Archive | December, 2014

Early Bert Williams Film Added to the National Film Registry

19 Dec
Cabinet card image of American minstrel performer Bert Williams (1874-1922). TCS 1.1120, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

Cabinet card image of American minstrel performer Bert Williams (1874-1922). TCS 1.1120, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

The 2014 National Film Registry list has been released and among the films to be preserved is an early feature-length unreleased film by Bert Williams, a vaudeville performer, and the first African-American to headline on Broadway. Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), is thought to be the earliest surviving film featuring African-Americans and was lost for many years. Williams was featured in the first episode of Blackside’s documentary series on African-Americans in the arts, I’ll Make Me a World. In the episode Lift Every Voice, Henry Hampton explored the careers of Williams and his partner George Walker who were performing within a racist minstrel tradition, whilst still infusing their work with genuine elements of black culture.

A recent article in Sight and Sound told the story of how the seven reels of unidentified footage was discovered at MOMA in New York. The silent footage which contains multiple takes of a film featuring Williams and numerous other African-American performers was apparently never released. Iris Barry, the first film curator of MOMA had obtained the footage in 1939 from the Biograph studio. Williams’ partner George Walker had died by the time the film was being made, and MOMA has done extensive research on the film as part of their exhibit, 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History.

The footage is now being preserved and has been edited together and screened as well. The film which was titled Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day by the curators is a comedy featuring middle-class black characters at social events and fairs, and draws comedy and pathos from Williams’ pursuit of the leading lady, Odessa Warren Grey.

Ron Magliozzi, the curator at MOMA, was able to research the cast and crew of the film, many of whom were part of the Harlem arts community pre-1920.

It eventually transpired that much of the cast had emerged from a little-known group of Harlem artists who, for years, had their events (concerts, carnivals, exhibitions) covered in the Age. The curator finds this particularly exciting, with good reason: “It brings to the world’s attention this… small community that’s pre-Harlem Renaissance, and before the blues and jazz were officially identified as that. We’re talking about the ragtime period.” The process of discovering all the cast members remains ongoing. — Back to Black (Sight and Sound)

This discovery of outtakes and footage is a huge find for film history and helps show the contributions of African-American performers and filmmakers.



Henry Hampton, Selma, and Eyes on the Prize

12 Dec
Henry Hampton and G. Robert Hohler marching in Selma, Alabama on the day of James Reeb's memorial service. Photo by Thomas Adams Rothschild.

Henry Hampton and G. Robert Hohler marching in Selma, Alabama on the day of James Reeb’s memorial service. Photo by Thomas Adams Rothschild.

A new film, Selma directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey, has opened in theaters. Selma is a dramatized version of the tumultuous events in that town that became a turning point in the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists had been working to increase voter registration among African-Americans throughout the fall of 1964. These efforts led to clashes between law enforcement in Selma and civil rights activists, and during a protest on February 18 an unarmed man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was killed by Alabama State Trooper, James Bonard Fowler. In response to Jackson’s death, and in an effort to raise awareness about voting restrictions, John Lewis and Hosea Williams attempted to march on March 7, 1965 but were met with brutal resistance from state troopers and deputized citizens on the Edmud Pettus Bridge.

That same night ABC broke into its scheduled film Judgment at Nuremberg to broadcast images of violence from Selma. A small Southern town became the focus of the entire nation and after the images of the brutalized marchers were broadcast Martin Luther King issued a call for civil rights activists to come to Selma to help continue the march. A young Henry Hampton, originally from St. Louis but working for the Unitarian Universalists in Boston, was among the people who arrived to support the marchers. He was a firsthand witness to the events in Selma during the march on Turnaround Tuesday and later spoke about what he experienced there,

“I was in Selma, and it was a story that at that point—literally it was the only time in my life that I’ve ever been prophetic—it was a moment when we were standing there on the bridge, the Pettus Bridge, in Selma. There were cameras buzzing overhead…the president and federal government in all its power was there. We had terrific villains. There was a man named Al Lingo, who was the head of the Alabama State Police, that most don’t remember. They remember George Wallace but together they were a formidable opposition who were literally killing people, and I looked around and said to myself, not being a native Southerner, I looked around and said, ‘This could make a terrific movie,’ and put the idea away for twelve or fifteen years. When someone asked me the question, if you had your absolute druthers and the money, what would you do? Ten seconds it came back, it would be the television history of the civil rights movement…something fundamental changed in the country on that bridge and rarely do you get that kind of visual moment that confirms this massive shift in the way that people are going to feel about each other. It doesn’t mean that everyone loved everyone but it meant, I think, that America was no longer going to step backwards. It was going to step forward and these are important moments.” –An interview with Henry Hampton. Conducted by Chris Lydon, 3/31/94

This moment was the genesis of Eyes on the Prize, and when Hampton told the story of Selma, Alabama in episode six, Bridge to Freedom (1965), he and his producers were able to interview many of the key players from that moment, including many participants in the Selma actions including Coretta Scott King, Ralph AbernathyDiane Nash, Amelia Boynton Robinson, James Bevel, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, C.T. Vivian, James Forman, Frederick Reese, John DoarRichard Valeriani. Hampton and his producers also interviewed the political figures and law enforcement officers who were responsible for decisions that led to the clash on the bridge, Joseph Smitherman, mayor of Selma, Gov. George Wallace, Jim Clark, Sheriff of Selma. Two women who had participated in the march as children were also interviewed, Rachel Nelson West and Sheyann Webb. Given the number and range of interviews that were conducted for Eyes on the Prize, these primary source documents together give the viewer a multifaceted portrait of one of the most important episodes in the civil rights movement.



Fred Hampton (1948-1969)

5 Dec
Still from documentary, "The Murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton"

Fred Hampton in a still from the documentary, “The Murder of Fred Hampton”

Eyes on the Prize II: A Nation of Law? (1968-1971), one of the episodes from Henry Hampton’s definitive documentary series on the civil rights movement, told the story of the killing of a young, charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, Fred Hampton.

Fred Hampton (no relation to Henry Hampton) was a brilliant, magnetic speaker and organizer who had risen quickly through the ranks of the Black Panther Party leadership to become the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party. On December 4, 1969, Hampton and Mark Clark, another Black Panther member, were killed in a massive shoot-out led by 14 members of the Chicago police department. Most of the bullets, approx. 100, were shot by the police, while 2 were fired from inside the apartment by the Panthers. Also in the apartment was Hampton’s fiance, Deborah Johnson, who was eight months pregnant at the time. Johnson survived and was later interviewed by Blackside for Eyes on the Prize II.

The episode is partially a portrait of Fred Hampton and uses stock footage from a film about the Black Panthers and Hampton, The Murder of Fred Hampton (full film available here). In addition to Johnson, Blackside conducted an extraordinary interview with someone who had never told his full story publicly before then and who was an informant for the FBI, William O’Neal.

Through O’Neal’s and Johnson’s interview the episode shows how Fred Hampton was spied on and targeted for his political activity.

Deborah Johnson in "Eyes on the Prize II"

Deborah Johnson in “Eyes on the Prize II”

Johnson described the surveillance they were under,

“At the time we were in the Black Panther Party in 1969, we knew that we were being watched, that our phones were tapped, that we were being followed, that we would be, that they would probably look up people that we had went to first grade with to ask them about us. But we really couldn’t focus on that. We, we didn’t let that stop us from what we needed to do. Some of the people that I guess we labeled pseudo liberals–oh, those crazy Black Panthers, they’re imagining it; they’re paranoid. But however, it did come to light that files were kept on people that participated in the movement. And you didn’t have to be a Black Panther. A lot of times we pick up the phone and we hear tape recorder going, and we hear people talking in the background and we didn’t have a party line, and we would be followed.”–Interview with Deborah Johnson

As Johnson noted, in the aftermath of the police raid it came to light that the FBI had assigned an informant to infiltrate the group.

William O'Neal

William O’Neal

In his interview with Blackside, William O’Neal described how he ended up working as an informant.

“My recruitment by the FBI was very efficient, very simple, really. I’d stolen a car and went joy-riding over the state limit, and they had a potential case against me, and I was looking for an opportunity to work it off. And a couple of months later that opportunity came when FBI agent Roy Mitchell asked me to go down to the local office of the Black Panther Party, and try to gain membership  did so and became a member of the Black Panther Party.

And, so when he asked me to join the Black Panther Party, and he used terms, he never used the word informant. He always said, “You’re working for me,” and I associated him as the FBI. So all of a sudden I was working for the FBI…so I felt good about it. I felt like I was working undercover for the FBI doing something good for the finest police organization in America. And so I was pretty proud.”–Interview with William O’Neal

O’Neal was easily able to join the Black Panther Party and became the Security Captain for the Chicago group. He initially thought the Panthers were like a street gang but after meeting Fred Hampton and attending the educational sessions the group ran, he became aware of their political agenda. O’Neal became Hampton’s bodyguard and traveled with him on his speaking engagements. O’Neal described his relationship with Hampton,

We tried to develop negative information to try to, to discredit him just like we did everybody else. We meaning the FBI. I tried to come up with signs of him doing drugs or, or something and never could. He was clean. He was dedicated. I’ve had private conversations with him. we got along pretty well. For seven months I was his personal body guard. He wouldn’t go anywhere without me. I know Fred Hampton better than anybody, to tell you the truth.”–Interview with William O’Neal

He also took part in the daily life of the group, all the while periodically meeting with Mitchell.

“Well, a typical meeting between my FBI contact Mitchell would be downtown Chicago at 11, 12-noon, at, down in the basement of some dark bar. I would meet him at the bar, he’d be there when I got in there, and he’d have a drink, and I’d have a drink, and we’d sit there and, and talk for 15 or 20 minutes, and it was very casual. What he put in his files, I still don’t have the benefit of. But I know after a while, he and I became friends, and we talked in casual conversation about what I was doing in the Black Panther Party. Well, the whole nature of that relationship changed right around November, maybe November 13, when two police officers were killed by a Black Panther member named Jake Winters on the South Side of Chicago.

Well, he started, Mitchell became more specific during that time. He wanted to know the locations of weapons caches, he wanted to know if we had explosives. He needed, he needed to know who was staying at what locations, who spent the night where. His information didn’t change so much as he requested more detail. And, I knew why: the shootout on the South Side had pretty much laid the foundation within the Party, within the Black Panthers, we knew that the police would react in some type of way. We could just feel the stepped up surveillance. We could feel the pressure all the way around, and we knew something bad was going to happen, and I think we were all prepared for it.” Interview with William O’Neal

A Nation of Law? (1968-1971) details how the information O’Neal supplied to the FBI informed the police raid that took place on December 4, 1969. He provided a sketch of the apartment.

Layout of Fred Hampton's apartment provided to the FBI.

Layout of Fred Hampton’s apartment provided to the FBI.

Deborah Johnson described the evening before and how Hampton fell asleep very suddenly. O’Neal had prepared dinner for the group that night and Hampton appeared drugged once the raid began and was unable to move or react, and at least one test conducted by a Cook County chemist found traces of a powerful barbiturate in Hampton’s blood.  O’Neal denied any knowledge of Hampton being drugged.

“First thing that I remember after Fred and I had went to sleep was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred while we were laying in the bed. And, this person who was in the room with me, kept shouting out “we have a pregnant sister in here, stop shooting”. Eventually the shooting stopped and they said we could come out. I remember crossing over Fred, and telling myself over and over, “be real careful, don’t stumble, they’ll try to shoot you, just be real calm, watch how you walk, keep your hands up, don’t reach for anything, don’t even try to close your robe. When I was in the kitchen, I heard a voice, an unfamiliar voice say, “he’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.” Then the shooting started back again, then I heard the same unfamiliar voice say, “he’s good and dead now.” And I knew in my mind, they were, I assume they were talking about Fred. And I knew when I left out of there, I couldn’t look towards the room.” Interview with Deborah Johnson

O’Neal denied knowledge of what the police and FBI’s plans were.

“I didn’t feel like I had done anything. I didn’t walk in there with guns. I didn’t shoot him. FBI didn’t do it. I felt somewhat like I was betrayed. I felt like if anyone should have known it was going to be a raid that morning, I should have known, also. I felt like I could have been caught in that raid. I was there that night, and I felt like if I’d have laid down I probably would have been a victim, so I felt betrayed, I felt like, I felt like I was expendable. I felt like, like perhaps I was on the wrong side. Yeah, yeah, I had my misgivings. I’m not going to–I, no, I’m not going to sit here now and take the responsibility for the raid, you know, I’m not going to do that. I didn’t pull the trigger. I didn’t issue the warrant. I didn’t put the guns in the apartment. So I’m not going to take the responsibility for that, but I do feel like I was betrayed…I just began to understand basically how serious and deadly the game we’d all been playing for 16 months, the reality of what we were doing, just came to bare on us that morning.”–Interview with William O’Neal

The police claimed to have been shot upon by the Panthers, but they left the apartment open and unguarded for two days. People were able to film and photograph the scene inside which cast doubt on the official’s version. During a civil trail in 1976, O’Neal’s role was revealed in COINTELPRO files. When Blackside asked him again to describe his discovery of the raid, he said,

INTERVIEWER: Once again I want to ask you about your feelings when you learned about the raid, Fred Hampton’s death, or walking through the apartment with Bobby Rush.
WILLIAM O’NEAL: I can’t do it again. I, I just can’t.
WILLIAM O’NEAL: It just, it won’t–
WILLIAM O’NEAL: –it won’t gel.
William O’Neal committed suicide on Martin Luther King Day, 1990.
Fred Hampton’s story was brought back to the national stage in A Nation of Law? (1968-1971) and his impact can still be felt through his own words and speeches.