PASADENA, CALIF. — Henry Hampton, the late African-American filmmaker, devoted his creative life to showing people of color have fought for and in many ways shaped such hard-earned victories as desegregation and voting.
In his landmark series "Eyes on the Prize," he depicted these activists as "civilized soldiers." Now, in what has turned out to be his swan-song project, "I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts" (to air on PBS Feb. 1-3 during Black History Month), Hampton reveals the good fight that has been fought by artists of color since the beginning of the 20th century, and still goes on today.
He has chosen to illuminate the lives of many lesser-known, but no less important, artists. They range from actor Bert Williams, who struggled to transcend the limitations of the black minstrel traditions, to Oscar Micheaux, one of the first black filmmakers, to today's rap artist Rakim, and spoken-word artist Saul Williams.
Regarding his choice to avoid the towering figures among this century's African-American performers, such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Bill Cosby, Hampton remarked that elevating lesser-known figures is the point of his story. "This production is ... [a] journey into the powerful interaction between African-American culture and the larger American society," he said.
Series co-executive producer Sam Pollard explains Hampton's goal as "telling good stories, and also bringing to the fore people whose stories haven't been told before. The decision to go with lesser-known figures was important" in order to illuminate history, he says, adding, "We came to the conclusion that Bert Williams's story might be much more interesting in terms of the type of tension that he had to deal with."
The series, divided into six hours over three nights, opens with the first generation of African-Americans born into freedom. Minstrels George Walker and Bert Williams fought stereotypes of the day to win mainstream audiences. New Orleans witnessed the birth of a new American art form - jazz - while at the same time, early 20th-century film pioneer Micheaux documented the trials of blacks on film.
Throughout the six hours, contemporary African-American artists provide commentary on the historical figures. Actor Ben Vereen observes that when Bert Williams was interviewed in Britain, he was asked what it was like being a black man in America. Williams replied, "Being a black man is wonderful, since that's what I am, but in America it's an inconvenience."
This graceful understatement of a man living through the harsh days of Jim Crow laws provides a leitmotif for the entire series. Over and over, we see artists faced with violence and hatred who chose to resort to their creativity rather than return the actions in kind - a profound lesson for any generation.
Black soldiers returned from their service in World War I to a summer of lynchings and riots in cities across the nation. Yet, on the heels of such treatment, the "New Negro" emerged and the Harlem Renaissance flowered. A hot topic of the day, the issue of what to depict in an art born from oppression, still challenges artists today.
Filmmaker Spike Lee remarks that "white artists don't have that burden that we have. We're artists, and at the same time you want to be responsible, and it can become a very delicate high-wire act."
The third and fourth hours examine the middle of the century. looking at singer Paul Robeson, musician Dizzy Gillespie, and sculptor Augusta Savage, who built an art school in Harlem in an effort to cultivate the next generation of artists.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry stunned white audiences with "A Raisin in the Sun," at the same time writer James Baldwin went into exile in Paris, only to return as the civil-rights movement began to grow.
The last two segments move tunefully through the Motown era, black activism in the '60s, novelist Alice Walker in the '80s, and finally, choreographer Bill T. Jones and filmmaker Spike Lee in the present day.
In conjunction with the PBS broadcast, Hampton's company, Blackside Inc., has provided small grants, technical assistance, and program materials to groups in 11 cities nationwide as well as a Web site, aiming to generate activities and discussions related to the series.
While the documentary is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of this century's greatest African-American artists, it admirably fulfills the larger social mission of showing the battles that such creative soldiers have had to fight. As filmmaker Spike Lee observes, "It's a continuous struggle, and we just have to keep on fighting."