Blackside Inc. falters on Hamptons last series
Originally published in Current,
Feb. 11, 2002
In a hotel ballroom full of public TV executives last summer, Veva Zimmerman introduced a clip from This Far By Faith, the last major series conceived by her younger brother, the late Henry Hampton, and his production team at Blackside Inc.
"This is a story that too many black people take for granted, and a story that too many whites know nothing about," she said. Zimmerman spoke movingly of her family's vow to continue and extend Hampton's work, which included Eyes on the Prize, the landmark PBS series on the civil rights movement.
But turmoil in Hampton's Boston-based company since his death in 1998 have jeopardized completion of the six-part series on the African-American religious experience as well as the future of the indie production house known for its powerful documentaries about race and social justice in America.
Zimmerman and Judi Hampton, sisters who inherited Blackside, recently down-scaled the company to bare-bones operations and are struggling to pay off debts accrued during production of their brother's last two documentary projects. Hopes on the Horizon, a two-hour documentary on democratic movements in Africa, aired on PBS last February. This Far By Faith, which was to have aired this month, is stalled in postproduction.
The Blackside staff that shared Henry Hampton's standards and vision for documentary filmmaking has disbanded, although June Cross, a talented African-American filmmaker who produced one program in This Far By Faith, is managing completion of the series.
"I've assumed the burden of raising the money and trying to get the series moving again," said Cross, a visiting professor of journalism at Columbia University and former <I>Frontline<I> producer. She is trying to raise $350,000 to pay for rights, finishing and fine-tuning a few episodes, and packaging the series for broadcast.
The Hampton family's Blackside Inc., meanwhile, is responsible for settling past production expenses, Cross said. The company owes back pay and reimbursements to its producers and former staff, rights fees to film archives, and debts to other vendors.
"We want to finish Faith and get Eyes rebroadcast, and that will help to bring in income," said Judi Hampton, the youngest Hampton sibling, who is now president of Blackside. The company does not have enough cash flow, she acknowledged, but she's working to meet its unpaid obligations. "I'm doing the best I can," she said.
An institution gone
It's unclear how much money Blackside owes to creditors, but the company's financial plight is a source of anger and sadness for those who worked for Henry Hampton.
"For me, it is so important that this last series gets aired," said Judy Richardson, a veteran of the civil rights movement who joined the company in 1978. "It really is the last of his legacy." Richardson, a key Blackside figure who was regarded with respect and affection by the staff, was fired in April 1999 when she returned to work while recuperating from major surgery. She insists that her decision to talk publicly about the Blackside's dire situation is "not about me."
"Henry was always talking about speaking truth to power, and he was one of the few black people in public broadcasting that people would listen to," she said. Hampton knew how important it was to establish Blackside as a place where young black and white producers could "do their best work."
"They destroyed something that exists nowhere else at this point," she said. "Blackside as an institution is gone."
Blackside veterans said the company's inheritors didn't appreciate the company's special qualities and how it worked. They didn't grasp the fragile economics of documentary production or attend to the continuous need to develop new projects as others moved through production and broadcast, producers said. Key managers who helped sustain Blackside in Henry Hampton's last years left the company as the sisters opted to pursue revenues from commercial or industrial film production.
"Those of us who had worked there felt they . . . didn't understand what it meant to be working at Blackside," said Terry Rockefeller, executive producer of Hopes on the Horizon and other major Blackside series. It had taken decades to create an institution that nurtured minority producers while creating powerful documentaries on social history. "We didn't want to turn around and start making industrials."
"There is a lot of anger out there--how could you not have anger when you have an organization about which people felt as passionate as they did?" said Judy Crichton, founding executive producer of American Experience. She agreed to serve on a Blackside advisory board convened by Zimmerman, but hasn't been able to participate actively. "I respect the anger but I don't know whether it could have been avoided. You see that kind of anger any time you change a beloved institution."
Trying to make it work
A December feature in the Boston Globe tapped this wellspring of anger to describe Blackside's downward spiral, but Judi Hampton insists that the company is "alive and well."
She acknowledged that she's made mistakes in managing her brother's last project, which has been "a challenge to say the least." But she speaks optimistically about June Cross's work to complete This Far By Faith, and about the company's long-term prospects.
Judi Hampton said her plan for Blackside to produce training videos was not a new direction for the company but an attempt to generate consistent revenues. As a professional development trainer, she saw a way to marry her own expertise with Blackside's story- and issue-driven production techniques. "To me it was a natural blending of my current focus and Blackside's expertise."
Her brother never told her of his intention to leave the company to her and Zimmerman. "My sister and I looked at the films that were in house, and the hard work that people had put in. We talked to funders and tried to make it work and finish the films and carry on the business."
"We never pretended to be filmmakers, and we hired some people who didn't work out," she said, referring to two different executives who were recruited to run Blackside. The search for a filmmaker capable of running the business continues.
"What we want to do is focus on the work and getting each project done, and keeping Blackside going."
As she sees it, her brother's legacy continues with the work of all those who "went through Blackside, the interns, the producers," and others who bring Henry Hampton's sensibilities to their own work. "We're proud of that."
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