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Eyes on the Prize

Landmark 1987 PBS documentary on civil rights finally appearing on DVD

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A still from the long-unseen documentary Eyes on the Prize.


Eyes on the Prize

PBS

At one point, VHS copies of Eyes on the Prize—the critically acclaimed documentary about the Civil Rights movement, first broadcast on PBS in 1987—were selling online for as much as $1,500. The price tag was a testament to the documentary’s power as well as its rarity. The licensing rights to the hours of original footage and hundreds of still photographs and songs in the documentary began to expire in the mid-1990s, which meant it could not be released on DVD or shown on television. As a result, many of us missed seeing what remains the most comprehensive, moving document ever made about the movement.

Now, thanks to more than $800,000 in funding from the Ford Foundation and the Gilder Foundation, the first six hours of the 14-hour series (Part I, spanning the years 1954-1965) have been rereleased on DVD. The documentary, which begins around the time of Brown v. Board of Education and ends circa the march from Selma to Montgomery, has lost nothing in the two decades since it was made. Told almost entirely through primary sources—including news footage, photographs, and nearly 200 interviews with people who were there—it represents an incredible amount of research, covering every major event of the era. Eyes is an even-handed, compelling synthesis of all of these elements, with spare narration by civil rights leader Julian Bond.

The absence of academics and other “experts” lends Eyes an immediacy and momentum often absent from historical documentaries. Most of the famous figures from the era appear in present-day interviews (from the ’80s, that is). Stokely Carmichael, C.T. Vivian, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and many others reflect back, as do journalists who covered the movement and politicians on the federal, state, and local levels. But many who were footnotes in the history books also relate their memories. Leo Lillard, for example, a Nashville student who helped organize sit-ins, talks about his encounters with segregation as a young boy:

And one day we were in Kress, and Kress had these beautiful marble fountains, water fountains. And one said Colored and one said White. And being the kind of kid I was, I went over to both fountains and tasted the water and told my mother, “Taste the same to me, Mom.” She said, “Boy, come over here.” I said, “Mother, what’s the reason? Why are there two names up there and the water is exactly the same, Mom?” She said, “Well, come on here, we ain’t got time to fool around with that kind of mess.” And I always thought that there was something in the back of her head that she wasn’t giving me.

Stories like these, along with reams of incidental footage, help establish the tenor of the time, making you feel you were there. By these measures, Eyes also succeeds in showing the movement for what it was: a sweeping revolution, requiring the courage and sacrifice of thousands of Americans. While charismatic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Ella Baker are given their just due, you come away awestruck by the level of cooperation and coordination the movement required. One woman talks about walking eight miles every day for nearly a year during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, over black-and-white footage of empty buses and hordes of pedestrians; hundreds of Birmingham schoolchildren face down fire hoses and police dogs in a reel from 1963; activists in Mississippi pretend to beat one another on camera, so they can practice being nonviolent in return; and the cameras roll during numerous marches, protests, sit-ins, and mass arrests.

The narrative covers strife within the movement as well, particularly between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). At one point, SNCC leader Charles Sherrod mentions the paradoxical effect a visit from King could have on a particular effort. “When Dr. King would come in,” he says, “we’d get two or three thousand people without much effort, so that was in our favor. But when he left, it was more difficult for us to get people to come. . . .” Such nuance is often lost in official histories of the movement.

Tension between Southern state governments and the federal government figures largely in the documentary, of course. Among the more memorable characters are the string of local authorities who defied federal mandates and continued to adhere to Jim Crow, often violently. Jim Clark, sheriff of Dallas County, Ala., from 1955-1966, is known for his role in “Bloody Sunday,” when he ordered mounted policemen to charge at a crowd of peaceful marchers, trampling them and dispersing tear gas. Eyes shows this event in full, but it also includes the build-up, in which Clark lashes out against activists agitating for the right to vote. In a modern-day interview, Clark admits to punching C.T. Vivian on the Selma courthouse steps. “I did lose my temper then,” Clark says. “ I don’t remember even hitting him, but I went to the doctor, got an X-ray, and found out I had a linear fracture on my finger on my left hand.”

Again and again one is shocked to see infamous segregationists agreeing to an interview: Alabama governor George Wallace, national White Citizens Council leader William J. Simmons, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, and more. Their 1980s interviews are among the more fascinating artifacts in a fascinating series. But—and this is perhaps the documentary’s only weak spot—what they discuss is generally logistical, factual. Though there’s a certain voyeuristic thrill in simply seeing them, one is often left wishing they’d been forced to explain themselves.

But most everything else in Eyes is pitch-perfect, including the soundtrack. That includes the moments of silence, as when the bodies of four little girls are wheeled out of a Birmingham church. A mix of archival songs—including many a rendition of “We Shall Overcome”—and folk songs of the era, along with modern-day music, it’s the soundtrack of the movement as much as of the documentary. As Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the SNCC’s Freedom Singers, says in an interview, “Song was the bed of everything.”

Eyes creator and executive producer Henry Hampton—who gives a penetrating, nuanced explanation of his inspiration for making the film in the set’s special features—passed away in 1998. In his absence, it is to be hoped that Part II, which spans the years 1965-1985, will soon be rereleased as well. In these times when the word “freedom” is used so frivolously in political discourse, Eyes serves to remind us what the term really means, and how many people risked their lives to have it not so very long ago.

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