A Southern White in the Social-Justice Trenches
AFS Doc Nights: 'Anne Braden: Southern Patriot'
There's a certain symmetry to having veteran Appalshop docmaker Anne Lewis telling the story of Southern civil rights activist and writer Anne Braden. The latter, born in 1924 to a white, middle class family in Louisville, Ky., and raised in Alabama, raised hell until her death in 2006 over the entrenched institutional injustices all around her – from white supremacy and homophobia to class oppression and sexism. She and her late husband, the reporter and union supporter Carl Braden, wrote about, organized, and marched for desegregation and an ever-widening list of social justice causes. In 1954, the couple famously volunteered – on the cusp of the civil rights upheavals – to purchase a home on behalf of a black family in Louisville, Ky., thereby triggering a Klan firebombing and a sedition conviction for Carl.
Before coming to the University of Texas in 1998 in order to teach editing and continue her filmmaking, Lewis spent 25 years living in the coalfields of Appalachia. During her long association with the national arts center, Appalshop of Whitesburg, Kentucky, her films were geared toward spurring social change – focusing, for example, on conditions for workers in the coal mining industry and the mistreatment of women in the fast food industry. She met Braden in 1988 in Kentucky, when the activist was the regional leader for the second Jesse Jackson campaign. Braden's lifelong commitment to social justice made her a natural choice for Lewis' oeuvre.
Austin Chronicle: How would you describe what made Anne Braden unique?
Anne Lewis: Braden combined an understanding of race and class in a profound and personal way. As she said, "The hardest thing was class. I don't know that I could have ever broken out of what I call the race prison if I hadn't dealt with class. It's that assumption that is so embedded in you that you don't realize it's there – that your crowd is supposed to be running things." She was both physically and intellectually courageous and engaged in the movement. One example of this courage is when she lead a delegation of white Southern women to Mississippi to protest the legal lynching of Willie McGee in 1951 (they ended up in jail) because, as Angela Davis puts it, white women should not allow themselves to become the occasion of racist attacks on black men. Braden worked to build coalitions and organize from the ground up. She was a thinker, a strategist, and, at the same time, an eloquent leader through the paper she edited, Southern Patriot.
AC: What was she like in person?
AL: Interviewing Anne Braden was fairly dicey. Anne would stall, particularly when she knew that I needed to catch a plane back to Texas. She would finish stuffing envelopes for a mailing, make several phone calls, have conversations with the range of social movement folks at any given moment at the Braden Center, ask about family and friends, drink coffee, and eat a few peanut butter crackers. Finally she [would] put out her cigarette and I could ask the first question. She would ignore it – unless it was something she wanted to talk about anyway – and hold forth in long, complex, and rapidly spoken sentences with multiple asides about books, plays, and other material on the subject. She refused to be reduced to sound bites and would command me to be patient if I tried to steer her in any way. It was rare that I got to ask five questions and perhaps unnecessary to ask even three – Anne said what she had to say fully.
AC: Aside from funding, what were the main challenges of making this film?
AL: It's a film about radical ideas and at the same time it needs to be accessible and powerful emotionally. Moving people in a film about ideas is hard to do. I think Anne explains that difficulty in the beginning (which many folks thought was weak) when she says, "People are more interested in people than in ideas initially, but once they get interested in the people, they'll move on to what the ideas are." Anne died way too soon, and before we were finished. That was a horrible blow both to us and to the film. It was important to keep the film in her voice, in the first person. On a more detailed level, another challenge was dealing with archival material and text without making it phony with camera moves and effects.
AC: Can we talk about your film editing? You've worked over the years with various master editors. Discuss.
AL: I assisted Paul Falkenberg (editor of M); Marcel Ophüls (The Sorrow and the Pity) on A Sense of Loss, about the conflict in northern Ireland; and Marion Kraft, a great breakthrough woman editor who was a refugee from Nazi Germany. The short version is I learned how not to make mistakes from Paul, who edited before Scotch tape (Mylar) was invented; how to make good mistakes from Marion, who always went for the authentic even when it meant her edits were "sloppy"; and how to be confrontational with both enemies and friends from Marcel. But I've also learned a great deal from my peers – folks like Barbara Kopple, Mimi Pickering [who co-directed and produced Anne Braden: Southern Patriot], and all the folks at UT who I won't name because I might leave someone out by accident; from my students; and most of all I've learned from the raw material of the film.
AC: What are some of the earmarks of a well-edited doc?
AL: Well, they don't call it the invisible art for nothing. Imagine experiencing visual displacement every 5 seconds or so. Pretty unpleasant. But at a higher level, if the viewer feels like they have been in the action or in the room with the person being interviewed; if they feel as though they've had the space to explore and not felt the hand of the editor on the back of their necks (to paraphrase Walter Murch); if they remember moments of the film more than its structure or thematic content – that's a well-edited documentary.
Anne Braden: Southern Patriot screens Wednesday, July 18, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. A Q&A with co-director and editor Anne Lewis follows the screening. See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.