Archive | July, 2013

Behind the Scenes at Blackside

19 Jul

Henry Hampton established his Boston-based company Blackside, Inc in 1968, and for thirty years he, and a talented group of producers, directors, cinematographers, writers, and researchers made award-winning documentary films. In the early years of Blackside, Hampton produced numerous films, including public service announcements, government and educational films for a wide variety of organizations.

During the 1970s Blackside made hour-long documentaries including Kinfolks, the story of ten black families living in New Haven, Connecticut, and Code Bluea portrait of African Americans entering the medical field as doctors, in addition to the educational films. Then in 1979 Hampton began making the first incarnation of Eyes on the Prize, which Hampton originally titled, America, They Loved You Madly

The Henry Hampton Collection at the Film & Media Archive also contains photographs and many of them are of Blackside staff and producers during meetings or from interview shoots. Shown here are are a few examples from the early days of Blackside.

Interview with Gordon Parks by Blackside, 1979.

Interview with Gordon Parks by Blackside, 1979.

Blackside interviewed Gordon Parks during the first production period of Eyes on the Prize. 

Henry Hampton with Blackside production crew, circa 1970s.

Henry Hampton with Blackside production crew. (1970s)

Henry Hampton and Andrew Young during his interview for "Eyes on the Prize," 1985.

Henry Hampton and Andrew Young during his interview for Eyes on the Prize. (1985)

Henry Hampton, Orlando Bagwell, and Blackside crew member, 1979.

Henry Hampton, Orlando Bagwell (cameraman), and Blackside crew member during an early shoot for Eyes on the Prize. (1979)

Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement

12 Jul
Interviewees from "Eyes on the Prize." Top row (left to right): Diane Nash, Melba Pattillo Beals, Rosa Parks. Bottom row (left to right): Eliza Briggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Casey Hayden.

Interviewees from “Eyes on the Prize.” Top row (left to right): Diane Nash, Melba Pattillo Beals, Rosa Parks. Bottom row (left to right): Eliza Briggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Casey Hayden.

A recent NPR piece, Mary Hamilton, The Woman Who Put the “Miss” in Court, told the story of Mary Hamilton whose refusal to answer a judge who only referred to her by her first name led to a Supreme Court Case. The final ruling in the case was that people in court deserve to be addressed by titles (Miss, Mrs., or Mr.) regardless of their race or position in society.

Mary Hamilton was a civil rights activist, a Freedom Rider, and  a field organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The article quotes historian Tara White,

Historian Tara White researches women in the civil rights movement. She says part of the reason is that in that time period, women just weren’t in prominent roles. Journalists compounded that by gravitating to male leaders. But White says without women, there would have been no movement.

“The majority of the folks who were doing the day-to-day work were women. The majority of the people who were participating in protest marches and those kinds of things were women,” White says.

While it is true that women were doing the day-to-day administrative work, and participating in mass protests, there were female leaders in the civil rights movement. In fact, in many cases women were the leaders and instigating forces in major milestones in the movement. Jo Ann Robinson organized the initial city-wide boycott in Montgomery sparked by Rosa Park’s action to not move from her seat on the bus.

A young student leader, Diane Nash, was involved in planning and leading marches in the Nashville sit-ins and later the in Freedom Rides. Nash was the person who confronted the mayor of Nashville, Ben West, with the question,  “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” And he was forced to acknowledge that he did feel it was wrong bringing the boycott to a successful conclusion.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) famously confronted the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 by reporting what conditions were like in Mississippi for African Americans and asking,

“All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings – in America?”

In Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton sought to make a documentary that would fully recognize the previously unknown or unacknowledged women and men who made up the movement in addition to the leaders. But it would not be accurate to say that women were not in leadership roles in the civil rights movement. Blackside often interviewed people who had not been recognized in the official history of the civil rights movement. Jo Ann Robinson, for example, had never been interviewed about her pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott before Eyes on the Prize.

The focus on charismatic and important leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X does not cancel out the leadership of the women in the movement. The lack of  historical focus on women’s role in the civil rights movement does leave a large unexplored area of research for enterprising scholars, historians, and writers. The Film & Media Archive holds many primary documents from this era including the interviews mentioned above. For more information see the complete interviews from Eyes on the Prize.

The History of Aspect Ratio in Film

5 Jul

John Hess of  presents an overview of film aspect ratios from the silent film era through the widescreen heyday of the 1950s and 1960s to digital cameras being used today.

In a previous post, we explored aspect ratio, but Hess gives a more detailed history explaining the technical aspects and showing examples from various films including Lawrence of Arabia and North By Northwest. Explaining the technical changes through examples and visuals this video gives a good overview of the main aspect ratios that have been used over the years by filmmakers and how they were adopted by the industry. Aspect ratio is a technical consideration for filmmakers but can also influence the framing, the cinematography, and the overall effect of the film.

Aspect ratio is usually not the first thing a viewer thinks about when they are watching a film, but it can create a different feeling that goes beyond just the look of the film. Films that feature wide horizons or grand landscapes such as Lawrence of Arabia, North By Northwest, or westerns such as Shane seem well suited to a widescreen format. A more personal intimate drama might be more suited to the 4:3 aspect ratio which has less space. Jean Luc Goddard used the more square frame of the 4:3 aspect ratio in his film First Name: Carmen, and Ingmar Bergman used the European equivalent of 1.33:1 (actually 1.37:1) for his claustrophobic drama Persona.

Although more filmmakers are gravitating towards the widescreen format the 4:3 ratio can often be a preferred choice as it is for Andrea Arnold (dir.  Wuthering Heights, 2012). In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Arnold explained why she chose that aspect ratio for her film,

I wasn’t intending to do that and then we did some tests and one roll we looked at we went straight onto the projector in the cinema. It was 4:3. I thought it looked so beautiful and knew I wanted to do that…It is not a popular format…I loved the fact that it’s the entire 35mm negative, you’re not cutting anything off. It’s square like the negative. There is something honest about that. It’s like you’re projecting the negative, it’s there, there it is, you’re not doing anything else to it, that’s the way it is. I think it’s also a very beautiful frame for one person. It is a portrait frame. My films are generally from the point of view of one person. I think it’s a very respectful frame. I keep using the word respect and I don’t know why I keep saying that, but that’s what it feels like to me when I look at somebody framed in a 4:3 frame. It makes them really important. The landscape doesn’t take it from them. They’re not small in the middle of something. It gives them real respect and importance. It’s a very human frame, I think. I think that’s the main reason. I don’t know, but I think. You can also see more sky, but I think the other one is the real reason.

In the end the choice of aspect ratio is an aesthetic as well as a technical choice. Being aware of all the options and the different effects gives a filmmaker more choices.