After twenty years behind the lens, Orlando Bagwell is putting down his camera. But his recently Sundance-screened Citizen King is not his swan song. Rather, as the producer-director quickly interjects, King is merely his “most recent” film—and the last to emerge from his Roja Productions before the fifteen-year-old company goes on indefinite hiatus, and Bagwell takes his seat as the newly appointed program officer of Media, Arts and Culure at the Ford Foundation.
The veteran filmmaker is no stranger to the grant application process, of course. It’s been an integral part of his documentary career, during which he has made a name for himself as one of the preeminent chroniclers of African-American history. Bagwell’s award-winning filmography includes Matters of Race, Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery, and Roots of Resistance: A Story of the Underground Railroad, in addition to profiles of such seminal figures as Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Alvin Ailey, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Citizen King (which premiered on PBS in January) revisits the last five years in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., while offering a distinctly different glimpse of Dr. King from that which has become popularized by the words “I have a dream . . . .” Prompted in part by the recognition of Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday in 1986, and also by his work on Eyes on the Prize as part of the production team at Henry Hampton’s Blackside Productions, Bagwell began to think about the ways King had been presented. “That national commemoration effort causes us in some way to see him somewhat narrowly,” Bagwell explains. “People tended to see him at the moment of the March on Washington, and to remember him as the spokesperson for the Montgomery bus boycott.”
During one segment of Bagwell’s film, the camera lingers over photos of King with his wife and children. The images slowly colorize and for a few brief moments, you could almost be looking at any old family photos. But then the images return to black and white and once again, King becomes the man as seen through history’s eyes. As King has himself said, “history has seized me.” Toward the end of his life, he was shouldering an enormous responsibility, leading the civil rights movement as it struggled to define itself against the backlash of Vietnam and the raging poverty and violence in homeland ghettoes. Bagwell, whose films often portray the forgotten or little-seen sides of men caught in greatness, portrays the final journey of King as an often-lonely one, and one that took a tremendous toll. As the film notes, Dr. King died when he was just thirty-nine years old, yet his autopsy revealed that he had the heart of a sixty-year-old man.
The value of media as a place where unseen worlds and lives can be represented is a recurring theme in Bagwell’s career. The Baltimore native moved with his family to New Hampshire while he was still in high school. There, he says, he realized that many of his classmates had no insight into the world he had come from, in large part because it was without representation anywhere. Later, while at Boston University, Bagwell taught an after-school program at a community center, helping youths to create real documents of their own experiences, whether it was b-ball on the playground, or just hanging out with friends. Even when he turned to historical documentaries, Bagwell’s belief in representing the under-portrayed comes through.
“There was a really rich story of a Dr. King that we may have missed for a while, and that we needed to be reminded of,” says Bagwell. Moreover, King’s story “offers a real strong lesson on the notion of leadership and the difficulties of being that person people expect you to be as a leader.”
At this junction, the notion of expectations and responsibility weigh heavily on Bagwell. When we spoke, he was just a week into his new gig at the Foundation, where he will oversee the funds given away annually to support various media projects. (The Ford Foundation in fact largely underwrote Citizen King.) The fifty-two-year-old-filmmaker is soft-spoken and pauses frequently—as if scanning the scope of his career when answering questions. So why leave a celebrated career after all this time?
“I’ve been so involved in production day in and day out, one production after another, at times I thought the industry was moving faster than I was,” he says. “I had been wanting to take some time to step back and take stock of it all, to look not only at where things have changed, but think about where they might go.”
Some of the biggest changes of course, are the internet and cable television—the brave new media world where many documentaries now find a home and an audience. “There are lots of possibilities for landing space now for documentary, but you also find the potential for all the research and elements that go into making docs emerging in new media form, and finding an audience and a way to reach them through online and broadband. The business and marketplace has changed dramatically,” says Bagwell. “In order to exist as a viable company—a company that started in 1988 needs to change to thrive in a much more competitive, diverse industry. So part of stepping away is to think about those things and how a company like Roja and the mission that we like to believe that we’re about find a space in the new market and new media.”
The opportunity at the Ford Foundation offered him just that: “These kinds of considerations and thought are actively a part of the environment. And it’s also a way to stay involved in the work of the media makers and to have the chance to learn from them and to consider the work that I do as a filmmaker by watching people tactically confront the same problems that I was confronting.” But while remaining intimately involved in media, will it be tough on Bagwell to not be behind the camera?
“It’s one of my big fears right now,” he concedes. “I think I will miss it tremendously. I know that at the core I’m a filmmaker—I love the process from beginning to end. I’m very much aware of the long days on the road and the editing and the sacrifices it takes on your everyday life. But in all these years, it’s the place where I found myself. It was an energized space that fed me a lot.”
He’s quick to mention, however, that the caliber of ideas and discourse exchanged at Ford recall times around the production tables at Blackside Productions (legendary Henry Hampton-helmed outfit responsible for such groundbreaking work as Eyes on the Prize and I’ll Make Me a World) as well as Roja. It’s too early for Bagwell to have a vision for the work he will do at the Foundation. For now, he’s adjusting to the new culture, looking back on his own career that has taken him from history back to the future.
Bagwell knows that attention is focused on him now—in the same way he trained his camera on so many subjects—and that there is an expectation for him to help lead emerging voices and ideas in media. So what will capture Orlando Bagwell’s attention? Broadly, says Bagwell, “well thought out projects with the potential to be completed and a vision for how the work might somehow energize ourselves as citizens of this nation, and of the world. If media can do that, then it’s media you have to pay attention to.”