BAMcinématek programmer Nellie Killian speaks about the process of researching and curating the monumental 40-film series A Time For Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement, which culminates on Wednesday, Aug 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
|Haskell Wexler's The Bus|
I realized this summer we were coming up on a number of important anniversaries in the civil rights movement—the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door. It’s also the anniversary of the March on Washington, which in many ways was a response to the escalating violence. It seemed important to commemorate the 50th anniversary, so I looked at all sorts of work from the 1960s that dealt with the civil rights movement.
While researching, I realized I was much more familiar with the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that the later wave of radicalism dominated the way I thought about that era. So I decided that this series would focus on the earlier period of the movement that’s been less represented, and that gave me some parameters, since there was so much excellent work.
Were there any films that you saw early on that influenced the way you shaped the series?
One really important movie for me was Santiago Álvarez’s Now! Álvarez was a Cuban agitprop, assemblage-film master who smuggled footage of the brutal response to civil rights demonstrations to Cuba and set it to Lena Horne’s incendiary song “Now!,” which had been banned in the US. That movie is so graphic in the way it depicts violence and so damning of the way the government was handling the crisis, and it showed this archival footage from the perspective of a foreigner observing American injustice in disgust.
|Santiago Álvarez’s Now!|
What were some of the challenges you faced in your research? Was it difficult to get access to the films?
I was able to look at a number of previous series that had covered this era, including a series organized by Gerald O’Grady called The Whole World Was Watching, a program at Frequent Small Meals in Atlanta curated by Andy Ditzler, the catalogue for Pearl Bowser’s 1980 show Independent Black American Cinema and screenings at places like the Black Cinema House in Chicago.
Another huge resource was the Black Film Center/Archive at the University of Indiana. They have an enormous holding of films by and about African-Americans, which was an overwhelming resource, but a very helpful one. I also read a lot of odds and ends that didn’t give me programming ideas per se, but were really interesting texts to have rattling around in my head while I was researching, like James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work and the Mass Media issue of the Civil Rights publication Freedomways.
Prints were scattered throughout various archives, studios, libraries, and personal collections. A number of them have gotten the distinction of being preserved by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. The largest single print source for the series is the New York Public Library, which was incredibly supportive of the program and pointed me toward a number of films I was unaware of. We weren’t able to show everything due to rights issues, since there was a lot of material that was originally intended for broadcast rather than theatrical release, or never had a traditional distribution platform. Luckily, the NYPL’s 16mm collection is available for viewing and anyone can head up to Lincoln Center to watch films like NBC’s Sit-in.
The program is very diverse, ranging from mainstream Hollywood fare to experimental work to exploitation films.
I wanted to include as many different types of film as possible to show how this crisis was permeating the culture, and the different ways that people were responding to it. For example, films like To Kill a Mockingbird, Odds Against Tomorrow, and A Raisin in the Sun were showcases for brilliant actors and were able to reach a mainstream audiences, while a film like Two Thousand Maniacs! is able to embrace its bad taste and expose the rawness of the situation in a way that would not have been appropriate for the other movies.
Documentary was the main way that this crisis was being covered, whether on the news or in independent films, or in work that was produced specifically by the government. This series presented an opportunity to trace a lineage of progressive documentary filmmaking that began with the pointedly leftist work of Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand in the 1940s (Native Land), continued with the humanist work of George Stoney (All My Babies and Palmour Street) in governmentally produced filmmaking for agencies that were developed during the progressive 1930s, then moved onto the revolution of direct cinema represented by Robert Drew and associates, and the subversive work that William Greaves was able to do for television as an African-American filmmaker in the late 1960s.
Among these 40 films, which would you consider to be the highlights?
There are a lot of great programs this weekend. On Friday we’re showing a series of films that focus on the efforts of organizations like SNCC and SCLC to register voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, including Ed Pincus’ great Black Natchez. The connection between that program and the other film playing that night might not be immediately apparent, but Harry Belafonte, who stars in Odds Against Tomorrow, helped bankroll the Freedom Riders.
On Saturday we’re showing Michael Roemer’s recently rediscovered masterpiece Nothing But a Man. On Tuesday we’re showing Still a Brother by William Greaves. The only movie I’d seen by Greaves before putting this series together was the meta-documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Still a Brother was a real revelation to me and I was thrilled that we were able to include it.
On the actual anniversary of the March on Washington, we are showing a really exciting program of films that all document the March itself. These are very rare screenings, including Haskell Wexler’s The Bus, which follows a California delegation on their ride to Washington, D.C. for the March. We are showing a rare color document of the March by the famous experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller. There’s also James Blue's The March, which was created for the US Information Agency for distribution abroad and didn’t show in the US for almost 20 years until it finally premiered on the 20th anniversary of MLK’s assassination at the Rothko Chapel. The event was so popular that they had to keep replaying for the waiting crowds . As the screenings ended people spontaneously gathered around the reflecting pool that holds Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk to sing “We Shall Overcome.” And if that doesn’t make you want to see the movie, I don’t know what will!