Documentary maker focused on black issues

Times Staff Writer

St. Clair Bourne, a prominent independent documentary filmmaker whose work focused largely on African American social and political issues and cultural figures such as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, has died. He was 64.

Bourne, a Brooklyn resident, died Saturday of pulmonary embolisms after undergoing surgery for the removal of a benign tumor on his brain, said his sister and sole survivor, Judith Bourne.

In a career that began in the late 1960s as a producer for the public affairs series “Black Journal” on public television, Bourne launched his production company, Chamba Mediaworks, in New York City in 1971.


Over 36 years, he produced and/or directed more than 45 works, including documentaries for HBO, PBS, NBC, CBS, the BBC, the Sundance Channel and National Geographic.

Among his most notable films was “Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks” (2000), an Emmy-nominated feature-length documentary about the renowned photojournalist and filmmaker that ran on HBO.

Other biographical subjects included poet-writer-activist Amiri Baraka, historian and Pan-African activist John Henrik Clarke, and Hughes, the poet, novelist and playwright.

“Black men who define themselves from an Afrocentric point of view fascinate me -- how they succeeded and overcame opposition,” Bourne told American Visions in 1999, the year “Paul Robeson: Here I Stand,” his documentary about the singer-actor-activist, was part of the PBS series “American Masters.”

Bourne’s films, however, spanned a variety of topics, including religion in “Let the Church Say Amen!,” a 1974 documentary about a young black seminarian moving into the secular world.

He also dealt with popular music in “Big City Blues” and “New Orleans Brass,” the past and current role of African Americans in the American West in “Heritage of the Black West” and black athletes in the BBC series “Will to Win.”


He also produced and directed “The Black and the Green,” a documentary chronicling a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the mid-1980s by five black American activists.

Six years later, he produced and directed “Making ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ” a behind-the-scenes look at Spike Lee’s feature film about race relations in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section. The well-reviewed documentary received a national theatrical release.

“For the last 25 years, he was one of the most important African American nonfiction filmmakers on the scene,” said Sam Pollard, who met Bourne in 1980 and edited five of his films.

“When I met Saint, I was a 30-year-old African American male who grew up in New York City like he did,” said Pollard. “He re-energized and refocused what my mission should be as a filmmaker: to document the African American experience and make people aware that it’s an important part of the American experience that can’t be denied.”

Lou Potter, who wrote a number of Bourne’s documentaries, said Bourne’s “work certainly inspired a lot of people to get into the field; he was a mentor to a lot of young artists. At the time he got started it was a very, very small field” for blacks.

Although there were a considerable number of documentaries dealing with racial issues being made at the time, Potter said, “They typically were not being addressed by media from an African American point of view. They were doing it from the outside looking in; he was doing it from the inside looking out.”


Last February, Bourne received the 2007 Pioneer Award from the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

“There’s an African term called jali, and it means one who carries the spirit of the people and carries the story of the people,” said Ayuko Babu, executive director of the festival. “That was him.”

Born Feb. 16, 1943, in Harlem, N.Y., and raised in Brooklyn, Bourne was the son of St. Clair T. Bourne, a well-known journalist who worked for the New York Amsterdam News and other black newspapers in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In the early ‘60s, Bourne began studying at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but dropped out after he was arrested for participating in a sit-in at a restaurant that had refused to serve him.

Bourne joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Lima, Peru, where he helped edit and publish a local newspaper whose transformation into a national award-winning publication led Ebony magazine to do a feature on him.

Bourne then majored in journalism and political science at Syracuse University. After graduating in 1967, he won a scholarship to Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts, where his involvement in the radical black student movement led to his expulsion when he was among the students arrested for taking over the administration building in 1968.


But within two weeks of his arrest, Bourne landed a job as an associate producer on “Black Journal” on a recommendation from one of his professors. He quickly rose to become a producer of documentary films for the series, which won an Emmy Award during his three years there.

Bourne, whose career included a stint making documentaries for Los Angeles PBS station KCET-TV Channel 28 in the late ‘70s, was a founder of the Black Documentary Collective, a New York-based documentary service organization; in addition to the Los Angeles-based Black Assn. of Documentary Filmmakers-West.

A memorial service for the twice-divorced Bourne will be held at 7 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive in Manhattan.