‘Eyes on the Prize’ comes to DVD

Its basic outlines are familiar to even the most casual student of American history: the marches, the mass arrests, the church bombings.

But seeing the actual footage that makes up “Eyes on the Prize” -- the heralded documentary about the civil rights movement, coming to DVD for the first time -- can still startle for its rawness and drama.

Seeing a suspender-clad man describe how his 14-year-old nephew, Emmett Till, was kidnapped and killed by Mississippi racists for allegedly whistling at a white woman, or watching teenage girls in cardigans walk past angry mobs to attend their Alabama school makes not only for powerful history, but gripping television.

“What we were trying to do was a people’s history,” says Orlando Bagwell, one of the project’s original filmmakers. “Giving multiple points of view, enlarging the story. Most of the existing work had been done from a media point of view -- from journalists, most of whom were white -- not from the marchers and the other people involved.”

“Eyes” was created and executive produced by Henry Hampton, who died in 1998. “He wanted to do films that were basically objective but that got people to look at sensitive subjects,” says Judi Hampton, Henry’s sister and president of Blackside, the production company he founded.

The documentary -- subtitled “America’s Civil Rights Years” -- is set in the Deep South from 1954 to 1965, when the fight for black civil rights was at its fiercest.

“Was this the start of a new Civil War?” asks narrator Julian Bond in the first segment, which looks at the murder of Till, the bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks and the emergence of the young Martin Luther King Jr.

Though long considered a classic, the program, first broadcast on PBS in 1987, has been largely out of circulation because of difficulty securing the rights to its footage, photography and music. But the series is now playing on PBS, and a three-DVD set will be available for purchase Tuesday.

“Eyes” makes an impact even on students who find history unreachable, says Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at UCLA. The program connects especially with international students, he says, for whom the boycotts, protests and riots are literally taking place in a foreign country.

“But when they watch it, they get it,” says Hunt, also director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “The interviews, the images -- they make it accessible to them.”

A long march

Given the stop-start movement of the early civil rights struggle, with its small setbacks and apparent defeats, it’s fitting that the development of “Eyes on the Prize” followed similar contours.

The program grew out of a documentary made for the now-defunct Capital Cities network (ABC’s former parent company), which sent Henry Hampton to the South in the late ‘70s.

“The first series was very tight, we had very little money,” recalls Bagwell, who served as a cameraman for the project. “Henry made it out of fumes.” The network rejected the result, saying it wanted a documentary focused more on the heroes of the movement.

But a few years later, thanks to funding from PBS and others, the project started up again, and it was assembled in the mid-'80s -- decades after the events documented. Still, Hampton wanted to immerse his filmmakers in the story and its emotional stakes.

“He brought us together first to attend what he called a school,” says Bagwell, “to listen to people from very different perspectives within the movement.”

The filmmakers heard from marchers, historians of the period and members of various activist groups -- King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, the more grassroots Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- who often disagreed. The emphasis on multiple points of view carried through to the resulting program.

Along with the period footage, “Eyes on the Prize” includes then-new interviews with participants reflecting on the ‘50s and ‘60s, including some segregationists looking back at the so-called agitators who came down South. “Many had on hippie uniforms and conducted themselves in hippie ways,” says Citizens’ Council leader William J. Simmons. “The arrogance they showed, in wanting to reform a whole state and the way they wanted it to be, created resentment.”

Another goal of Hampton’s “schools” was to nail down the facts of the period as cleanly as possible. “We didn’t want to construct a history,” says Bagwell, “but to let the interviews and footage tell it.”

Waking the past

In the course of it all, the “Eyes” filmmakers ran into significant problems licensing distribution rights to archival materials, such as footage, stills and music, contained in the series. The rights to many of these were very expensive, so the filmmakers could only acquire limited distribution rights.

By early 2000, many of the rights had expired, and “Eyes” became unavailable for broadcast and other distribution. But several forces -- including Blackside and Bagwell, who is now director of the media, arts and culture unit at the Ford Foundation -- set about to bring it back to public television and educational distribution, and eventually the consumer market.

The first six hours of “Eyes” ends in 1965 after a triumphant, King-led march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Bill, and the fragmenting of unity as a more militant activist strain developed. The burning of Watts that summer, Bond’s narration concludes, “signaled a new direction for the movement.”

A second program, broadcast on PBS in 1990 as “Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985),” picked up the tale, but those rights are still unsecured.

The film offers a series of lessons, according to Judi Hampton. “One lesson is that an individual -- even one without resources -- can make a huge difference. I think young people need to see how key students were in this movement.”

To Hunt, the documentary remains powerful and direct, but the struggle it recounts remains in some ways unfinished. The push for racial equality had its triumphs, but the fight to lift minorities out of poverty has not been won, he says.

“If you look at statistics today, you see that the [income] gaps are just as wide as they used to be,” Hunt says. “The movement never got there.

“So we’re locked in this system where inequality is a fact of life,” he laments, “though at the same time we have a black president. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”