The 1987 civil rights documentary emerges from a long period of unavailability.
By Scott Timberg
April 3, 2010
Its basic outlines are familiar to even the most casual student of
American history: the marches, the mass arrests, the church bombings.
But seeing the actual footage that makes up "Eyes on the Prize" --
the heralded documentary about the civil rights movement, coming to
DVD for the first time -- can still startle for its rawness and drama.
Seeing a suspender-clad man describe how his 14-year-old nephew,
Emmett Till, was kidnapped and killed by Mississippi racists for
allegedly whistling at a white woman, or watching teenage girls in
cardigans walk past angry mobs to attend their Alabama school makes
not only for powerful history, but gripping television.
"What we were trying to do was a people's history," says Orlando
Bagwell, one of the project's original filmmakers. "Giving multiple
points of view, enlarging the story. Most of the existing work had
been done from a media point of view -- from journalists, most of
whom were white -- not from the marchers and the other people involved."
"Eyes" was created and executive produced by Henry Hampton, who died
in 1998. "He wanted to do films that were basically objective but
that got people to look at sensitive subjects," says Judi Hampton,
Henry's sister and president of Blackside, the production company he founded.
The documentary -- subtitled "America's Civil Rights Years" -- is set
in the Deep South from 1954 to 1965, when the fight for black civil
rights was at its fiercest.
"Was this the start of a new Civil War?" asks narrator Julian Bond in
the first segment, which looks at the murder of Till, the bus boycott
sparked by Rosa Parks and the emergence of the young Martin Luther King Jr.
Though long considered a classic, the program, first broadcast on PBS
in 1987, has been largely out of circulation because of difficulty
securing the rights to its footage, photography and music. But the
series is now playing on PBS, and a three-DVD set will be available
for purchase Tuesday.
"Eyes" makes an impact even on students who find history unreachable,
says Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at UCLA. The program
connects especially with international students, he says, for whom
the boycotts, protests and riots are literally taking place in a
"But when they watch it, they get it," says Hunt, also director of
the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. "The
interviews, the images -- they make it accessible to them."
A long march
Given the stop-start movement of the early civil rights struggle,
with its small setbacks and apparent defeats, it's fitting that the
development of "Eyes on the Prize" followed similar contours.
The program grew out of a documentary made for the now-defunct
Capital Cities network (ABC's former parent company), which sent
Henry Hampton to the South in the late '70s.
"The first series was very tight, we had very little money," recalls
Bagwell, who served as a cameraman for the project. "Henry made it
out of fumes." The network rejected the result, saying it wanted a
documentary focused more on the heroes of the movement.
But a few years later, thanks to funding from PBS and others, the
project started up again, and it was assembled in the mid-'80s --
decades after the events documented. Still, Hampton wanted to immerse
his filmmakers in the story and its emotional stakes.
"He brought us together first to attend what he called a school,"
says Bagwell, "to listen to people from very different perspectives
within the movement."
The filmmakers heard from marchers, historians of the period and
members of various activist groups -- King's Southern Christian
Leadership Council, the more grassroots Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee -- who often disagreed. The emphasis on
multiple points of view carried through to the resulting program.
Along with the period footage, "Eyes on the Prize" includes then-new
interviews with participants reflecting on the '50s and '60s,
including some segregationists looking back at the so-called
agitators who came down South. "Many had on hippie uniforms and
conducted themselves in hippie ways," says Citizens' Council leader
William J. Simmons. "The arrogance they showed, in wanting to reform
a whole state and the way they wanted it to be, created resentment."
Another goal of Hampton's "schools" was to nail down the facts of the
period as cleanly as possible. "We didn't want to construct a
history," says Bagwell, "but to let the interviews and footage tell it."
Waking the past
In the course of it all, the "Eyes" filmmakers ran into significant
problems licensing distribution rights to archival materials, such as
footage, stills and music, contained in the series. The rights to
many of these were very expensive, so the filmmakers could only
acquire limited distribution rights.
By early 2000, many of the rights had expired, and "Eyes" became
unavailable for broadcast and other distribution. But several forces
-- including Blackside and Bagwell, who is now director of the media,
arts and culture unit at the Ford Foundation -- set about to bring it
back to public television and educational distribution, and
eventually the consumer market.
The first six hours of "Eyes" ends in 1965 after a triumphant,
King-led march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., President Lyndon
Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Bill, and the fragmenting of
unity as a more militant activist strain developed. The burning of
Watts that summer, Bond's narration concludes, "signaled a new
direction for the movement."
A second program, broadcast on PBS in 1990 as "Eyes on the Prize II:
America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985)," picked up the tale,
but those rights are still unsecured.
The film offers a series of lessons, according to Judi Hampton. "One
lesson is that an individual -- even one without resources -- can
make a huge difference. I think young people need to see how key
students were in this movement."
To Hunt, the documentary remains powerful and direct, but the
struggle it recounts remains in some ways unfinished. The push for
racial equality had its triumphs, but the fight to lift minorities
out of poverty has not been won, he says.
"If you look at statistics today, you see that the [income] gaps are
just as wide as they used to be," Hunt says. "The movement never got there.
"So we're locked in this system where inequality is a fact of life,"
he laments, "though at the same time we have a black president. The
more things change, the more they stay the same."