Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From Tuesday, Aug. 13 through Wednesday, Aug. 28, BAMcinématek presents A Time for Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement, a 40-film series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The series covers the civil rights movement from the end of World War II to the historic 1963 march and the waves of legislation that passed in the years after. Culled from 28 private film and television archives, collectors, studios and the New York Public Library, these films create a picture of what is often called the heroic era of the movement, with rarely screened documentaries and archival footage alongside Hollywood classics, revolutionary independent films, agitprop and incendiary exploitation movies.
Opening the series on the 13th is the New York premiere of a new 35mm restoration of King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis (1970), a chronicle of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., from the early days of his civil rights activism to his eventual assassination. Originally released in theaters as a one-night-only event, this documentary, which was produced and compiled by Ely Landau, was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress, thus being inducted into the National Film Registry. Featuring narration by luminaries including Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Anthony Quinn and Joanne Woodward, King “is fierce, violent, tender, hopeful and…above all, it is a compelling reminder that much remains to be done” (The Washington Post).
While King is a microcosm of the series itself, by blending documentary newsreel footage of King with interpretations by Hollywood figures of the day, it is no coincidence that A Time for Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement traces the history of mid-century documentary filmmaking, from Leo Hurwitz's attempt to extend the agitprop of the Great Depression and World War II into the postwar era (and his subsequent blacklisting), to George Stoney, James Blue, and Charles Guggenheim's progressive work within the United States Information Agency, to Direct Cinema. The earliest film in the series, Hurwitz and Paul Strand's docudrama Native Land (1942—Aug. 14) is a harrowing commentary on American labor struggles and the fascism within our own borders. Called "one of the most powerful and disturbing documentary films ever made" (Bosley Crowther, The New York Times), it is emblematic of a style of filmmaking that emerged during that turbulent era—one that recurs throughout the series.
At the time, African-Americans had little access to the cinematic tools necessary to tell their own stories. Early progressive attempts included the addition of African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson’s narration in the aforementioned Native Land, and legendary documentarian, public access television pioneer, and “prophet for social change at the barrel of a camera” (Paul Vitello, The New York Times), George Stoney’s collaboration with black midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley in the film All My Babies (1952—Aug. 20), a glimpse at segregated life in Georgia produced by the state’s department of public health. Babies, along with Stoney’s Palmour Street (1957), screen on archival 16mm prints courtesy of the New York Public Library, and the program features an introduction by library archivists David Callahan and Elena Rossi-Snook.
Many documentaries produced for television, government, and other organizations were often met with surprise and hostility for their radical political perspectives. James Blue’s The March (1964—Aug 28), the quintessential record of the historic day, was produced by the United States Information Agency, but did not screen in the U.S. until 20 years later, when it was unearthed for a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday at Houston’s Rothko Chapel. William Greaves was commissioned to make a documentary for public television depicting the black middle class, or “good negroes,” but instead crafted a narrative of the black revolution and the changing public consciousness with Still a Brother (1968—Aug 27), which was later nominated for an Emmy Award. William Jersey’s incendiary film A Time for Burning (1966—Aug. 21) was sponsored by the Lutheran church and follows a minister’s ill-fated experiment to unite 10 couples from his congregation with 10 from an African-American church in the area. Jersey will appear in person for a Q&A following the screening of this “invaluable snapshot of an all-American place and time caught in the ragged throes of cultural growth” (Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice), showing in a restored 35mm print courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Conversely, some institutions attempted to embrace radicalism. The Kennedy administration gave Robert Drew unprecedented access to the White House and the homes of Robert F. Kennedy and George Wallace for Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963—Aug. 16), which followed the integration crisis at the University of Alabama for several days with a rare insider perspective—one of the first landmark examples of Direct Cinema. Crisis screens with The Children Were Watching (1961), Drew's New Orleans-set school desegregation short, and the program will be followed by a Q&A with D.A. Pennebaker, "a legend in the world of documentary filmmaking…a pioneer in the art of cinéma vérité," (Melissa Silvestri, Filmmaker Magazine), who collaborated with Drew on Crisis and other works. Pennebaker and many of his peers, including Drew, Shirley Clarke, Madeline Anderson, and the Maysles brothers, shared an office and worked in artist communities that revolutionized the form through collaboration.
William Greaves' Black Journal—a broadcast news program for African-Americans by African-Americans—was a launching pad for the explosion of black independent filmmaking in the 1970s and an essential first job for many black film technicians. A selection of segments screen as part of The Best of Black Journal (Aug. 27) program, including Robert Wagoner's Culture in the South, St. Clair Bourne's Black Dance, and Anderson's A Tribute to Malcolm X. Also screening in A Time for Burning is a Madeline Anderson shorts program (Aug. 22), featuring A Tribute to Malcolm X; Integration Report 1, a collection of footage of demonstrations leading up to the first march attempt and shot by the Maysles; and her renowned I Am Somebody (1970), which was commissioned by the Hospital Workers’ Union and documents the plight of 400 Charleston hospital employees (all but 12 were women) who went on strike in 1969.
With greater access to movie-making resources from the late 1960s onward, many black filmmakers looked back and made films that showed a different perspective of the events that white documentarians had covered. St. Clair Bourne’s Let the Church Say Amen! (1974—Aug. 21) examines the church’s role in politics and identity, and Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969—Aug. 18) is a semi-autobiographical account of a teenager’s confrontation with racism in the 1920s—the first Hollywood studio film directed by an African-American filmmaker. This 35mm screening is co-presented by the Warner Archive Collection.
Beyond the world of documentary, the civil rights movement was also reflected in Hollywood studio productions and exploitation films. Where the Hollywood productions espoused progressive and liberal ideas about race, the exploitation titles channeled the era’s social turmoil into low-brow genre motifs. Among the Hollywood films screening in this series are Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962—Aug 18), which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including a Best Actor nod for Gregory Peck’s heroic performance as Atticus Finch; Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959—Aug. 23), the first film noir to feature a black protagonist (Harry Belafonte), boasting a score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet; and Daniel Petrie’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961—Aug. 25), a film adaptation of the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962—Aug 20), also known as I Hate Your Guts! andShame, stars William Shatner in one of his first major roles as a racist extremist who incites the townspeople to oppose a school’s integration. The Intruder screens with Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning short Nine from Little Rock (1964). Lastly, godfather of gore Herschell Gordon Lewis’ exploitation nightmare Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) screens Aug.24, exposing a “Confederate Brigadoon” where Yankee tourists are lured and forced to engage in increasingly inventive and gruesome activities that lead to their grisly deaths—repayment for the killing of Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.
On Wednesday, August 28—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—the series closes with a March on Washington shorts program, featuring four candid portraits of the civil rights movement. Cuban agitprop master Santiago Álvarez’s Now! (1965) is a powerful attack on American discrimination, setting emotional newsreel footage and photographs to the lyrics of the eponymous Lena Horne song, which had been banned in the US for its frank commentary on civil rights. Also screening are Haskell Wexler’s The Bus (1965), in which the radical filmmaker travels to the march with a San Francisco delegation; James Blue’s The March (1964), which concludes with the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech; and Ed Emshwiller’s Freedom March (1963), a rare color snapshot of the march filmed from the crowd’s perspective.