Tag Archives: documentary film

The Jack Willis Collection

17 Dec

Film & Media Archive acquires materials of civil rights documentarian Jack Willis

Filmmaker Jack Willis

Filmmaker Jack Willis at Washington University

In 2014 the Washington University Film & Media Archive acquired the collection of prolific documentary filmmaker and producer Jack Willis. The Jack Willis Collection contains film, video, and manuscript material from original, independent productions by Willis. His films tackle racism, poverty, and environmental issues and show his affinity for what he called “unheard voices, unserved voices.”

A native of Milwaukee, Willis was born in 1935. He grew up in Los Angeles and attended UCLA. He got his start in television as an associate producer for David Susskind’s interview show, Open End. Many of the guests on the program were civil rights leaders who had become prominent by the early 1960s. A meeting with James Forman, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led Willis to travel to Mississippi to document the voter registration efforts of the SNCC in 1963 leading up to Freedom Summer. The film that resulted, The Streets of Greenwood (1963), was Willis’ first independent project and one of the most important documentaries of the period. Willis returned to the South to film Lay My Burden Down (1966), which chronicled the lives of tenant farmers in Selma, Alabama a year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote, directed, and produced a number of documentaries, including Every Seventh Child (1967), Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People (1968), and Hard Times in the Country (1969). During these years, as he documented the struggle for civil rights, Willis had many hostile encounters with local authority figures, including one with Sherriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama.

Between 1966 and 1971, Willis produced a diverse range of documentaries for National Education Television, a forerunner of PBS. He continued developing and producing television programs such as the The 51st State, which ran on WNET in New York from 1972 to 1976. Winner of four Emmy Awards, The 51st State was a groundbreaking news program that often served as a platform for heated debates between audience members and local politicians. Willis also served as co-executive producer of The Great American Dream Machine, a satirical news program that aired on PBS from 1971 to 1973. The show featured Albert Brooks, Chevy Chase, and humorist Marshall Efron and won two Emmy Awards. Of his television work, Willis said, “I wanted to be involved in programming that was more informative and entertaining, to try to reach more people.”

In 1970, a surfing accident left Willis paralyzed from the neck down, but he regained mobility after six months of physical therapy and eventually returned to work. He co-wrote and co-produced the documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979), which investigated the government concealment of health risks connected to radiation and the testing of atomic bombs in the 1950s. The film won an Emmy Award, a George Polk Award, and a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award.

From 1978 to 1980, in preparation for a documentary, Willis conducted interviews with Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Ella Baker, and other people who had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement. The project was never completed, and the Jack Willis Collection contains more than 81 original interviews that have never been seen publicly.

The Film & Media Archive also holds the Henry Hampton Collection. Hampton was an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose many projects included the 14-part television series Eyes on the Prize, which chronicled the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. The addition of the Jack Willis Collection to the archive represents a significant expansion of the unique and original material relating to the civil rights movement that is housed at the Washington University Libraries.



Screening of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” with producer Laurens Grant

6 Feb

Washington University Libraries’ Henry Hampton Minority Documentarian Series presents

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Followed by Q&A with producer Laurens Grant

Still from "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution"

Still from “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”

Free Screening ~February 26, 2015 ~7:00 PM

Etta Eiseman Steinberg Auditorium

6465 Forsyth Blvd., Danforth Campus

Master documentarian and director Stanley Nelson, founder of Firelight Media,  goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 2015. This screening, co-sponsored by African and African-American Studies Department, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and Cinema St. Louis, is an opportunity to see the film before its theatrical run. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution includes primary source interviews with Black Panther members from Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as police officers, former FBI agents, journalists, and scholars.

Laurens Grant is an award-winning filmmaker. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution represents Grant’s third appearance at Sundance. Previously, Grant directed the documentary Jesse Owens, and produced the documentary Freedom Riders (2009) which also premiered at Sundance.

The Film & Media Archive assisted Firelight Media with research requests and queries relating to stock footage for Freedom Ridersa documentary about the 1961 attempt by civil rights activists to enforce federal law and desegregate public transportation in the South. Significant sections of footage from A Regular Bouquet (part of the Film & Media Archive’s Richard Beymer Collection) was licensed by Beymer for a film Nelson produced, Freedom Summer (2014). In addition the Archive contains many primary source interviews from Eyes on the Prize and stock footage that relate to the events surrounding the subjects of Firelight Media’s documentaries.

The free screening is the second in the Henry Hampton Minority Documentarian Series, which debuted in November 2014 at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) with “Through a Lens Darkly.” The series is named in honor of Henry Hampton (1940-98), a St. Louis native and 1961 graduate of Washington University, where his 35,000-plus-item collection is housed in the libraries’ Film and Media Archive. Hampton’s works chronicled the 20th century’s great political and social movements, focusing on the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. The best known of Hampton’s 60-plus major film and media projects was his epic 14-part PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.” More than 25 years after its release, it is still considered the definitive work on the civil-rights movement.

The Henry Hampton Minority Documentarian Series aims to share documentary films made by minority filmmakers or that depict the stories of often underrepresented groups with a focus on the African American experience.




A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer [director’s cut]

31 Oct

Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Richard Beymer
Producers: Richard Beymer and Council of Federated Organization Film (COFO). Copyright © 1964 Richard Beymer. All rights reserved.

A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer

Washington University Film & Media Archive is excited to make Richard Beymer’s A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer [director’s cut] available in full to the public. As part of a National Film Preservation Foundation Grant (NFPF) awarded this year to the Film & Media Archive, the original version is currently undergoing preservation.  Once the preservation work is complete the original version will be available for scholars and fans.   Thanks to the generosity of the filmmaker, the director’s cut is currently available to view.

Filmed in 1964 during the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign to register black voters, provide educational opportunities, and build the movement for integration, Beymer’s film is unique as he was one of the few filmmakers working side-by-side with the activists and volunteers who made up the massive movement that was Freedom Summer.  In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights organizations that included SNCC working in Mississippi, issued a call for volunteers, and nearly 1,000 responded. After receiving training, the volunteers, mostly white, northern college students and recent graduates, joined the existing group of predominantly black activists. But it wasn’t just students who heeded to call to come to Mississippi that summer.

After gaining notice in films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Richard Beymer became a major star after appearing in West Side Story in 1961. He continued to work in Hollywood but was riveted by the news reports coming out of the South and Mississippi during the turbulent years of the early sixties. After being challenged to do something about his convictions by his agent during a cross-country trip to New York, Beymer decided to go to Mississippi during Freedom Summer.

At that time the I.F. Stone Weekly was an independent publication that covered the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Since SNCC was one of the main organizers of the Mississippi Summer Project Beymer contacted I.F. Stone, the journalist and publisher responsible for the newsletter, and asked on advice on how to get to Mississippi. Stone’s advice, “You get in your car and drive to Mississippi,” while practical did not provide much detail on how to make contacts or find activists. When Beymer arrived in Mississippi, he asked people in town where the closest SNCC office near Jackson, Mississippi was. When he found the office, he explained his presence by saying, “I want to be part of this.” A SNCC volunteer handed him a broom and said, “Fine. There’s a broom, you can start with that.”

After a few days, Beymer attended an out-of-state orientation and it was during this time that the idea of making a film came to him. He had done a lot of still photography and had wanted to make a film before and proposed the idea to the organizers of a piece that could be shown to volunteers so they would have some idea of what they were getting into. They agreed and Beymer returned to Mississippi armed with a 16mm Bolex camera and a supply of black and white 16mm film.

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964, © Richard Beymer Collection.

During the summer, Beymer worked doing voter registration, canvassed neighborhoods, and in between doing this work filmed the daily lives and activities of the volunteers and the local people and children. He explained that he had his camera with him at all times and,”When I saw something that struck me, I had it there ready to go. I was making a film of my experience, wherever it took me.”

“I had no idea what I was getting into. Until you walk into it, you don’t know all of that.” — Richard Beymer

Speaking of the dangers of doing the work SNCC was engaged, Beymer said, “We were out in the boonies. It was kind of scary and where are you going to go–to the police? Anyone could have been killed at any time.”

Beymer describes the time as both positive and negative. Within the world of the volunteers and the African-American Mississippians, “We ate together, we went to these crummy little bars, we were all together there, it was great.” But he was shocked by the conditions that existed for black Mississippians at that time and that brutal poverty is captured in the film.

In addition to the poverty, the threat of racist violence haunted Freedom Summer from the beginning. On June 21, one week after the first volunteers arrived for training, three activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared. The FBI conducted a massive search and found their corpses on August 4. All of the work the volunteers engaged in was done with the threat of something similar happening to them hanging over their heads.

Beymer didn’t develop the film until he returned to Los Angeles at the end of the summer, and then spent the next year editing. The footage Beymer captured has a naturalistic, spontaneous quality that evokes cinema vérité techniques at times. The impact of this footage showing the work of Mississippi volunteers and the local people who had not been given an opportunity to share their stories has carried through till the present day. As a result, other documentary filmmakers frequently seek his footage. Most recently, filmmaker Stanley Nelson relied heavily on A Regular Bouquet when completing his film, Freedom Summer, which premiered in June 2014 on PBS and footage from Beymer’s film appeared in Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize (1987), episode five, Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964).

Participants at an organizational meeting during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © Richard Beymer Collection.

Participants at an organizational meeting during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © Richard Beymer Collection.

A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer is part of the Richard Beymer Collection at the Film & Media Archive. In addition to the film elements of A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer, and a collection of black and white photographs that were shot during filming, the collection contains other titles by Beymer including The Innerview, Point of Departure and Perfect Movies. It also includes a taping of part of show 3 of Midnight Snacks by Andy Kaufman on which Richard Beymer appeared.

* Note: Quotes for this article are from a telephone interview with Richard Beymer, from August 18, 2014.