first encountered "Eyes on the Prize" in high
school, as many children of the ’80s did. The stories
and images of the civil rights movement made their mark
on me: The savage murder of Emmett Till, the courage of
marchers who faced down beatings and police dogs, and
the dogged persistence (and occasional failing) of
Martin Luther King Jr. came to vivid life before my
eyes. At the time I assumed this six-hour documentary
series was merely the latest look at this recent
history. I had no conception of the mountains that were
moved to bring all of it to the screen.
on the Prize" was a big deal when it premiered on
PBS in 1987. It was a big deal for television, for civil
rights history and for documentary filmmaking. This much
is made clear in "True South" (Viking, $30),
Jon Else’s new book on the series and its mastermind,
the late documentary maverick Henry Hampton. Else, the
series producer and cinematographer of "Eyes,"
has written a book that honors not only the stories
within the series but also the gargantuan task of making
that series a reality and the unfinished business of the
civil rights movement.
is a bit of a postmodern hall of mirrors," Else
says by phone from Berkeley, Calif. where he’s now a
professor of journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School
of Journalism. "It’s a history of a history, and
a history of how we did a particular history."
that sounds highfalutin’, "True South" is
anything but. The book keeps a lot of balls up in the
air, from the life of Hampton and the invigorating,
dysfunctional day-to-day of his filmmaking company to
the struggle for voting rights in the Jim Crow South,
and the struggle to track down and interview civil
rights players. But Else proves a skilled juggler. He’s
also uniquely qualified to tell this story: he
volunteered for The Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee and ventured to Mississippi to register black
voters before becoming a filmmaker and Hampton
book reflects the series, and the movement, in its
grassroots focus on workers and grinders. "It was
neither a ‘white people to the rescue’ television
series, nor was it a series that was all about the
iconic leaders, particularly Dr. King," Else says.
"He gets his due, as he certainly deserves, but the
real heroes of the series are these maids and janitors
and sharecroppers and local organizers who labored in
obscurity for years."
"Eyes" also required some laboring in
obscurity, and an uphill push for fundraising. Nobody
participated in the civil rights movement because it
looked easy, and nobody went to work at Hampton’s
production company, Blackside Inc., seeking fame and
like King, was a charismatic visionary. But he was also
chronically disorganized, perpetually in debt and prone
to workplace chaos. Else’s production responsibilities
included recruiting minority crew members. Hampton was
highly respected, but he also had a reputation. "I
love the brother," a potential "Eyes"
recruit told Else, "but he still owes me money from
was determined to enlist a racially integrated crew. He
wanted multiple viewpoints, and multiple arguments, and
he got them. He also got an impassioned collection of
filmmaking talent. To a person they saw Eyes as a
mission, an excavation of recent history that had to be
done right. A few years before Ken Burns redefined the
longform documentary series with 1990’s "The
Civil War," the "Eyes" team created the
most comprehensive civil rights chronicle ever brought
to the screen.
knew it was going to be important because we would be
capturing these stories from people who had suffered
mightily for a cause bigger than themselves, and who
were really brave to me," says Callie Crossley, who
shared an Oscar nomination with James A. DeVinney for
making the series’ final episode, "Bridge to
Freedom." "These people did not know what the
outcomes would be. They never expected any victory. They
just thought, ‘I cannot be silent anymore. I can’t
just sit here and take it. I’ve got to stand up in
Else and Crossley wish Eyes wasn’t quite so relevant
to current events. The Voting Rights Act, covered in the
series’ final episode, took a big hit from the Supreme
Court in 2013. White supremacy is again on the rise.
Three decades after Eyes first aired on PBS, five
decades after the last of the events depicted, civil
rights still can’t be taken for granted.
think the legacy of Dr. King slammed up against the
legacy of George Wallace in this last election,"
Else says. "A lot of people are now doubting that
the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. I’m
not in that camp. I think over the long haul, America
will get back in touch with its better self. But the
glass is half full of poison right now."
there are also lessons to be learned from
"Eyes," which can now be seen on DVD and
streaming services after several years lost in
copyright. For one: Immediate gratification doesn’t
make for long-term solutions. Protest movements need
nurturing and sustenance.
big thing is focusing on the long game," Crossley
says. "That’s not two weekends, that’s not a
month, that’s not even a year. That’s years."
the end of "True South" Else digs into the
making of "Eyes on the Prize II," which moves
from civil disobedience to Black Power, from marches to
riots. As Else writes, "Depending on how you looked
at it, Eyes II was either a collection of loosely
connected stories that lacked Eyes I’s biblical
trajectory toward redemption, or it was a powerful
anthology of Black Power’s lurching vital energy, as
the movement transitioned from mass protest to rebellion
and electoral politics."
transition continues, except the mass protests and
marches are once again part of the equation. And so the
arc of the moral universe keep bending.