While February may be best known for chocolate hearts and schmaltzy greeting cards, it also has the more serious distinction of being Black History Month. PBS is honoring this leap-year’s extra long February with a trio of probing documentaries by Independent Lens. The documentaries cast an unwavering eye at the past, present, and future of what it means to be black in America.
Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock
Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, airing February 2, focuses on the life and times of civil rights activist Daisy Bates. Though mostly forgotten now, her efforts in 1957 to get the “Little Rock Nine” into Arkansas’s Central High School made her a key figure in the era’s civil rights struggles - and made her a figure equal parts poise and ferocity, glamor and self-doubt.
This seven year opus of filmmaker Sharon La Cruise examines this controversial figure from her violent, lonely childhood, through her fleeting fame, to her death in relative obscurity.
La Cruise explains what drew her to devote so much of her life to the civil rights cause. “Daisy’s story is the one that I really connected to and it jumped out at me because I didn’t know her story - her childhood story touched me because of the rape and murder of her mother, of what it meant to grow up in the south in the early 1900s, and then her journey from all of this rage and anger as a child to become the woman who was instrumental in desegregating Central High.”
Inspired, she began corresponding about a possible project with the elderly Bates, but La Cruise didn’t start on the film until two years later, during which time Bates passed away.
“The whole process, it was similar to putting together a puzzle of Daisy’s life and connecting the dots of the people who knew her well,” says La Cruise, who described the Arkansas community as very welcoming. “I would knock on doors and just say, ‘I’m working on a film on Daisy Bates,’ and they said, ‘Come on in,’ and I’d just sit down and spend hours talking to them about her.”
More than a Month
The next film, airing February 16, poses this provocative question: should Black History Month be ended? Filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman explores this idea in More than a Month, a serious yet humorous examination of whether the month is good or bad for African Americans.
Tilghman speaks with Black academics, Sons of Confederate Veterans, people on the street, and even his own parents in an attempt to find out what would happen if Black History Month no longer existed.
Of course, the film itself is airing in February, an irony Tilghman acknowledges. “I’m a little torn... I mean, it’s a film about Black History Month.. It’s going to be promoted... But at the same time it’s a film about trying to see African American history outside of the box of February. I’m torn, and I don’t know if there’s a conclusive answer.”
La Cruise and activist Dr. Angela Davis (who is in the third project, Black Power Mixtape), expressed similar reservations about the month, but both appreciate the extra spotlight the month gives African American-focused projects. “I think we need a Black History Month, but I think that we need to see black history not as the history of black people, but as the history of the struggle for freedom in this country,” said Davis. “It involves people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s something that we all need to claim.”
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Davis would know, she’s one of the many “black power” activists who appear in the archival footage used for The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. This film uses footage shot in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Oakland, combined with interviews - old and new - of black power figures and African American luminaries.
The story behind the footage is almost as compelling as the film itself. Discovered after 30 years in a Swedish basement, the footage was shot by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson. Olsson wanted an in-depth look at the American civil rights struggle. What followed was the Swedish filmmakers enormous struggle against all sides to bring a ground-level, gritty perspective to the racial fires sweeping the country.
“What I found really interesting about the perspective of the Swedish Journalists and of the director was that it put the movement in a larger context,” says Davis. “We don’t often think about how the rest of the world perceives us, and people who have traveled, who are involved in various movements, know that the black freedom struggle in this country has had a profound impact on people all over the world.”
Daisy Bates: The First Lady of Little Rock premieres February 2, 2012
More than a Month premieres February 16, 2012
Black Power Mixtape premieres February 9, 2012
Check local listings for exact times