Jon Else Tells Tales from Blackside

By Andrew Gilbert

In the summer of 1964 the Democratic Party was a bastion of white supremacy in Mississippi, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent its foot soldiers to attempt to register black voters in the face of lethal racism. Among them was Jon Else who went on to spend almost two decades leading UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism’s documentary program (full disclosure: I was part of the first J-School doc class he taught in 1997).

Midway between those points, in the mid-’80s Else, well-established as an important voice in documentary film, joined forces with visionary producer Henry Hampton, who was in the midst of launching the landmark Civil Rights Movement film series Eyes on the Prize.

Else’s new book on the experience, True South (published by Viking), is a deeply considered hybrid: part memoir, part Hampton biography, part civil rights struggle synopsis, and all an insider’s account of the shoestring world of documentary film production. Timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first public television broadcast of Eyes, True South arrives at a moment when the series feels more relevant than ever, both as bottom-up history and a daunting journalistic feat.

When I spoke with Else recently at a Greek café half a block from his office in North Gate Hall, he said he’d started working on the book as President Obama cruised to reelection in 2012 “and I had hoped it would be irrelevant in a good way. As it turned out, it may be irrelevant in a bad way. It went to press a week before Trump’s election.”

Else served as the Eyes series producer and True South centers on the whirlwind 18 months of production from 1985 to 1986. The book’s unwieldy subtitle, “Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series that Reframed the Civil Rights Movement,” proclaims the enduring influence of the series.

Hampton’s Boston-based production company, Blackside, was staffed by former civil rights activists and, despite the cost, every Eyes episode was co-directed by a duo of one black and one white filmmaker. The team also honed an inclusionary ethic that journalists today would do well to study. As Else writes, under Hampton’s leadership the directors of the six hour-long Eyes episodes came to believe that “if you’re going to make a documentary about Christ, you’d better interview the antichrist.”

“I think we partly solved the problem of covering white resistance,” said Else, who celebrates the publication of True South on Jan. 24 with a reception at North Gate followed by a discussion with former J-School dean Neil Henry. “We aggressively sought out former resisters, the Klan, the White Citizens’ Council. Eyes tried to be a sober history told by partisans. We had long discussions about that.”

True South contains several harrowing accounts of filmmakers seeking out segregationist white politicians, brutal law enforcement officials, and Klan members responsible for killing civil rights workers. But what’s most striking is the realization that Eyes, a series that introduced countless grade school students to a pivotal chapter in America, often served as a first draft of history. In detailing key civil rights confrontations from the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till through the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the films never put historians and experts on screen, instead tracking down activists and citizens who had never before been interviewed, shining a spotlight on the grassroots black community leaders ignored by the media of the day.  

Hampton didn’t pause to enjoy the series’s universal acclaim. Blackside became a documentary empire, with a burst of filmmaking exploring some of America’s most contested history, including the eight-episode Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965–1985, The Great Depression, Malcolm X: Make It Plain, and America’s War on Poverty.

In many ways, True South is Else’s love letter to Hampton, a brilliant, charismatic, and confounding figure who died in 1998 at the age of 58. Though he had a casual relationship with payroll, taxes, and accounting, his vision of filmmaking as a forum and vehicle for championing democracy attracted extraordinary filmmakers, like Else, Frontline producer June Cross, and Orlando Bagwell, who took over the J-School doc program from Else.

“He was like Gwen Ifill, with a lot of the best of Steve Jobs and none of the worst,” Else said. “We would walk into cannon fire for Henry Hampton, and we did. We’d get so mad we’d be throwing plates at the wall. And then we’d go home, sleep for a few hours, and come right back.”

“He grew up as a prince in the upper reaches of the black bourgeoisie in segregated Missouri, the northernmost slave state,” Else said. “And then in 1955 the lynching of Emmett Till struck Henry like a bolt of lightning. He realized that his young black life was worthless in many parts of the country.”

Reading True South, it became clear to me that Else had essentially brought Blackside’s methodology to Berkeley, while filtering out Hampton’s disorganization. Unflappable and never given to self-aggrandizing war stories, Else distilled hard-won wisdom into pithy advice, like “never mistake a good time for a good film.”

He takes a similar approach in True South. Rather than offering tangential tales of his adventures in the field away from Eyes he delivers a few priceless observations that speak to his far-flung filmography. “In my experience all bodyguards love public television,” he writes. “Andy Young’s in New York, Hamid Karzai’s in Kabul, and Jerry Brown’s in California.” 

Part of the impetus for the book came after a documentary project for a network imploded, when Else figured writing a book had to be less stressful than making a film. He came to rue that judgment, particularly when it came to turning himself into a protagonist. Though he never intended to put himself into the book, particularly his time in the movement, “it was disingenuous to try to tell the story without talking about my own experience. I was a paid full-time activist who went to jail and testified in court trials.”

After leaving the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he made his way to Cal, where he majored in English lit and “didn’t read a book for pleasure for 20 years after I graduated [in 1968],” he said. But once he got into the weeds writing True South “all that stuff came rushing back. It turned out to be extraordinarily useful.”

If True South feels like three books in one, it’s because Else felt pulled by various responsibilities, particularly to Blackside, a beloved institution that collapsed quickly after Hampton’s death. Hampton didn’t write his own memoirs, and Else decided to tackle the project out of friendship and a belief in Blackside’s importance. “It was Camelot and it’s gone,” he said. “But I’d add, gone for now.”

Andrew Gilbert is a Bay Area writer covering music, film, and other arts for an array of publications.

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