding an American flag in their hands. Eyes was a story about the triumph of African-Americans in this country, yes. But it was told with an equal emphasis on their being Americans. And that their triumph was one that we all shared.
After the success of Eyes, the documentary and public television world climbed aboard Henry's bandwagon to celebrate his accomplishment. Funding for future projects and a multitude of honors followed. But Henry's commitment to chronicling the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised -- and their attempts to create a more just and equal country -- never wavered. It showed in his films about America's Depression years and on the War on Poverty in the Sixties.
Today, Henry's work lives on, in the films being made by the filmmakers who helped him make Eyes. In the last year, Orlando Bagwell and a production team full of Eyes exes produced Africans in America, a multi-part series on the history of slavery in America. Louie Massiah made his fine W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices. Jon Else finished Cadillac Desert, a beautifully filmed history about water and politics in the West. Sam Pollard (the producer who visited Austin with his Four Little Girls last spring) is finishing I'll Make Me a World, a series about the black contributions to the arts in America in this century, produced by Henry and his Blackside production company, which will air on PBS in February. There are literally hundreds of people working on documentary films, mostly minority filmmakers, who trained with Henry and who will continue to add to this distinguished body of work.
And in the years since Eyes, I've gotten to help make films about grassroots politics across the country, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and George Wallace. But without the break that Henry gave me, an inexperienced filmmaker who didn't yet know just how much he didn't know, I'm not sure I'd be making films at all today.
I last saw Henry in Miami last June, at the PBS national meetings. He'd given the keynote address and was standing off to the side of a reception being given to celebrate his newest series. His slow walk, the result of the polio he contracted as a teenager and the heavy leg braces he had relearned to walk with, had grown more labored after years of chemotherapy for lung cancer. He was tired and looked a lot older than when I'd first met him, but when he smiled, he still shone. Ever the optimist, in his life, in his films, in the country that he truly loved, for what it was and for what it could be.
Last month, a documentary film producer in Boston died. He wasn't a celebrity or someone famous, but in a small but important way, my friend Henry Hampton changed the world in which we live. And proved that a filmmaker, sometimes, really can change the world, and make it a better place.
Paul Stekler is the head of film and video production at the University of Texas at Austin and is the director of the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning documentary Vote for Me: Politics in America.