It’s been 30 years since PBS broadcast the first six episodes of Eyes on the Prize, and the series continues to speak to viewers. How might a rising generation of filmmakers advance the conversation it started?
The old dogs, we had our crack at it. [A hypothetical] Eyes III will be for people who will inherit a world that will not be our world. When these young people get together to do it, I hope they’ll invite us in and let us help them avoid some of the mistakes that we made.
As we move into the future, these are voices that we need. This influence matters, this legacy matters. So it’s not only the fact of the original series, though that storytelling and that first collection of the people’s history of the civil rights movement is historic. We’re in the same journey right now around the movements that we’re thinking about today. They need storytellers and visibility, too.
Sometimes people are intimidated by what they perceive as the victories of the ’60s and the ’70s, and the civil rights movement. I have to remind them that nobody knew they were going to get a victory. All they could determine for themselves was that they wanted to be a part of it, that they were going to find some other like-minded people and work toward making a difference.
These people who are nothing out of the ordinary—not in a position of power—ended up making a huge difference in the world. If people don’t like how things are, they have the power to change them.
Understanding the steps that people took before and how you can walk in those steps or modify them is really, really important.
People began to understand the civil rights movement as part of their DNA, understand African American history as American history and not something that’s distant that happened to somebody else. It became a binder, a way to see ourselves as a much more pluralistic society. Eyes on the Prize came at a very pivotal moment. And generations of people have grown up knowing the reasons for the struggle. As the battle continues and the advances are unwound, we need to rebuild and offer support once again.
I hate to say it this way because it’s simplistic, but the message of Eyes is that good can overcome evil. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. There will be a lot of hell to pay between now and then, but the inevitability is justice. The arc depends on the people—the people at large, not just the small number who run the government.
If you had asked me that 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said Eyes on the Prize acquainted millions of Americans with a history that they may have thought they knew, but didn’t really. I would have said that Eyes on the Prize set a template for understanding how a particular kind of democracy can work in America. America has been on a drunken trajectory during my lifetime: generally in the direction of justice and generally in the direction of expanded democracy and expanded equality. But we’ve got to fight a lot of these fights all over again.
Activist Steven Pargett of Dream Defenders talks about how Eyes on the Prize has impacted his work and that of other activists.
The gains of the past century, and especially the past 50 years, in light of the present day, suggest the need for a very different type of series, one that tells stories—visceral, powerful stories—about individuals in the United States, of many races, nationalities, abilities, gender identities, sexual orientation, whose lives are being upended by political and fundamentalist challenges to the constitutional principles that were the bedrock of the gains of Eyes I—and who, as individuals and communities, are drawing on the lessons of the past as they fight back.
When this series was made, the independent film community was much smaller, much less diverse. It stood as a kind of beacon. Blackside was the only place that could gather enough filmmakers of color to actually put their stamp on telling their own history. Now the majority of filmmakers we fund are people of color, and the films they are making are one form of Eyes on the Prize III. Another way to think about it is to look at the major series that are coming out around Asian Americans and other communities that have had very long struggles in the United States. So in a way that’s Eyes on the Prize III, as well.
When you think of the end of enslavement, people had to organize, to create institutions, to create schools. How do we live together? How do we work together? How do we make each other safe? How do we educate each other? How do we advocate for power? Eyes is part of that.
In JustFilms we talk about storytelling as process, not just product. We talk about it as a space to develop leadership, to bind community, to see a vision of a pluralistic and vibrant society, to actually see a space where the public can come together. Storytelling is a way to create a common language and find common ground. So it’s useful in movement building, in helping people understand what they can fight for and what’s possible.
Politics is how we organize ourselves to affect the larger society. Sharing knowledge— and history and culture—is political, because it affects how we look at each other. Knowledge helps us to be more democratic. Filmmaking, particularly filmmaking for television or that’s going to be widely seen, is definitely a political asset.
Just pick a place: You could go from any of those stories in Eyes on the Prize to whatever is happening in Chicago, Birmingham, Ferguson. Henry was the right person to corral the energy and brain trust, and get a product that’s such a durable good. It requires tremendous leadership. Henry left an imprint, and all of the people that worked for him are still making an impact.
In his 1987 Ford Hall Forum address, “Eyes on the Prize: Setting the Course for America's Racial Future,” Henry Hampton explains the role of truth, justice, and understanding our past in creating a moral compass for the future.