John W. Barnes; Educational Film Maker


John Wadsworth Barnes, writer, producer and director of groundbreaking educational films who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954 for his documentary "The Living City," has died at 80.

Barnes, who helped create more than 100 films, died Tuesday in New York.

Employed for 20 years by Encyclopaedia Britannica, he created sophisticated half-hour segments of series explaining everything from the U.S. Bill of Rights to European and American history, architecture, literature and cultural development.

In 1975 he made a classic 14-film series on the art of mime with Marcel Marceau. Barnes collaborated with poet Archibald MacLeish and composer Ezra Laderman on two films, "Magic Prison: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson" and "Keats: His Life and Death."

Perhaps his most acclaimed work was the three-part "Shaw vs. Shakespeare" series, which he wrote and directed. Starring Donald Moffat as George Bernard Shaw, it compared characterizations created by the two writers.

Barnes was a staunch believer in interracial casting long before it was embraced by Hollywood. In 1951, he wrote, filmed and co-produced director Gordon Weisenborn's "People Along the Mississippi," showing the interaction of a white boy and a black boy growing up in the South.

When Southern school districts balked at showing some of his interracial films, Barnes took matters into his own hands. He personally protested institutional censorship in Georgia by arguing before the state school board that the close peer relationship he depicted between Sir Francis Drake and his black first mate in the 1957 film "Sir Francis Drake: The Rise of English Sea Power" was historically accurate. Barnes' adamant stance helped expand opportunities in interracial subjects for educational filmmakers.

If few regular moviegoers were exposed to his work, critics were nonetheless dazzled. Cecille Starr once wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature: "Here we are, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, faced with . . . educational films by writer-director-producer John Barnes which any adult could sit through with pleasure."

When a 1966 retrospective of his films was presented in Mexico City, he said in the introductory notes:

"Films made for the movie houses of the world--although many are made with great artistry and devotion--are essentially made to make money. Films made for television are made mostly to fill up the time between commercials. The makers of educational films are not entirely ignorant of the values of money, but essentially they have other ideas in view. . . .

"But I have an idea--a faith, I suppose it really is--that some of my films--or a single film, or even a single sequence in a film or a shot in a film--will light up a young mind somewhere, light it up so that nothing--unsympathetic teachers, lack of a decent place to live or lack of love--can ever plunge it into darkness."

A second retrospective of Barnes' work was presented in San Jose in 1998.

Born in Belford, N.J., he earned a certificate from Monmouth Junior College and attended the University of Chicago, where he edited the campus literary magazine. He dropped out of school to write for the local CBS radio station.

Barnes began experimenting with a Bolex camera and war surplus film and was soon producing movies on interracial refugee camps for the Chicago Anti-Defamation League. He spent a few years freelancing and editing a publication called Together for the Chicago Urban League and then joined Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1951. He established his own John Barnes Productions, based in New York, in 1973.

Many of his films have been placed in the National Archives.

He is survived by his wife, violinist Jeanne Weinstein; a daughter, opera singer and sculptor Judith Barnes of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two sons, actor and director Ezra Barnes of Brooklyn and astrophysicist Joshua Barnes of Honolulu; and two grandchildren.

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