J-School Filmmakers Reflect on Civil Rights Documentary Series “Eyes on the Prize”
Producers Orlando Bagwell and Jon Else. Photo by Alex Kekauoha.
This year marks the 29th anniversary of the release of “Eyes on the Prize,” the 14-part public television documentary series that is widely regarded as one of the most influential visual retellings of the Civil Rights movement.
The series, which debuted on PBS in 1987, was recently rebroadcast by the network in honor of Black History Month. It was also an early milestone in the careers of series producers Orlando Bagwell and Jon Else, both of them major figures in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism documentary program.
“Eyes on the Prize” captures the experiences and struggles for racial justice in America through eyewitness interviews and archival footage. In two seasons the series covers roughly three decades of events, from the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, to the marches in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, to the Affirmative Action breakthrough in 1978.
In the 1980s, Orlando Bagwell was working on TV dramas in Los Angeles when “Eyes on the Prize” creator Henry Hampton called and asked him to join the project. Bagwell was expecting a job as a cinematographer. “Instead,” Bagwell recalls, “he asked me to produce two of the six hour-long episodes, and of course I was challenged but excited to take that on. That is when I met Jon Else, who served as a cinematographer and senior advisor to the production.”
Else—who already was experienced making historical documentaries, but was earning his living making television commercials—says “Eyes on the Prize” had a profound impact on his professional trajectory. “It certainly changed my career,” he says. “After this great moral ethic of doing ‘Eyes on the Prize’ I found it hard to going back to doing commercials for tennis shoes.”
The documentary also had a major impact on viewers. The series received critical acclaim and has since become a staple in classrooms across the country. Critics have lauded the film’s use of sources who experienced the movement first-hand, a decision Bagwell says was critical to documenting the movement honestly and accurately.
“We all felt strongly about the need for eyewitness accounts,” he says. “As well as a simple palette of materials we would consistently use – eyewitness interviews, archival photos and motion picture, and narration.”
Despite the emphasis on first-hand accounts, the behind-the-scenes production relied heavily on the work of journalists, academics and historians. Else says that before production began, the producers spent months studying scholarly work and research. “We convened a 10 day session in Boston where we brought all the civil rights experts and we had what we called Civil Rights School,” he says.
Backing up the production with expert scholarship also ensured the story was told with integrity. “Deciding what parts of a broad, active movement, like equal rights, is complicated and challenging because it must be accurate and honest and pass that test with the audience,” says Bagwell. “Fact-checking and sourcing our stories and words were vital to the series' success.”
Part of the series’ success is also attributed to its unconventional form and breaking from journalistic standards. “Prior to ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ almost every documentary about civil rights had been done by white producers, always with a white correspondent on camera, but always told on the outside, never told on the inside,” says Else. “And certainly never told from the ordinary foot soldiers, the people in church, the maids and janitors.”
But the series was also well-balanced in its approach to race and politics. In addition to the black activists, the producers interviewed white Southerners who opposed integration and equal rights—a topic Else says he would have liked to delve into deeper. “I would have liked to see more exploration of this Southern segregationist mind,” he says. “I think if we’re really going to explore liberation movements we have to really look carefully at the oppressed, but also at the oppressor. I would’ve liked to have gone deeper. There’s still a great film to be made there.”
“Eyes on the Prize” went on to win six Emmys, a Peabody Award, the duPont-Columbia award for excellence in broadcast journalism, and receive an Academy Award nomination for Episode Six. Bagwell says its legacy of activism and commitment to change is what has stayed with him through his career. “I feel the ‘Eyes on the Prize’ series contributed to those ideas and has influenced my own sense of the purpose and possibilities of the work one can do and the challenges one can explore through storytelling and documentary filmmaking.”
Although the series has achieved great success and acclaim, Else says it’s important that future filmmakers and journalists keep retelling the story of the Civil Rights movement and other historical narratives. “These social movements need to be reinvented every generation and can only be reinvented if there’s a record of what previous generations did.”
By Alex Kekauoha (‘16)