Henry Hampton's production company turns 25
Originally published in Current,
July 13, 1993
In June 1993, a week after Henry Hampton received CPB's Ralph Lowell Award, recognizing his outstanding contributions to public TV, Hampton's production company, Blackside Inc., quietly passed a milestone the 25th anniversary of its founding.
Interviewed the next day in Blackside's office in the South End of Boston, Hampton was still contemplating how to commemorate the coming of age of a company that represents his life's work and his deep belief in community. "Before people go on vacation, we might have a little gathering and celebrate it," he said. "I think we celebrate it with the work."
Hampton and his family of filmmakers have a lot of work to celebrate. Next month, public TV will rebroadcast both of Blackside's ground-breaking Eyes on the Prize series. In October, PBS will premiere Blackside's third major series, The Great Depression. Next winter, the American Experience will debut "Malcolm X: Make It Plain," a two-hour film biography, now in its final editing stages.
And, after decades of scraping together funds to keep his film projects going, Hampton is launching production of an almost fully funded series, America's War on Poverty. "What always astonishes me about Henry is that he keeps dreaming up projects that Blackside has never done before," said Steve Fayer, a writer for the company who helped develop the original Eyes on the Prize concept in the 1970s. "Why isn't he content to sit on his laurels for a while?"
Perhaps the answer to that question is that, like many people who work for him, Hampton has a social purpose in portraying history on film.
"If there's a goal for all this ..., it is that we just simply believe that an enlightened, empowered citizenry is in everybody's interest," said Hampton.
Not known for mincing her words, Judy Richardson, director of education for Blackside, put it more directly at the Telling the Story conference on historical film in Boston this spring. Richardson was an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement, and she sees Eyes on the Prize as "a tool for actively involving people in creating positive social change."
"It never is just a movie," Richardson said. Film and television "shape our world view--how we see ourselves and others."
Such purposes do not lend themselves to easy television. Hampton likes to use the word "messy" to describe the stories of American history that Blackside puts on film.
"[P]eople want neat, fully told stories with proper conclusions and everybody goes out the door relatively happy," said Hampton. "That's not always possible with this kind of film. And so, in some ways, it's helping the audience redefine its viewing responses--to help an audience understand that going through messy history may take a little more energy, a little more effort, and a little more risk.
Big, messy history
If you're wondering how Hampton chose the Great Depression as topic of Blackside's next major series, one reason was the opportunity "to show that Blackside was a company that had always been telling about American history," said Fayer. "To call Eyes 'black history' is a misnomer; it was about the greatest social movement of this century."
Hampton also has a keen interest in "the big stories of what shaped us as a nation," said Judith Vecchione, series senior producer for Eyes I. "His vision of that is very people-oriented ... not simply leaders and politicians but people's lives."
The 1930s Depression held all of those attractions--great tales of individual struggle, social experimentation and the evolution of American democracy. "Here is a time in America when people decided America was worth saving and decided to try and save it," said Jon Else, series producer for Eyes, who also made the first film in The Great Depression.
Rooted within the period also are the first rumblings of the civil rights movement, including the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union struggle to establish protection for rural workers a story told in the series' fifth episode.
To Hampton, The Great Depression and much of Blackside's work deal with questions of citizenship and government, such as "what are the responsibilities of government to its citizens and vice versa--what are the responsibilities that the citizens have to make a government and a democracy work?"
Coming full circle
Blackside's fourth major series, America's War on Poverty, will follow the civil rights movement as it shifts into a national policy arena that originated in the New Deal, Hampton observed.
Each of these series "helps generate the other, and they kick back on themselves," said Hampton. " 'Malcolm X' is part of it because there are these larger-than-life characters who pop up on the American landscape." His "true contributions are now coming to light."
Since the beginning of Hampton's filmmaking career, he made a commitment to "growing" young producers, especially minority producers; he worked against great odds to keep Blackside's early productions afloat financially.
With "Malcolm X: Make It Plain," however, Blackside is moving into a new generation as an independent production institution. It won start-up funding for the biography because of its reputation, built in large part on Eyes. The documentary has been produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell, an African-American from the Eyes I team who is executive v.p. of Blackside and has achieved recognition as a filmmaker in his own right, with films made for American Experience and Frontline. And Malcolm X's life is one of the many stories from Eyes that Blackside had long hoped to document in greater detail.
Blackside began developing the documentary after the executive producer of The American Experience, Judy Crichton, proposed the topic to Hampton and Bagwell. "They came in and put up first money, a significant grant to get started, and we were so eager to do it we said, 'We'll find a way with your money to make this happen, even if we have to work for nothing'," recalled Bagwell. Funding later came in from CPB, the Ford Foundation, and Camille and Bill Cosby.
Crichton was impressed with the results. After seeing a partial rough cut of "Malcolm X" during last month's public TV annual meeting in New Orleans, Crichton shared her editorial comments with Hampton. "I told him it was the first half of one of the most magnificent film biographies I've ever seen," Crichton said later.
She and Margaret Drain, American Experience senior producer, "wanted a film on Malcolm since the series began," explained Crichton. But because the late African-American leader's life was "such a sophisticated subject, until we found the right people to produce it, we were not willing to take it on."
"This is not a film that could be taken lightly or done in an abbreviated period of time," she added.
Hampton is executive producer of "Malcolm X" for Blackside; Bagwell, producer/director/writer; and Richardson, coproducer.
"We need you to make it with us"
Success of the project hinged on the participation of Malcolm X's family and colleagues, many of whom had never before agreed to interviews. And gaining that access proved to be difficult.
"Malcolm's a person and a figure in history that a lot of people carry very close to them," said Bagwell, who also heads his own company, ROJA Productions. "Other people feel very uncomfortable with him. And they feel uncomfortable with what they feel, what they might say about him. At the same time, there are a lot of questions still unanswered about his death.... So there're a lot of people who just decided because of how traumatic it was and difficult it was for them at that time, they decided not to talk about it."
Making matters touchier, when production of Blackside's documentary got underway, Spike Lee's dramatic portrayal of Malcolm X's life already had generated widespread controversy. "There was a lot of uncertainty about what [Lee's film] would be and the impact of what that would mean to us," Bagwell continued. "We kind of walked into all that and said, 'Well, look, we're not writing a script or making our own film, we need you to make it with us.' "
"It took a while for people to trust us and sit down and talk honestly and openly about it and to feel comfortable that we would handle what was very important to them and be responsible with it."
Once that trust was earned, drawing out family members' memories also took time. Richardson recalled a film shoot in Detroit, where Malcolm X's brother Wilford Little was scheduled to be interviewed on camera. When Little was late to arrive, Bagwell called him and discovered that he couldn't bring himself to get in the car and drive to the shoot. "It probably took about two-and-a-half to three hours before Wilford acutally showed," said Richardson. "He talked for a long time once he got there."
In talking with people who were closest to Malcolm X, Richardson was struck by how "he absolutely lives with them now. He is present with them now."
"They talk about how the public Malcolm--the one that's up there--is very different from the way he will relate to you one-on-one," said Richardson.
The "Malcolm X" production team now is in the throes of editing--for Bagwell the "long-distance race" of filmmaking.
Though he had planned to structure the film chronologically, this summer he's changed his approach, according to Hampton. "It's getting there. It's a big story, a tough story, but I think he's got a handle on it now."
Tinkering with process
That Hampton would not be in the editing room guiding his producer/director says as much about Hampton's style as an executive producer as it does about the filmmaking skills of the "Malcolm X" team.
"Henry knows what he likes and he's not going to let anything he doesn't like on the screen," said Else. "But he's not the kind of executive producer who wants to be with you in the editing room every day. He does back off and let us hang ourselves, and when we do, we hear about it from him."
What makes Hampton an "extraordinary" executive producer, according to Philadelphia-based filmmaker Louis Massiah, are his concerns about history and craft. "When you think of top producers at a lot of stations who are concerned about craft, he's way, way up there."
Hampton requires that his producers adhere to a process--one in which members of the production team collectively review each other's work, but that also gives them enough freedom to make films they consider their own.
With each series, Hampton does what he calls "tinkering" with his filmmaking "model"--the structure and process of his production staff.
In the first Eyes series, two "very strong" films were made by a production team--Jim DeVinney and Callie Crossley--that was mixed by race and gender, observed an Eyes II producer, Paul Steckler. Hampton adopted the structure for Eyes II, which picked up the saga of the civil rights movement after 1965.
Each production team--mixed black/white and male/female--produced two films for the sequel series. Fayer said the decision "proved to be very valuable, but in the process cost a lot of money."
"Because of the political edge of the Eyes II material and the intensity of it, I just believed, going in, it would be better to have people reflecting those points of view internally to a team, so that things would be resolved before it got to the film stage," explained Hampton.
For The Great Depression and America's War on Poverty, Hampton scaled back to a less expensive model. Single producers, each with an associate producer, are making one film apiece (though one team is contributing two Great Depression programs). Terry Rockefeller, who coproduced two films for Eyes II with Massiah, is series producer for both productions.
One of the shortcomings of the black/white balance on Eyes II production teams was that it did not allow for much involvment by Latinos, Asian-Americans or Native Americans, according to Massiah, who, like many African-American filmmakers who coproduced for Eyes II, temporarily moved to Boston to work on the series.
The set-up of black-white/male-female teams assumed that "the civil rights movement can only be understood through that kind of black/white polarity," said Massiah. "It also assumes that if one is white, one will automatically take the white-racist point of view. If one is male, one will take the male-sexist point of view." Neither assumption is true, he said, "because people want to think of themselves as progressive."
Else, who is white, declares himself a "big fan" of the Eyes II model. No matter how well-intentioned a white male might be, if he's producing and directing a film alone "he's not going to see other cultural perspectives," he said. It would be the same for an Asian-American woman or anyone working alone, he added. "I've seen it happen again and again."
"Diversity as part of the methodology to me is very important, and I think it really worked," added Else. Coproducers of films for Eyes II "kept each other honest."
"Race relations is a contentious subject. It's the primary American dynamic," said Massiah. "To be doing a film on it, and also to be working on it with someone, there's a good chance there's going to be some tension unless you really have space and time to work things through and understand where people are coming from."
"Making films is very, very hard--even with people you know very well," said Steckler, a former academic whose filmmaking career took off after he worked on Eyes II. As a white man, his experience coproducing two Eyes II films with Jackie Shearer "really opened up my eyes in terms of seeing different perspectives, looking for those perspectives ... "
He recalled working on the "The Promised Land," an Eyes II film about Martin Luther King's last year. Steckler wanted to talk to male leaders who had been close to Dr. King; Shearer wanted to interview grassroots women.
"It's a much harder process--you have to think harder, you have to talk to more people," Steckler added."But, as hard as it was--and it was really, really hard, not only professionally but also personally--I think it was worthwhile, I think it made for better shows in a lot of ways."
"I'm not truly of the belief that you have to suffer for your art, but work takes its toll on people, and oftentimes good work really takes its toll on people," said Massiah. "In retrospect, I understand some of those demands."
"Nobody ever said that working at Blackside was easy," said Else. "It's a staggering burden to make a film you care so much about that you're not about to let it be second rate, but it's perpetually underfunded."
"I've never worked anywhere that's more difficult to work at than Blackside," he added. "I'd also not trade it for the world."
Web page posted Sept.
12, 1995, revised Nov. 21, 2002