Producer of the Prize
`Eyes on the Prize'-creator Henry Hampton hopes continuation of series will put black struggle in context for young viewers
BOSTON — THE most important audience that Henry Hampton hopes will watch ``Eyes on the Prize II'' is black and white young people - black especially. The wrenching history of the civil rights movement in America, as documented in his eight-part PBS series [previewed at left], ``is emotional history'' few kids can relate to, says Mr. Hampton, executive producer. ``It's got context to it that's very hard to pick up from books.''
And learning about this struggle in its appropriate context - not in 30-second sound bites - is what will make a lasting impression on the young, Hampton contends. Today's youth, all too familiar with violent images like the Challenger explosion, should be encouraged to know the context of history, not just its images, he says.
Picking up where the 1987 series leaves off, ``Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads'' selects stories from the recent past - stories of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the call for ``Black Power,'' busing in Boston, riots in Miami, the Attica State Prison siege - and attempts to weave a sweeping, yet detailed, portrait of the 20 years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
``Most historians won't talk seriously about anything within the last 30 years,'' says the soft-voiced Hampton, visited at Blackside Inc., his Boston-based, independent production company. ``But I have a real sense of urgency about this material - we need to understand it.'' With his methods of filming and researching, Hampton says he can obtain ``a very thoughtful best guess about the implications.''
Making ``Eyes II'' challenged Hampton and his production staff more than the first series did, he says. In 1965, history takes a significant turn. Moving from the South to the North, competing with other causes such as the anti-war and women's movements, the outcry against racism ``becomes more subtle in some ways and more complex,'' Hampton says. ``You lose some of the stark `good guy, bad guy' [appearance] ... which is probably why this may be even more important than the first series.'' In the first episode, for instance, the emergence of ``Black Power'' generates a wild response among whites. The term was never clearly defined at the outset, and many whites equated it with fearsome black militantism.
The intricacies of this period of history demand ``not just a black, but a collective perspective,'' says Hampton, who favors the ``collegial approach'' to filmmaking. He deliberately selected an equal number of blacks and whites, men and women, for his four production teams. Again, knowing the context of historical events was a chief concern.
``I spent a lot of money, probably $100,000 or more, to educate the film crew in history, giving them time to read books and argue and study. We spent almost two or three months just getting ready.''
``A key part of it,'' Hampton explains, ``is our scholars and advisors, because we're not simply making film, we're also manipulating history, and everybody feels a keen responsibility to that. I'm still proud that on `Eyes I,' we never got attacked on a historical verity. It's because we kept putting it through the filters and fighting our battles with the historians.''
Sometimes an important event may not have sufficient news footage to accompany it, ``and I can't do a story without enough film - so am I skewing history by not covering that event? Can I find something that would replace it? We fight that battle to be consistent with the history.''
Despite the thousands of hours of interviews with people who had participated in specific events - from Boston school parents, Attica prison guards, and Black Panther party members to CBS news reporter Mike Wallace and author Alex Haley - television can never do justice to all of the accounts, says Hampton. For that reason, he and writer Steve Fayer put together a 700-page oral history entitled ``Voice of Freedom'' (Bantam), due out this month, which features about 1,000 interviews.
According to Hampton, ``Eyes II'' isn't the final word. ``I surely hope others walk this path and create their own versions of the history,'' he says. The television series ``is by no means exhaustive - we probably touched upon one percent of the real story.''