Part of a series of interviews with people behind the scenes in Boston
arts by Helen Epstein (This series is funded in part by a grant
from the Boston Arts Lottery Council.)
At forty-eight, Henry Hampton is one of Bostons pre-eminent filmmakers.
Founder and president of Blackside, Inc., one of perhaps a dozen minority-owned
independent film production companies in the nation, he is the producer
of Eyes on the Prize , an award-winning six-part television history
of the American Civil Rights movement that has become the most widely-seen
documentary of that time. Born and raised in St. Louis, he came to Boston
in 1961 and has lived here ever since. We spoke with him at the Blackside
office in Bostons South End.
Boston Review: Why is it so difficult to find an hour to
talk with you these days?
Henry Hampton: Ill take that as a friendly question. I
just hired an organizational specialist and the first thing she made
me do was write down all the jobs Im doing. Im the president
of Blackside, which is now twenty years old and employs thirty people.
Im the executive producer of Eyes on the Prize I, which
is moving out into audiovisual sales, the educational market, and foreign
sales, and Eyes on the Prize II, which is in the production and
fundraising stages. Then we have a second large project in the works--the
Depression project, which looks at American history from 1917 to 1941,
which we start at the end of the year, and were also doing a project
with Bill Cosbys production company--a four-hour mini-series on
Selma, which, if all goes well, should be on the air late next year.
Im also Chairman of the Afro-American Museum in Boston--which
could be a full-time job in itself, taking a small institution and trying
to rejuvenate it. The Museum is, for me, really the hard copy of Eyes.
Eyes is the attempt to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement
and to create an emotional, intellectual constituency. But what do you
do after that? The black community doesnt have institutions that
pick up such moments and preserve them. I consider the Museum potentially
an institution that can not only look at the history but create an environment
in which black and white people can come together and talk and share
some tears and have some fun. Because history is fun when you really
go back and begin picking it apart and making it yours. Everybody needs
history but the people who need it most are poor folks--people without
resources or options. Food might be more immediately important than
history but if you dont understand whats been done to you--by
your own people and the so-called "they"--you can never get
And then, since I cant make enough money doing these sorts
of things, I have to work with projects that provide some financial
return. Most filmmakers hit their forties and fifties and theyre
staring at a deep hole. I decided ten years ago that this wasnt
going to happen to me. I consciously thought: a lot of this wonderful
stuff really dries you of the money. You better work out how youre
going to pay for the meals and also do some of the things in life that
you want to do, like travel and fly a plane, and have free time. So
I do that work. And I havent yet gotten too much free time.
BR: You grew up in white suburbs. You own a country place
and fly a plane. Yet you have an extraordinary commitment to public
service and to the poor black community. Where does that come from?
HH: First of all, I dont think Im so unique. I just
happen to be in a high-visibility business. There are plenty of black
people doing public service. That said, my parents, clearly, are a part
of it. My older sister is dean of students at New York University Medical
School and a psychiatrist and a mother of two. My younger sister is
an executive with Mobil Oil in New York. Both of them feel some responsibility
but Im a bachelor and I dont have a family demanding my
Maybe if you dont have a family you feel more of an obligation
to give some back. But maybe more of a reason why I do it is the period
of history I came through. It seems inconceivable that, after the sixties,
we are going to give up trying to make a contribution to society--an
idea which today in the eighties seems to be more of an anomaly than
What drives people to public service is a sense of possibility.
If you havent sensed that possibility you dont get started
in the same way, you dont feel you can have an impact. In the
black community in Boston there is a group of people which, in fact,
makes a difference. Two of my closest friends, Ruth Batson and Ellen
Jackson, helped change the education system for the better for all children.
And look at Mel King or Hubie Jones or Vivian Johnson. A lot of black
folks who were in Roxbury in the 1960s tried to create institutions
and organizations with a wonderful idealism. The generation that came
after couldnt find a niche somehow because there were no openings
immediately available and times were changing quickly. It was one thing
to stand in Selma and feel a sense of possibility and expectation and
another thing, four years later, to be absolutely distraught because
the leaders were dead, the War on Poverty was a shambles, and Resurrection
City had failed. We have to once again raise that sense of possibility.
BR: How much of a role did race play in your early life?
HH: I was born in St. Louis in 1940. Everything was segregated.
My father was chief of surgery at the citys black hospital and
I went to an all-black Catholic elementary school because it was better
than the black public schools and because my father and mother had made
a decision to become Catholics when the church became aggressive about
desegregating St. Louis. Then, when I was in seventh grade, my sister
and I became the first black students in an all-white suburban parochial
school. Suddenly the element of race came into my life in a very real
Because my parents were very intent on us tracking toward certain
objectives, they didnt encourage indiscriminate associations.
We were driven places. Things were chosen for us. We were taken to Sunday
Symphony, encouraged to read books, and rewarded for initiative. I sold
eggs from our farm to neighbors with their encouragement.
When I was fifteen, I had polio. My father had the vaccine in his
office but it was brand new so he didnt give it to us. I had always
been an athlete and one of the frustrations of being paralyzed was not
having something to do. I had a lot of physical therapy and a lot of
time to read. It obviously changed my life in many important ways. My
sister, the psychiatrist, could help you in greater detail but, in general,
my parents would never let me use physical disability as any kind of
excuse. They showed me how to incorporate physical limitations without
ever using them as a crutch or a reason for not doing.
BR: How did you get to Boston?
HH: I went to Catholic schools, so a Catholic college was logical.
The Jesuits convinced me Id like it at Holy Cross. My father disapproved.
He wanted all of us to go to Ivy League schools. My older sister had
gone to Wellesley three years earlier. I got into a couple of Ivy League
schools and Williams, but I chose Holy Cross.
Absolute disaster. I mean, its painful getting up at seven
oclock every day for chapel. In bed with lights out by ten? This
is freedom in college? So after a year, I go back and finish at Washington
University in St. Louis. That year at Holy Cross capped my growing frustration
with the church.
Toward the end of my time at Washington I got involved with the
sit-ins there, but very much on the sidelines. My parents expected that
I would become a doctor but that was not to be. I went to McGill in
Montreal to try, but just couldnt stay. I came to Boston where
my sister was, drove a cab, practiced classical guitar three hours a
day, fooled around at BU with girls, had a wonderful time. I didnt
know what I was doing but I was happy to have given up the notion of
My BA was English lit and pre-med so one day I answered an ad in
the paper looking for an editor. The job turned out to be at the headquarters
of the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street and I was
hired by a very interesting and controversial man names Royal Cloyd,
who created the Boston Center for the Arts and ran it for seventeen
years. He was the director of adult programs and he taught me a lot
about hiring and about things getting to me. He always found bright
people, young people, and gave them a chance. So after seven or eight
months of editing the Directory--which is exactly what it sounds
like--suddenly Im director of information at the age of twenty-four,
publishing a couple of magazines, making films, with absolutely no experience.
Like my parents, he had one of those minds that didnt accept excuses
and encouraged common sense creativity.
BR: Apart from providing you with a job, the Unitarians brought
you face-to-face with the black community. How?
HH: They were on the edge of the Civil Rights movement and then
the anti-war movement was their meat. They went to the 1963 March on
Washington. They marched form Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and I went
as part of my job. What I saw in the South stayed with me. Individuals
taking responsibility as leaders and followers. It was a remarkable
groundswell of people collecting themselves, cutting through the bullshit
that keeps people apart, and tracking toward an objective. When do you
get close to that? Its a potent lesson and one you dont
get over. You keep believing it could happen again.
Then, in 1967, the black caucus movement began within the denomination.
This is a movement that says not to people in the South, not Washington,
but to the organizations in which you are a participant, "Hey,
what about here? Whats going on here? We want to take resources
and assets and play a full role within the Unitarian church." And
the way you do it is to go off by yourself--which flipped the Unitarians
out but provided me with a way to work with blacks in Boston. I became
the director of press for the caucus as well as the director of information
for the UUA. It was clear there was a conflict of interest, so in 1968
I resigned. I still give them money because of their past commitments,
but I dont go. My church is going up 12,000 feet, pulling the
power back, and looking at the world above and below and enjoying myself.
BR: You say that founding Blackside was a natural consequence
of the caucus movement at the Unitarians?
HH: If youre talking about taking control over a piece
of your experience, suddenly youre dealing with the issues of
empowerment. I didnt care very much about taking over the denomination.
But what I did care about and knew a little about was the media. I learned
with the Unitarians when I was playing around with cameras that if you
sat people down and turned off the lights they were yours til you lost
them. If you got them in there, you had a chance. And the experience,
combined with this exuberance about the world one would like, the promise
of a world where racism was pushed aside, was enough to make me try
The idea for the company was to create an instrument that would
be available to black folks when they wanted to compete in the media
landscape. Some of the stuff out there at the time was so bad. How are
you going to compete with Sixty Minutes with a slide show? Two
things coincided: the black power movement and my own personal need
for independence. Theres a part of me that never wanted to work
for anyone. That was bred into me by my father because if you work for
anyone ultimately your destiny belongs to someone else, so creating
a company was the logical step. I was twenty-eight. Making a living
then didnt seem much of an issue--$10,000 a year seemed like a
lot of money. The staff was me and one or two other people. Ive
never worried about being able to make a living. Thats part of
the middle-class confidence that your parents give you.
The first thing we did was a series of public service television
spots that had to do with racism. That was my first contract. "Racism
is more deadly than a loaded weapon" was the line from one, June
28, 1968. We did a series of radio shows called The Black Side.
The first film we ever did was Code Blue, which is still a really
good film aimed at recruiting minorities into the health professions.
We did a series of films for the Marine Corps to recruit black officers.
I took some static about that because the war was not a popular thing
among my friends but some black Marine Corps officers came to me and
said the enlisted men were getting increasingly black while there were
almost no black officers. In all these films there was an underlying
political message and they were getting to an audience that was difficult
to reach. One of the films was about the responsibility to the black
community or to the community as a whole--and heres the Marine
Corps making copies and shipping them out to their people. We did films
about health care, environmental protection, planned parenthood, worker
safety, interviewing techniques for social workers.
Ive tried over the past ten years to generate income from
commercial clients and you bang your head for years and end up with
a $5,000 shoot. It doesnt take a great deal of brilliance to figure
out that whether it is racism or problems of being new on the block
it is not going to happen. It also became clear to me that thats
a part of the business I really dont like and you end up being
almost as dependent as if you were working for somebody. You have to
do these idiot lunches and you have to turn into a sycophant. Plus what
you get to do is dancing toothbrush commercials.
So we kept on doing what we were doing. Its basically a freelance
business, so in addition to doing good films, Im proud of the
fact that we hired minority people and women and gave them a chance.
We trained a lot of people who went on to work not only in television
but in Hollywood.
BR: Why did it take you so long to do Eyes on the Prize?
HH: It just wasnt the right time for me, personally. Also
I dont think it was time for the country. Eyes works because
theres a distance from the issues and questions. Also, nobody
was coming to me and saying "Do this," which they were saying
about other projects.
Id had the idea of producing a Civil Rights chronicle for
about ten years when Capital Cities Communications asked me what sort
of program Id produce if I had enough money. They gave me $350,000
and I began work. Two years later, it was over. These projects become
like children to you, and most parents dont want to turn over
responsibility for their childrens welfare to someone else. I
decided to try to put together the funding on my own. PBS and the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting provided early support and then I had to build
a new network because no corporation was interested. I talked to some
old friends. Ruth Batson gave me some important advice: get as many
people involved as possible--whereas my intuitive instinct was to try
to do it all myself. Friends introduce you to friends. You target foundations.
You get introductions to corporate executives. The funding world is
a relatively small world and news travels fast. In the end we had money
from the Ford Foundation, the Lotus Corporation, Raytheon, and General
Electric in addition to the Boston and San Francisco Foundations and
many small donors.
People understood what the series was about right away for Eyes
I. Some of them have already contributed to Eyes II but some
have shied away from a sequel. Eyes I begins with the Supreme
Courts 1954 decision outlawing school segregation and ends with
the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Its history. Eyes
II focuses on Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, school busing conflicts,
and the riots in many cities that followed the murders of Martin Luther
King and Malcolm X. That content is closer to us and its what
has caused some corporations to shy away.
BR: What about the creative problems of working on something
that is so much closer in time?
HH: It would take an hour to fully answer this and even then
you might be confused, but suffice it to say that history (images and
events) carries emotional charges. Just as with electricity, if those
charges are too strong or in conflict, they cant go together and
the viewer is lost. "Suspension of disbelief" goes, because
the emotional linkage Im trying to draw between events is disrupted.
We would have to find an acceptable "emotional through living"
to prove it works.
BR: Boston does not have an untarnished reputation as far
as race is concerned. Why do you continue to work and make your home
HH: If youre black in America, race is a factor in your
life. Start with that assumption. You cant get away from it no
matter where you are, and you dont want to get away from it in
some ways. On the one hand, there is no reason that a black person needs
to live a portion of his or her life being concerned about the people
of color around him. On the other hand, if you dont youre
Choosing where you live is mostly a sense of physical relationships
for me. Not with people, but with space--and the ocean is a comforting
thing to me. Midwesterners gravitate toward the coasts and probably
since Ive taken a lot of my experience out of books and a sense
of history, I came here. I also love the mountains and the quaint old
buildings in New England country towns. Maybe in some ways I even thought
Id be free of race for a while. Like James Baldwin going off to
Paris, its part of the black experience to want to be free of
it and think youre living in a place where its not going
to determine or dictate a portion of your life. But surprise! There
were little things all along. When I was with the Unitarians I dropped
my secretary off once in the North End, and the next day all four of
her tires had been punctured.
But it never impacted upon my space until the busing explosions
in the mid-seventies. I thought Boston reacted pretty well. The city.
The Commonwealth. The racial balance law. People were trying to do stuff
even though there were pitched battles with the school committee. There
seemed to be enough whites who were sympathetic and you also knew what
was going on in the rest of the country. In some ways New York and other
cities simply havent been challenged and Boston has a funny kind
of reputation because things tend to happen here first.
But after 72 the blanket was pulled off and I suddenly began
to think about it. Thats why I started to work with the Afro-American
History Museum. It happened as a result of the city showing its racial
We dont have a full black community in Boston. Our people
are scattered. Theres a middle class where I live in Highland
Park but its not like a piece of Washington or Chicago. We dont
have people saying, "Thats where I want to be." People
are there because the homes are relatively inexpensive, and you want
to live in the black community without living in a ghetto, and its
wonderfully close to the downtown conveniences. We have leadership that
seems to be mostly from earlier generations, people in their sixties
who are sort of burned out, whove done what they were supposed
Boston is a tough political animal. Just watching Mel King and
Ray Flynn, and the business about the housing. Those issues have as
much emotion about them as full-blown wars. What we are saying to people
is "Exist together in the same space." And thats a long
way from saying "Were going to make tremendous progress."
What we need to do is find the same kind of trigger that opened up the
power of the Civil Rights movement. Once you get it going, once youve
caught it correctly, you really do have the capacity to move and you
cant let the media-swamp in which youre mired affect your
view about the possibility of change.
Originally published in the December
1988 issue of Boston Review