A Tribute to St. Clair Bourne - February 10, 2008
Museum of the Moving Image – Astoria, NY
February 10, 2008
(Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles in the audience)
At the Museum of the Moving Image on Sunday, critics and scholars were in person to discuss the career of and show clips from documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, who died in December 2007, and made more than 40 films, mainly about African-American culture and politics. His subjects included Paul Robeson, John Henrik Clarke, Gordon Parks, Langston Hughes, and Making of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The discussion was organized and moderated by Warrington Hudlin producer of such films as House Party and Boomerang, and the founder of DV Republic.
The panelists included Clyde Taylor, professor at the Gallatin School and writer for the PBS documentary, Midnight Ramble: The Life and Legacy of Oscar Micheaux; George Alexander - business entertainment columnist at Black Enterprise magazine and author of Why We Make Movies; Esther Iverem, journalist, poet and author of The Time: Portrait of a Journey Home; Armond White , film critic at New York Press and author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and Rebel for the Hell of It: The Art-Life of Tupac Shakur.
The Museum’s David Schwartz opened the presentation by remarking that Hudlin had the idea to do this tribute to Bourne, who was a prolific filmmaker. Schwartz thanked Hudlin for arranging the tribute and said that Hudlin would someday get a tribute of his own. Hudlin joked, “When I’m alive!” Schwartz continued by saying that this would be one of the last programs at the Museum before it undergoes construction at the end of the month.
He then introduced Nonso Christian Ugbode of the Black Documentary Collective, who presented a short clip montage that he cut himself of Bourne’s work. Afterwards, the panelists each presented clips from a selection of Bourne’s films.
Clyde Taylor (CT) - Clip from Let the Church Say Amen (1974)
Taylor said he chose this clip because it was a breakthrough film for Bourne and was made at the point when they got to know one another. Bourne had created his own production company at the time. This film became his ID or calling card. Taylor initiated an African-American film society in San Francisco and invited Bourne to show his film there. They became close friends. This clip is one that reflects a cinema verité style of filmmaking that follows a young seminary student, showing the connection between religion and the black experience.
George Alexander (GA) – Clip from Langston Hughes: The Dreamkeeper (1988)
Alexander said that Bourne was a generous and giving soul. He got to know him during the centennial birthday celebration of Langston Hughes at the Museum of Natural History. Alexander didn’t know Bourne too well at the time, but knew his work. Alexander worked on Bourne’s book and viewed all his films, and got to know him very well and they became good friends. This clip shows the idea of cultural authenticity, which is the notion that the subject of the documentary was talked about. If you do work about a community, you also have to show the social context.
Esther Iverem (EI)– Clip from Making ‘Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Iverem said as a young journalist, she was very impressed by the use of journalism on screen in Bourne’s films. She respects real stories a lot more than most narrative films she has to review. She had corresponded with Bourne through email. He was very active with the online community. When he was going through issues with his health, he was still interested in helping other people with their careers. This clip combines so many of his interests and emphases like social activism. It captures so much of what was happening in New York City in the 1980s.
Armond White (AW)– Clip from John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk (1996)
White said he met Bourne in the 1980s when he was an editor for the New York City Sun. He went to Bourne’s Upper West Side apartment for an interview. Bourne was a very principled and humane person. He didn’t talk like other filmmakers. He came from a family of journalists. It was the journalism aspect Bourne brought to filmmaking that made him special. White showed two clips. The first was the opening sequence of the film. He said this clip helps to show that movies don’t fall out of the sky. People collaborate with one another. The montage gives a sense of Bourne’s style. This is a film of self-identification. Bourne reflected on his own life as a filmmaker and as a n African-American. The second clip is of John Henrik Clarke sitting in a leather chair in a room with books and African sculptures. It evokes a professor’s office or a middle-class family’s den, like that of on TV’s “Father Knows Best.” This documentary has a rich, story-like quality. One of the only Bourne films that is in distribution.
Panel Discussion and Audience Q&A
Hudlin then opened the panel discussion, a mix between his own questions to the panelists and also comments and questions from the audience. [FYI, among those in the audience was filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, whose Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song was a pioneering African-American independent film of the early 1970s.]
(WH) How long had you known Bourne?
(CT) Since 1976. It was an important moment for black independent cinema, but documentaries were happening as well from such people as William Greaves. Bourne kept that leadership with the Black Documentary Collective.
(WH) What were some of the choices he made with his documentaries?
(CT) He was committed to handheld cinema verité. No narrator. More personal and intimate. In later years, he got better funded. Archival footage is very expensive. In the later years, he made films of people with profiles of greatness such as Paul Robeson, but he was not the ‘PBSification’ mode.
(WH) When you interviewed Bourne for your book, did he talk about any challenges?
(GA) He talked about how independent film was about to change. Up until Spike Lee, documentary filmmakers were making films about real life. The Spike Lee made narrative films that were entertaining in a realistic way. For John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk, he employed an MTV editor using quick cuts. In terms of getting funding, frequently people who controlled the money had little experience with African-American stories. Filmmaker Julie Dash talked about the same struggle to incorporate realistic elements. It was always challenging.
(WH) In your book We Got to Have It, you talk about the consumer’s appetite. How are African Americans responding to documentaries?
(EI) Can’t say that there has been an explosion in our documentaries and African Americans responding to them. What audiences are going to see versus quality of the films is a different thing. In recent years, filmmakers like Michael Moore get a lot of credit for documentaries being played in theaters. A lot of times, these films aren’t made by black filmmakers.
(WH) Are there any advantages or disadvantages to fiction vs. non-fiction films?
(AW) It’s a choice. You take a risk of not interesting an audience. Most movie goers aren’t interested in documentaries. Bourne took a risk because documentaries tell things to audiences that fiction cannot. I wouldn’t put him in the same sentence as Michael Moore. Moore degraded documentary filmmaking. Bourne believed in the truth of history.
(WH) Will anyone defend Michael Moore? He and I are personal friends. When he sold Roger & Me for $4 million, he called me and asked if I needed some money. Fahrenheit 9/11 is the only documentary that has reached blockbuster status.
(GA) Moore is aware that audiences evolve. People want to see something that entices them.
(AW) Moore has changed the form. Popular films aim to entertain more than to inform. His films are aimed toward a particular political mindset. Bourne didn’t play around with the truth or history.
(EI) Bourne had integrity, but we don’t have to honor that by throwing someone else under the bus. It doesn’t mean that Moore isn’t sticking to the facts. Just because he uses those techniques, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have integrity.
(Audience Comment) I worked with Bourne and he wouldn’t want us knocking down filmmakers like Moore.
(Audience Question) I am amazed and appalled that only one of Bourne’s movies is in distribution. What can we do about it? How do we get his films into circulation so future generations can see his work?
(CT) There’s a movement out there to get his films in a box set. Something is in the works.
(Audience Question) Was Bourne working on anything up to his death?
(CT) A project about the Black Panthers. He got some extraordinary interviews. He also wanted to have a book done on his photos.
(EI) He was also developing some fiction narratives. Might depend on who owns the actual rights to his work.
(Audience Comment) The Black Documentary Collective will catalog his work.
(Audience Question) Why wasn’t a clip from Half-Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks shown?
(EI) I would have chosen that clip to screen, but Bourne was the producer, and not the director of that and the Museum chose to screen just clips from films he directed. Half-Past Autumn was on HBO. It was one of his films where he was able to break through the ceiling.
(GA) It still fits his desire to chronicle important black people in history who made enormous contributions to African-American culture.
(WH) Bourne created the Black Documentary Collective. He created an infrastructure that survives him. The institution he left behind didn’t die away. What is the Collective doing these days?
(BCD Representative) We meet the first Monday of every month. We have rough-cut screenings and panel discussions.
Towards the end of the discussion, Melvin Van Peebles stood up and said, “I’m clairvoyant!” Bourne knew the problems that he wanted the public to understand. He would have wanted filmmakers to continue to educate the audience. To push forward. Keep on fighting. Hudlin reminded Van Peebles of a button he once gave him that’s a circle with a line through it that means, “No Whining, Keep Working.” Van Peebles said he just made a new feature. At the end of the shoot, he was on his knees scrubbing the floor. “You got to do the whole thing,” he said. “I do any G-d damn thing necessary!”