Powerful look at black spirituality producer’s legacy
The Boston Globe, June 22, 2003 (Review)
By Catherine Foster, Globe Staff, 6/22/2003
”Without that belief — that we are more than what the world says we are — we would not have survived.”
So begins the six-part series ”This Far by Faith,” a searing look at how the deep faith of African-Americans has sustained them in the journey from slavery to equal rights over the last 300 years. Black churches provided solace to beaten slaves, a place to socialize, a way to develop a sense of self separate from that imposed upon them by whites, and the galvanizing force that propelled momentous social change.
Running on WGBH Tuesday through Thursday nights, the series covers a huge swath of history: the days of slavery, Reconstruction, the migration to the north, the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, the Black Power movement, and the growth of Islam among African-Americans.
This is not the first definitive documentary series on the black experience in America. ”Eyes on the Prize,” conceived, as this series was, by the late black filmmaker and producer Henry Hampton, has that honor. But ”This Far by Faith” takes on added significance because it is the last series conceived by Hampton and his South End documentary-film company Blackside Inc., and because those who carried on after him worked so hard to bring it to the air.
”Faith” has Hampton’s stamp all over it. Narrated by the calm-voiced Lorraine Toussaint (”Any Day Now,” ”Crossing Jordan”), the story is told not through the perspective of prominent officials and leaders — even Martin Luther King Jr. is not a focus — but through that of lesser-known but influential figures and ordinary citizens.
”Henry’s approach focused on movements that begin with the people,” says June Cross, who produced Part II of the series and shares the title of executive producer of the series with Dante J. James. ”He felt that when the people are ready, the leader will come. He wanted to tell the untold stories, to give voice to the voiceless.”
There are many such ”voiceless” people throughout the series. In Part I, ”There Is a River,” we meet Denmark Vesey, a carpenter charged up by the Old Testament, African mysticism, and prophesy who organized an ill-fated rebellion in the 1820s in South Carolina.
Part 2, ”God is a Negro,” looks at Henry McNeal Turner, a minister in Georgia and an organizer of the Georgia Republican Party during Reconstruction whose rejection of white supremacy alienated him from mainstream leaders. His philosophy, however, encouraged followers to find a personal sense of God and to strengthen their own sense of identity.
In Part 3, ”Guide My Feet,” the Rev. Cecil Williams joins the moribund, 35-member Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco in the ’60s and invigorates it by inviting in gays, drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes. His open-arms philosophy — and the roof-raising jazz and gospel played there — caused his multiracial church to flourish.
The personal style of the filmmaking often packs an emotional wallop. In Part 4, ”Freedom Faith,” the Rev. Prathia Hall recalls marchers who were attacked and beaten by police on horseback as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965. She was there when they regrouped in Brown Chapel, bloodied and in shock, their hopeful nonviolent philosophy severely tested. The pain in her voice, nearly 40 years later, adds resonance to the black-and-white television footage of the beatings.
Part 5, ”Inheritors of the Faith,” explores the turning of African-Americans to the religious traditions of Islam and Yoruba after Christian activism was questioned as a means to effect social change.
Part 6, ”Rise Up and Call Their Names,” follows the participants of the recent Interfaith Pilgrimage, who over two years walked from Massachusetts to Florida, then made their way to the Caribbean and on to Africa.
Underscored by music ranging from spirituals sung by scratchy-voiced septugenarians to jazz, the series blends interviews, archival footage, letters, paintings, drawings, and recreated scenes. Some of those scenes seem amaturish, the actors too young or modern-looking for their parts.
But elsewhere, there is a painterly quality to some of the shots that lifts the series above the traditional documentary: a staircase in shadow, with light pouring in from the outside, or a farm at dawn, wreathed in mist. Even the talking heads — scholars (including the animated, impish Cornel West, now at Princeton), biographers, preservationists, and clergy — are attractively filmed, with gleaming church pews or home settings in the background.
Hampton produced other series on such subjects as the Great Depression, Malcolm X, and America’s War on Poverty. In all of them, accuracy was of vital importance to him, and he laid down a template for scholars and producers working with him, says Cross. ”You would sit in a room with the scholars and ask them what should be in the film. Every piece of narration had to have two fact-checked sources.”
This latest series encountered serious roadblocks before finally reaching a breakthrough.
After Hampton’s death in 1998, Blackside foundered when his two sisters, Veva Zimmerman and Judi Hampton, who had no filmmaking experience, took it over. Many longtime employees, loyal to his vision of doing hard-hitting films on social-justice issues, left after the sisters decided to make corporate films as well.
Eighteen months ago, the nearly completed ”Faith” project was stalled. Vendors and staff went unpaid, the $4.9 million that had been raised for the film was gone, and additional funding was hard to raise.
Cross didn’t want to let ”Faith” stay in limbo. Neither did others, who felt so strongly that Hampton’s last series should get aired that they worked for little or no pay. A year ago, Cross formed a separate corporation, The Faith Project, to complete the series.
”Questions had been raised about Blackside’s ability to finish the project,” she explains from New York, where she is a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University. ”I thought if I raised the money myself and managed the project though a separate entity, the questions would disappear. My objective was just to get the show on the air.”
Funding ultimately came through, from governmental sources and large funders such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Ford Foundation. Cross raised $650,000 and finished the film. In the end, it was coproduced by Blackside and The Faith Project, in association with the Independent Television Service.
”I am beyond pleased that the series was completed,” says Judi Hampton, Blackside’s president. ”My hat goes off to everyone concerned. We are just so proud of it, and I know that Henry would be also.”
”We at ‘GBH felt there was an electricity surrounding the project,” says Marita Rivero, the executive in charge of this series for WGBH. ”This was one of those media projects that excited people, and they were willing to go the extra mile to see that it got aired.”
”This Far by Faith” ended up being a journey of faith itself.
”When I sent out a letter to the board of advisors [of the project] saying we had an air date,” Cross remembers, laughing, ”the first line read, `We’ve been wandering in the wilderness for a long time, but we have an air date.’ ”
”This Far by By Faith” airs on WGBH in two-part segments over three consecutive nights, Tuesday through Thursday, 9-11 p.m. For more information, visit www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith.