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‘True South’ is a fresh look at ‘Eyes on the Prize’ — and a reminder of the ongoing civil rights struggle

Feb. 27, 2017


I 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.

"Eyes 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.

"This 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."

If 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 confidant.

The 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."

Making "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 fortune.

Hampton, 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 1978."

Hampton 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.

"I 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 some way.’"

Both 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.

"I 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."

But 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.

"The 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."

Near 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."

That 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.

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McClatchy-Tribune Information Services