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Meet Henry Hampton

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 Boston’s 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 Boston’s South End.

Boston Review: Why is it so difficult to find an hour to talk with you these days?

Henry Hampton: I’ll 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 I’m doing. I’m the president of Blackside, which is now twenty years old and employs thirty people. I’m 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 we’re also doing a project with Bill Cosby’s production company--a four-hour mini-series on Selma, which, if all goes well, should be on the air late next year.

I’m 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 doesn’t 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 don’t understand what’s been done to you--by your own people and the so-called "they"--you can never get around it.

And then, since I can’t 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 they’re staring at a deep hole. I decided ten years ago that this wasn’t 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 you’re 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 haven’t 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 don’t think I’m 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 I’m a bachelor and I don’t have a family demanding my time.

Maybe if you don’t 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 a given.

What drives people to public service is a sense of possibility. If you haven’t sensed that possibility you don’t get started in the same way, you don’t 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 couldn’t 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 city’s 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 way.

Because my parents were very intent on us tracking toward certain objectives, they didn’t 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 didn’t 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 I’d 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, it’s painful getting up at seven o’clock 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t know what I was doing but I was happy to have given up the notion of medical school.

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 I’m 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 didn’t 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? It’s a potent lesson and one you don’t 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? What’s 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 don’t 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 you’re talking about taking control over a piece of your experience, suddenly you’re dealing with the issues of empowerment. I didn’t 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 it.

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. There’s 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 didn’t 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. I’ve never worried about being able to make a living. That’s 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 here’s 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.

I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 that’s a part of the business I really don’t 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. It’s basically a freelance business, so in addition to doing good films, I’m 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 wasn’t the right time for me, personally. Also I don’t think it was time for the country. Eyes works because there’s a distance from the issues and questions. Also, nobody was coming to me and saying "Do this," which they were saying about other projects.

I’d had the idea of producing a Civil Rights chronicle for about ten years when Capital Cities Communications asked me what sort of program I‘d 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 don’t want to turn over responsibility for their children’s 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 Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation and ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It’s 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 it’s 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 can’t go together and the viewer is lost. "Suspension of disbelief" goes, because the emotional linkage I’m 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 here?

HH: If you’re black in America, race is a factor in your life. Start with that assumption. You can’t get away from it no matter where you are, and you don’t 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 don’t you’re crazy.

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 I’ve 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 I’d be free of race for a while. Like James Baldwin going off to Paris, it’s part of the black experience to want to be free of it and think you’re living in a place where it’s 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 haven’t 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. That’s why I started to work with the Afro-American History Museum. It happened as a result of the city showing its racial color.

We don’t have a full black community in Boston. Our people are scattered. There’s a middle class where I live in Highland Park but it’s not like a piece of Washington or Chicago. We don’t have people saying, "That’s 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 it’s 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, who’ve done what they were supposed to do.

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 that’s a long way from saying "We’re 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 you’ve caught it correctly, you really do have the capacity to move and you can’t let the media-swamp in which you’re mired affect your view about the possibility of change.

Originally published in the December 1988 issue of Boston Review

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