The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.
The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.Continue Reading
Eyes on the Prize
The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.
Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.Continue Reading