Henry Hampton: ‘He endured because his vision was so important’

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Hampton's greatest legacy, Fayer said, is the "hundreds of people working in the film industry, making documentaries that matter." Above, Hampton addresses the PBS annual meeting in 1992.

Henry Hampton, the visionary filmmaker who documented the history of the civil rights movement with the landmark PBS series Eyes on the Prize, died Nov. 22 [1998]. He was 58.

Hampton recovered from lung cancer some nine years ago, but complications from the treatment that sent the disease into remission claimed his life. The official cause of his death was myelodysplasia, a bone-marrow disease.

During a keynote address at the PBS annual meeting in June, Hampton said his doctors recently had given him a good prognosis, although he still perceived the disease as an “ugly beast waiting, sitting somewhere in the quiet, waiting for my guard to drop.”

Hampton, who fought off a bout with polio as an adolescent, was a man of great strength and resilience, according to his associates and friends. He was charismatic, amiable and intellectually curious, with a maddening penchant for pushing his producers to greater artistic achievement.

His commitment to social justice drove him to choose the historical subjects that Blackside documented in two Eyes on the Prize series, The Great Depression, War on Poverty, and “Malcolm X: Make It Plain,” an American Experience biography. In February, I’ll Make Me a World, his company’s new six-hour series on African-American creative artists, will be presented on PBS as a memorial and tribute to Hampton.

“Henry felt strongly that people would be drawn to programs that challenged them to consider not only their place in the world, but their responsibility to others,” said Orlando Bagwell, executive producer of Africans in America, a younger filmmaker who came onto his own as a producer/director working with Hampton at Blackside, Inc.

“We take it for granted that Eyes on the Prize is one of the best things, if not the best thing, to come out of public television, but it took Henry 10 years to raise the money,” said Paul Stekler, a producer on the second Eyes series, whose career also was forever altered by the experience. “That’s an indication that it wasn’t obvious to everybody else.” Despite frequent rejections by potential funders, Hampton remained “always very positive.”

“He endured because his vision was so important,” Stekler added.

The son of prominent St. Louis surgeon Henry Hampton Sr. and Julia Veva Hampton, Henry Hampton Jr. studied literature at Washington University, “fooled around with medical school for a while,” and eventually began working as director of information for the Unitarian Church, he recalled in a 1987 interview. As a representative of the church, Hampton participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

He was not caught up in the violence when police beat marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but two decades later in a Washington Post interview he recalled thinking “someone’s going to make a great story about this.”

He turned out to be that someone, and went on to defy the man-on-the-street sentiment popularized by Gil Scott-Heron’s anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

In 1968 Hampton founded Blackside Inc., and initially produced industrial and documentary films. In the late 1970s, Hampton began developing a program on the civil rights movement, first for Capital Cities Communications, and later for PBS.

Steve Fayer, a writer who collaborated with Hampton on the failed Capital Cities project and helped run Blackside in its early years, recalled urging Hampton not to spend “what little money is left in the company” to keep the project going. “I told him, ‘Nobody cares about colored people and nobody cares about civil rights,’ ” remembered Fayer. “He said, ‘Give me this summer and we’ll write some treatments that will get some attention.'” Fayer agreed, and contributed substantially to both Eyes series, as well as later Blackside productions.

Hampton’s prediction came true, but funding came in a trickle, burdening the project with uncertainties. Jon Else, series producer on Eyes I, remembered driving around Boston with Hampton late one night in 1986. “We were trying to figure out how to save Eyes. We were half-way through production, and there was not enough money to carry on. The roof leaked. There were 30 people on staff, and tempers were hot. There was not enough cash to meet next week’s payroll.”

Hampton decided that night to shut down the production, but the next morning went to the bank and mortgaged his house to meet the payroll. “He knew that if he shut it down, Eyes would never get started again,” Else added. “He also knew that he might lose his house. It was not a trivial gesture.”

Black and white image of Henry Hampton holding his hands as if framing a film shot.Producing Eyes was a contentious but collaborative process, according to several Blackside veterans. Hampton set high standards for ensuring historical accuracy and journalistic fairness, for telling compelling, dramatic stories while providing adequate historical context, for giving equal weight to differing perspectives.

Henry pushed his producers to “go beyond what they thought was their best work,” said Judy Richardson, education director and senior producer of Hopes on the Horizon, a two-hour film and outreach project on the pro-democracy movement in Africa in the late ’80s. “He would say, ‘I don’t get it–what will make a 70-year-old in Peoria care about this film? Do you have the adequate research to back up that narration statement?’ He always held our feet to the fire to back up narration statements.”

“Henry was impossibly difficult to work for,” recalled Else. “His inclusionary method of making carefully considered films that fold in the beliefs and opinions and scholarship of a great many people and hold up as journalistically sound runs absolutely counter to efficiency.”

But in the end, the final series benefited from the wrenching process through which it was created, participants acknowledged. Eyes on the Prize debuted in 1987 to wide acclaim and won a duPont-Columbia Gold Baton, a Peabody, numerous Emmys and an Academy Award nomination. It has reached more than 20 million viewers with each airing, according to Blackside.

Eyes showed “not just the brilliance of Dr. [Martin Luther] King, but the brilliance and integrity and leadership qualities of all these strong local leaders,” said Richardson. “The audience began to see that it can be people just like them who drove and led the movement.”

Hampton himself often described Eyes as an “honest telling of the civil rights movement,” recalled Blackside veteran Llewellyn Smith, recently project director of Africans in America. The documentary was the first to portray the “active role that black Americans played in shaping their own destiny” through the movement. “That had not been shown in scholarship or in film.”

“I don’t think most people realize the many ways in which the work Henry was responsible for has affected them and made an impact on their lives,” said Bagwell. People generally think of Eyes as an “important television event” but it’s had its most powerful impact “in our schools and in how young people have been able to see themselves in it, growing up believing that their actions, their voice and their participation in the democratic process makes a difference.”

The production process that Hampton pioneered with Eyes also influenced the craft skills of legions of black and white producers, men and women, who earned their stripes at Blackside. The company estimates that it has trained more than 200 minority producers, technicians and researchers. Hampton’s greatest monument, according to Fayer, are “hundreds of people working in the film industry, making documentaries that matter.”

Hampton is survived by two sisters, Dr. Veva Zimmerman and Judy Hampton, two nephews, Tobias and Jacob Zimmerman, and a brother-in-law, David Zimmerman.

The sisters now hold the majority of shares in Blackside and are committed to the public television projects now in development, according to Richardson. Those include Hopes on the Horizon and This Far By Faith, a series on the African-American religious experience.

The family held a small private ceremony for Hampton on Nov. 29. A public memorial service will be held Dec. 12 at the Arlington Street Church in Boston.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Museum of Afro-American History at 138 Mountfort St., Brookline, Mass. 02146.

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