The Indie Caucus, an organization of filmmakers whose work appears on public television, is challenging a member of Congress who criticized independent documentaries during a recent House subcommittee hearing.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) cited three films during CPB President Pat Harrison’s March 28 testimony before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. The 13-member panel oversees the corporation’s federal outlay.
Harris, who acknowledged that he had seen only two of the three films, accused CPB having an “agenda” by supporting the films, each of which received CPB funding and aired on PBS’s Independent Lens.
Harris criticized The New Black, which explored one African-American community’s reaction to gay marriage; Baby Mama High, a profile of a teenage mother struggling to graduate high school; and Kumu Hina, which introduced viewers to a māhū, a Hawaiian individual who embraces both male and female characteristics.
The largest CPB grants went to documentaries co-produced by the Independent Television Service in partnership with national minority consortia: Kumu Hina, supported by Pacific Islanders in Communications, received $287,000; and The New Black, $250,000. Baby Mama High received $50,555 through CPB’s American Graduate initiative.
The caucus, which led an effort to raise the profile of independent documentaries on PBS in 2015, hit back against Harris in a letter Friday. Directors of each of the films co-signed the letter with members of the caucus steering committee.
“Rep. Harris’ speech is a tired ploy straight from the late 1980s and early 1990s ‘culture wars,’ when groundbreaking PBS documentaries like Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, which also featured subjects who embodied ethnic and sexual diversity, were singled out for discrimination by culturally conservative Senators seeking to impose their values on public programming as justification for defunding of the CPB and PBS,” the caucus letter said.
“These films strengthen our democracy and help to bridge cultural and political divides,” the letter said.
The letter is signed by the The New Black director Yoruba Richen, Baby Mama High director Heather Ross and Kumu Hina directors Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. It urges readers to contact Harris’s office to voice support for CPB funding.
Correction: This post has been updated to clarify the funding to The New Black.