A filmmaker’s journey

When his legendary mentor died just as work on a PBS series about African-American spirituality was beginning, Dante James found his own faith tested.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 21, 2003
John Blake – Staff

Dante James set out on a five-year mission to document the African-American spiritual journey.

Little did he know that the experience would ignite a spiritual crisis of his own.

James is the co-executive producer of “This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys,” a PBS special that airs for three nights starting Tuesday. The six-hour special examines African-American spirituality through the past three centuries, from the arrival of enslaved Africans to the civil rights era and today.

James, an Atlanta area resident, was scheduled to make the series with Henry Hampton, the producer of the Emmy Award-winning “Eyes on the Prize.” It was Hampton who came up with the idea for the series and asked James, himself a veteran filmmaker, to work with him.

But just as James began filming the series in November 1998, Hampton, his friend and mentor, died after struggling with cancer and other ailments throughout his life. The death of the 58-year-old legendary film producer plunged James into depression.

“It was a challenge to my faith,” James says. “Here was Henry, this incredibly talented and gifted man, who had given so much to so many people through his film, and he was taken away from us, prematurely.”

James says he became bitter, wondering why Hampton had died so young while so many others lived longer. “I struggled with it,” he says. “I finally came to the conclusion that perhaps I was being a little selfish. Perhaps Henry had given all that he had to give.”

James talked about “This Far by Faith” recently by telephone from Harlem. James, who declines to give his age, lives near Lithonia and describes himself as an “occasional” worshipper at Trinity Baptist Church. He’s been a busy man, promoting the series, filming another documentary on slave narratives, and preparing to get married in early July.

Q: Why focus an entire series on the African-American spiritual experience?

A: In our struggle as a people to have other people recognize our humanity and our dignity, religion and spirituality have always been a source of strength we could go to.

There have been other tools we could use but they haven’t been constant. Sometimes the political climate has been favorable, but more often it’s not. The economic and judicial climate has been the same. But our religion and spirituality have always been there. It’s the one thing we could control and draw from.

Q: What are some of the messages you want people to take away from the series?

A: In the last program, we have a Buddhist-organized pilgrimage that makes a trek through the middle passage [the slave trade route from Africa to the Americas]. It stops at a mosque in New York, a Christian co-op in Alabama, and what they all find are areas of common ground. To me, that’s what religion and spirituality are all about. It’s about finding common ground as human beings, and that common ground can . . . be the launching pad for a better understanding for each other as human beings.

Q: What persons from the series stood out to you?

A: Denmark Vesey [a 19th-century freedman who used the Bible to fight against slavery]. The idea that he would use a biblical text to inspire him to lead a revolution is pretty incredible.

Warith Deen Mohammed [the son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who broke with his father over his father's black supremacy theology] was another one. Here is a man who followed his own spiritual path, even though as a child he was told that he was the anointed one and that his father was a messenger from God. He was not only denying what he had been taught about his father but what he had been told about himself all of his life. This speaks to his strength and dignity in finding his own spirituality.

Q: How was your faith impacted by producing this series?

A: Sometime ago, I went on a film mission with the World Bank and [television station] WETA in Washington, D.C. We were doing a series of films called “Global Links” that looked at development in the developing world. I made a stop in Tokyo, then in Thailand, which is a Buddhist country. All the while I’m reading and trying to learn about the Buddhist faith. After that, we went to Jakarta, Indonesia, which is a Muslim community. I went from this Christian culture to a Buddhist culture to a Muslim culture to a Hindu culture. One of the things I found out was the universality of spirituality. For most of us, a religious faith or spiritual experience is part of being fully human. It really doesn’t matter where you find your spirituality — just find it and experience it and be fully human.

Q: Where do you find your spirituality?

A: I find it in a number of places. I find it in my parents, my wife-to-be, and in much of the work that I do. I find it in art, in literature. I find it in almost every aspect of life. I think it’s like that for many African-Americans. African-Americans don’t really separate religion from any other aspects of their life.

Q: What was Henry Hampton like?

A: He was absolutely brilliant. But beyond that, he was just a good person. We talked about everything, not just filmmaking. He was funny, engaging. Henry had polio as a child. He wore a brace on his left leg and he also used a cane. But he moved around with such dignity and grace that it was just a pleasure to be around him.

> ON THE WEB: For more information: www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith

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