Over the past 30 years, St. Clair Bourne has amassed a substantial body of work about strong and controversial black artists and leaders: LeRoi Jones, Langston Hughes, Spike Lee, and John Henrick Clarke, among others. Most recently he’s set his sights on the singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson and former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. Here Bourne reflects on his long career, the state of black documentary, and modern-day griots.
In person, St. Clair Bourne exudes much of the same charisma that the subjects of his documentaries and news pieces are known for–people like Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), Malcolm X, and Langston Hughes, to name a few, who seem to possess a passion that is uncommon in this age. Though the impression of Bourne etched in my mind comes from images taken nearly 30 years ago, when he was a young face behind PBS’s Black Journal, he is still easily recognizable these days, commanding an air of respect on the set, like a five-star general in the old-school military.
Perhaps that’s what he might have been, had he not dropped out of the service and joined the battle for civil rights in the early sixties, arming himself with a camera instead of a rifle and embarking on a mission to tell history through the eyes of an African-American filmmaker.
On this afternoon, as New York shows its first signs of winter, Bourne is in a rehearsal studio near Times Square, the owner looking on nervously as a technician ignites pictures of Eslanda Robeson, Paul Robeson’s mother, one after another to be used in Bourne’s new documentary Paul Robeson: Here I Stand! It is perhaps the most controversial look at the legendary black actor, vocalist, and political activist ever undertaken–set to air on PBS’s American Masters series in February as part of Black History month. "I want to get the flames just right," Bourne explains to his DP, with a can of lighter fluid in his hands. "You know, rising slowly from the bottom, then engulfing the whole thing."
The room is filled with smoke, and the rehearsal space owner is growing impatient, so they decide to call it a wrap. I stroll over and extend a hand towards him, "Still starting fires, St. Clair?" I ask, as he smiles broadly and shakes my hand, no doubt wondering who the hell this skinny young white kid is, intruding on his set.
In 1963, Bourne was a 19-year-old student at Georgetown University when he was arrested for participating in a sit-in for civil rights and subsequently expelled from school. It was an event that changed the course of his life forever–a first taste of activism that made his military career in the ROTC seem like a fallacy. In 1968, Bourne was again arrested and thrown out of school, only this time it was Columbia University film school, and his film professor advised him not to worry because he would recommend him for a position at a new series on public television called Black Journal. "Literally three days after I got out of jail," Bourne says, "I was associate producer of a national black television show."
It was by no means an end to his protests, however. Even at Black Journal, which was billed by PBS as a progressive television series "by, for, and about black people" and which, for the most part, delivered on that promise, Bourne would eventually walk out, along with 11 other staff members, until the network bowed to demands that the white executive producer be replaced by a black producer. Bourne and his colleagues eventually won the battle, and William Greaves became the first black executive producer of the first black news series on American television.
There were a lot firsts that came out of Black Journal, including Madelaine Anderson, who later became the first black female producer at NET–another unprecedented event in television history. Black Journal was the first national media outlet to show African Americans in African dress, giving an Afro-centric view of the news, including events in South Africa or pertaining to the Nation of Islam, which had been all but demonized by the mainstream media at that time.
"It’s hard to imagine what an impact Black Journal had," Bourne recalls nostalgically. "Even though we only had an hour a month on public television, I think we really made a difference in people’s lives, as well as in television. The news magazine format, for example–I think we set the standard for that, because we were on the air for two years before 60 Minutes even showed up."
Riding back to the editing room on a city bus, Bourne is dressed in a bomber jacket and baseball cap, like the archetypical director or an ex-pilot, both of which he is. As we discuss the Paul Robeson documentary, he begins to air his grievances with PBS, which apparently have never ended since his days with Black Journal.
"For a number of reasons, I’m not too happy with [Here I Stand!," he confesses. "PBS almost always expects an inferior product when they’re dealing with black film. There’s this subtle racism that exists there. For example, they want to put the Robeson film on American Masters for Black History month, and I think it shouldn’t be. I think it should be in general programming. But they see it as black material, and put it on February when everybody has stuff coming out. It’s their month of blackness."
In 1971, just after leaving Black Journal, Bourne set out on his own to create Chamba Mediaworks, a production company that remains in existence to this day. Bourne has made over 40 documentary films for PBS, HBO, and National Geographic, including Let the Church Say Amen, the story of a young black student preparing to become a minister; In Motion: Amiri Baraka, a powerful look at the literary figure and black activist formerly known as LeRoi Jones, as he faced criminal charges for allegedly abusing his wife (which she denied) and resisting arrest; and The Black and the Green, which follows a group of black activists on a trip to Northern Ireland to meet with the I.R.A. Some of his films have also been privately financed, including such as John Henrick Clarke: Great and Mighty Walk, which was financed by Wesley Snipes and took Grand Prize for Best Documentary at the 1997 Urbanworld Film Festival.
His schedule shows no signs of slowing down, either, with more than seven projects currently in various stages of production, such as Ready for Revolution, a doc that features candid conversations with Stokely Carmichael (now known as Kwame Ture) on the behind-the-scenes history of SNCC and the Black Panthers during the civil rights movement. Bourne had recently been set to direct a documentary on Tupac Shakur for HBO, when the deal fell through because of negotiations with Shakur’s estate. However, HBO then asked him to produce a documentary on Gordon Parks, artist and director of Shaft, called Half-Past Autumn. Production on that film began in December, while Bourne was still working on the Robeson documentary.
"If you’re a beginning filmmaker, PBS is probably the best place to start," Bourne says. "But if you’re in any way experienced, it’s a very frustrating, disappointing place, and quite frankly I try to avoid it. On the other hand, my experience with HBO has been excellent, both for budget and for style reasons, it’s pretty good. That’s mostly based on one person–Sheila Nevins. She doesn’t just commission one type of documentary film, even though she gets a lot of criticism for that. The battle at HBO, I find, is getting your concept accepted. Once you do that, the budgets are good, and they’re very supportive. Sheila has made films herself, so she’s very understanding."
Returning to the subject of the Robeson film, Bourne says he was asked to direct the film, and accepted partly because Robeson is a person for whom he has a great deal of admiration, but also because he wanted to set the record straight on who Robeson really was–the man, as opposed to the myth. He laughs as we sit in the editing room, watching tapes of interviews, trying to decide whose account to use for the number of languages Robeson actually spoke. "Some say four, some say 12, some say 20," he laughs. "This film’s going to be very controversial, because everybody has this saint’ image of Paul Robeson." Robeson’s mother died in a fire when he was six, Bourne explains. "I think that affected him all throughout his life, and I want to use flames and her picture being burned, symbolically, all throughout the film. It’s a way to portray psychological subtext. Robeson had a series of affairs. He was married to a woman who basically became his mother and took care of him."
Other than his choice of subject matter, which almost exclusively deals with controversial black male figures, Bourne’s work springs from a traditional approach to documentary filmmaking, with its talking head interviews and archival footage. This perhaps owes to his early ties to journalism. His father was a journalist who came from the West Indies to find a "better life" in America and instead found Bed Stuy (the Brooklyn neighborhood where Do the Right Thing was filmed, as well as Bourne’s resulting documentary Making of Do the Right Thing). Bourne was also a journalist in the Peace Corps in Peru, but abandoned the profession because he found it too limiting. Moving into film, he went on to push the boundaries in form, as well as content.
"The difference between documentary and news to me is that you don’t really have rules in documentary," he says. "It’s fiction under the guise of objectivity. I mean, all news is that anyhow, but doc makers have a license to [fictionalize]. Especially now, and over the last ten years, because in order for the form to survive, it’s had to reinvent itself. Even during my Black Journal days, I realized that I couldn’t live under the so-called rules’ of journalistic TV. That’s one of the reasons why I left. I wanted to combine analysis and style, and in a traditional [news] doc, you can’t do that too much. Then I found out that there was a place where you could combine analysis and style, and it was called ‘independent film.’ "
Though Bourne says conditions now are almost universally better for black filmmakers thanks to the strides made in Hollywood by such directors as Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hudlin brothers, Bill Duke, and others, he also concedes that life in the independent world appears to have gotten even more difficult for all filmmakers, regardless of race, "and that’s especially true for the world of documentary films," he says. Not long ago, in fact, Bourne had serious doubts about his ability to continue as a documentary filmmaker, citing issues such as funding cuts, a political swing to the right since the seventies, and a serious shift in where black audiences were seeking their views of "reality" in cinema.
"I had a 20-year retrospective at the Whitney [Museum in New York] in 1988," he says, "and that’s when it hit me that things were shifting. With the drift to the [political] right and budget and the audience shrinking, I knew that docs weren’t going to get mass audiences–not that they were getting mass audiences before. But even the usual doc audience was getting smaller, so I figured that making features was the only way to go." In that respect, Bourne now has two projects in development: The Run, from a screenplay by Charles Fuller (A Soldier’s Story); and Exiles and Allies, a reality-based feature that follows the lives of five American Vietnam war deserters in Sweden.
One of the main factors responsible for the changing landscape of black film, according to Bourne, was the success of Do the Right Thing, which he says "snatched the real-life’ appeal away from documentary film for black audiences.
"In my generation, people would come to see my films because a documentary carried with it a kind of noble mission. In commercial terms, it would be called ‘street credibility’ today. But Spike [Lee] came along and changed everything. He said ‘I’m gonna give you real life–the real thing.’ And whether you agree with that or not, the hype worked. The street credibility remained in documentaries, but it became the old man. The new thing was to put it right on the big screen, and people could see a certain kind of reality in the dialogue and the relationships, but it would be in the big form, so that’s where black people went. This English filmmaker I once met said ‘When I tell people I’m a documentary filmmaker, they look at me as if I’m a glass blower.’ And that said it all, basically."
Nonetheless, Bourne still manages to make a full-time living from his documentary films, and he does so by juggling multiple projects simultaneously, playing the role of director, producer, and script supervisor on a number of projects all at once.
Late into the evening, Bourne takes a break from editing Here I Stand! to attend a rough-cut screening of Innocent Until Proven Guilty, a film he is executive producing with Kirsten Johnson, director of Bintu, a provocative doc on female genital mutilation. Innocent tracks a group of troubled Washington D.C. youth participating in a program started by James Forman, Jr. (son of renowned black civil rights activist James Forman) who is a D.C. public defender. In the heated discussion that follows the screening, Bourne breaks into a "I’m gonna tell you how it really is" speech that proves his fervor for defending the "radical" black position of the early days has not waned in the least. His criticism is sharp, but ultimately he hopes it will be enough to save the film from falling into "the standard white liberal solution that we all know does not work."
Walking back through Times Square, he confides that "For a long time, I didn’t work with white people." (Kirsten Johnson, the director of Innocent, is white.) "I found that whites were either awkward to work with, or they thought they were super-cool for doing a black film. I fired the first DP I had for Making of "Do the Right Thing" after the first day," Bourne says. "He was a white guy, and all the footage he shot in Bed-Stuy was of kids playing in the gutter. I grew up in Bed Stuy–that’s not what it’s like."
The issue of racial barriers surfaces again when I propose to Bourne the central idea I hold of his work, which is that he is an historian on a crusade, attempting to fill the media void on African American figures who have contributed to our society and culture, but were not sufficiently recognized for their accomplishments. Yet again, Bourne sees it in a totally different way.
"I got into film because I would look at documentaries on CBS about the civil rights movement, and they would just miss things," he says. "They’d never talk to the black audience–it was always a white guy talking to what he assumed was a white audience, about ‘those people.’ Well, I was ‘those people’ and thought, ‘How come you’re talking about me as if I’m not in the room? And on top of that, you’re lying! Maybe you don’t know you’re lying, but you are.’ So it’s not so much a rewriting of history, as I’m just trying to portray people who are against the history of the Euro-centric world, or who hold another version of ‘history.’ And it’s very difficult, because then people see that as ‘rewriting’ history."
Scanning through hours of historical footage of Paul Robeson giving speeches in fluent Russian and singing for cheering audiences of East German youths, we discuss the process of how Bourne found the archival footage for this documentary. He says he was fortunate in that he was given access to home videos and photographs owned by Paul Robeson, Jr., and that he also stumbled across an archive in East Germany that had just been opened for the first time, and included an entire documentary on Robeson’s tour of Eastern Europe in the 1960s.
He then explains the concept of a "griot," an African word for an oral historian. "What I’ve discovered with more contemporary subjects is that there’s a whole network of people who now shoot home videos and keep them," he says. "Especially black people. I found one guy in Brooklyn who’s got like 21 years of famous and infamous speakers who have come through and talked about black subject matter. These guys are basically our own African-American electronic griots. I also have still photos that I’ve been shooting for 30 years, and this summer I organized them. So now I have my own archive. I even interviewed my own father for [the Robeson documentary] because he had written articles about the protests at the wedding of Paul Robeson, Jr.," who married a white Jewish girl.
Being in Bourne’s presence, it’s hard not to feel a strong sense of nostalgia. His speech is peppered with anachronisms from sixties uptown slang, like "woofing" and "cats." He is one of the few remaining members of the old guard who still sees things as clearly as they seemed three decades ago–a time that, though more difficult in many ways, was also far less complex than the present, where the very idea of being a "black filmmaker" is an increasingly complicated concept.
"There are black filmmakers today who don’t operate on the black aesthetic," Bourne agrees. "And I think that’s fine. They’re just filmmakers who happen to be black, which is essentially what I consider myself to be, as well." Yet he says there are several younger people whom he views as carrying on his legacy, such as documentarians Kathy Sandler (A Question of Color) and Louis Massiah (Ida B. Wells and Eyes on the Prize II), as well as feature director Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).
"I don’t think that black documentary will disappear," he says. "But I do worry that the playing field is getting smaller and creatively more constrained."
It’s nearly 10 p.m. when Bourne finally leaves the editing room for the night, walking out onto the cold streets surrounding Times Square. He says he’ll be working non-stop to get the Robeson film to PBS on schedule for its February 24 air date. Just in time for Black History month.
"Like this young guy once said to me, ‘They gave us the coldest month of the year, and the shortest,’ " he says with a laugh. "No matter what, man, you just can’t win."