'True South' and the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement

True South functions as a reminder of how great and important Eyes on the Prize is, and why it remains essential.

True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series that Reframed the Civil Rights Movement

Publisher: Viking
Length: 404 pages
Author: Jon Else
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-01

Dorothy Cotton was none too pleased with us young folk.

We’d been making a stink all summer, during our internship at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, about not wanting to hear not one more tale about the bad old days of the Civil Rights Movement as much as working on the here and now. Cotton, a veteran of those bad old days as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s head of voter education, was trying to tell us to take those stories more seriously, to look beyond the heroics of Dr. King and all the other great men (and yes, the history handed to us in those days included all men and no women) and understand the second-liners and foot soldiers who toiled beyond the TV cameras to achieve profound societal change.

We ended up reaching a tentative détente to make it through the internship without imploding everything. Years later, I wonder if each side wasn’t so emotionally invested in our respective strands of self-righteousness -- they with their need for validation (and perhaps some after-the-fact shine), us with our need for building on the war stories we’d already fully ingested -- that we ended up talking past each other, and missed an opportunity for real learning and exchange.

But at least Cotton and her colleagues got a large dose of that validation years later, with the 1987 PBS broadcast of Eyes on the Prize, an eye-opening documentary series on the pivotal moments of the movement, from Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 to the Selma conflagrations ten years later. The six-part series didn’t assume prior knowledge of the history as much as find a new way to tell it -- through the voices of those very second-liners and foot soldiers Cotton tried to get us to acknowledge.

True South, Jon Else’s thorough telling of the Eyes story, celebrates another set of foot soldiers: the ones who created Eyes on the Prize.

It begins with Henry Hampton, a polio survivor who was among the Selma marchers in 1965. Hampton, a child of St. Louis’ black middle class, was in Selma representing the Unitarian Universalist Association as its director of information. On this occasion, two days after the “Bloody Sunday” brutality, Hampton had an epiphany: “Someday someone is going to make a great story of this,” Else reports Hampton thinking to himself, “This is going to make great television.”

But first, Hampton had to learn the television ropes. He parlayed his PR experience with the Unitarians into doing pieces and occasional hosting for a black public affairs program on Boston’s public TV station in the late ‘60s. He had already filed papers to create Blackside, Inc., a corporation out to produce films about the black experience. Blackside picked up some industrial and government film work, and Hampton set about building his first team. Blackside slowly built up a nice portfolio during the ‘70s (and a matching set of collection notices as well), but Hampton eventually tired of contract work, and started thinking big.

He went back to his Selma epiphany, and in 1978 got seed money from Capital Cities Communications, which was about to merge with ABC Television, to produce a two-hour documentary on the Civil Rights Movement, America, We Loved You Madly, to be aired prime-time. The Blackside team headed south, to film as many activists from the movement as they could locate (and convince to sit down for an interview). But the project never gelled, Cap Cities/ABC wanted something far different from what Blackside was shooting, and nothing ever came of the project.

Well, not exactly. The failed experience turned out to be the genesis of Eyes on the Prize.

That almost didn’t get off the ground either. Hampton turned to PBS this time, took on some experienced advisors, and still had to sweat bullets until the foundation checks came in. Else explains Hampton’s brilliant conception for both the show and its making. Each episode would be overseen by a pair of producers (one male, one female, one white, one black). Hampton dispensed with an on-screen narrator (Julian Bond performed that role in America, We Loved You Madly, and offscreen in Eyes on the Prize), and opted to let the interviews and archive footage tell the story. The goal wasn’t to recite a staid chronology of events, but to capture the emotional arc of the key moments and battles.

Else, Eyes on the Prize’ series producer and cinematographer, chronicles how challenging that work was, and its eventual payoff. Eyes on the Prize, widely acclaimed and eventually beloved, received a pair of Academy Award nominations, and set many of the participants off on their own careers. It also put Blackside in a fine position too. Hampton produced a sequel covering the post-civil rights years, and several other documentaries about black life in America.

We’ve all seen the grainy photos and footage: white mobs screaming at black children trying to enter a previously all-white school, black protesters assaulted with water cannons, Dr. King at the Washington Monument. Eyes on the Prize transcended all that in three important ways. First, it gave as much time to the everyday people who stood up for themselves as the leaders and strategists who skillfully orchestrated the tactics. It brought together extant footage from all over the globe into one unified package (the revolution might not be televised, but the Civil Rights Movement was, and by many outlets). Finally, it brought an epic American story back to life at just the moment when it was beginning to fade from our collective memory. (Indeed, many of the hoped-for interview subjects were either gone or no longer well, and some important footage was rescued at the last minute.)

Eyes on the Prize itself almost faded from memory, even as stations routinely re-aired it every Black History Month. Blackside negotiated short-term rights for all the period music it incorporated, but not long-term rights, and Eyes on the Prize was thus unable to be aired for many years after those temporary rights expired. By the early ‘00s, it was all but impossible to find a copy of the series on a decent videocassette. It took several more years, some nascent internet activism, and large grants to secure all the clearances in perpetuity. (That trouble actually began with King’s family, with what would be their first salvo in their campaign to retain the intellectual property rights to the filming of the “I Have a Dream” speech and his other writings. Hampton ended up going to court against the Kings, and achieved a settlement for use of the footage.)

Else tells the remarkable story in vivid detail, with some detours into the actual movement history, his own activism in the South in the ‘60s, and the back-and-forth between his Eyes on the Prize work and his career in Hollywood. We get to know many of the individual personalities that managed to make Eyes on the Prize happen even if they didn’t know when the next paycheck would happen. But above them all is Hampton, driven by a passion to tell black people’s stories, and in a singular and pioneering way at that. For anyone more likely to think of Ken Burns than Hampton (or Burns and no one else) when considering historical documentaries, True South sets a proper context.

Else recommends watching Eyes on the Prize to fully appreciate True South. That’s true, but every American ought to watch it whether or not they read his book. True South functions as a reminder of how great and important Eyes on the Prize is, and why it remains essential. As much as we King Center interns learned about the movement, we would have better understood what our elders were trying to tell us had Eyes on the Prize been around back then.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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