May 1, 2001

William Greaves' 'Still a Brother' and Bill Jersey's 'A Time for Burning'

In 1973 a group of black ministers commissioned me to make a documentary about the Black church experience. Let The Church Say Amen! follows a young African American minister who enters a seminary to avoid serving in Vietnam, but becomes a devoted cleric, traveling to churches throughout the South and in Chicago to evaluate which setting best appeals to him. The film looks at segments of the African-American religious experience from an inside viewpoint, while exploring the universal situation of a young man trying to find his role in life.

The documentary fulfilled my desire to make a narrative film using real people, but in truth, this film was strongly influenced by two documentarians of that time. At Columbia University, where I was a student, two films were screened that deeply impressed me. Still A Brother: Inside The Black Middle Class by pioneer Black filmmaker William Greaves had a “from the inside” cultural authenticity through the subjects’ voices. Its politics and intriguing narrative structure showed me that documentaries could entertain as they informed.

The other film was A Time For Burning by Bill Jersey, an early cinéma vérité masterpiece about a white minister who feels that to make a contribution to the Civil Rights movement, he has to integrate his all-white congregation with a Black congregation. Jersey follows the minister until he’s fired by his own congregation for his efforts. What amazed me was that a documentary could tell a story based on reality—an innovative approach for the time.

I began my project hoping to imitate Jersey’s narrative story-telling approach and combine it with Greaves’ “inside” authenticity. I began scouting locations, looking for that minister-subject who would lead me to a dramatic, filmable situation…and I actually found it. In a Chicago suburb, a Black minister had organized an after-school center for the mostly Black community youth. The local police began to clash with them, and the parents, fearing the police, began keeping the kids at home. Still, the youths frequented the center, and clearly a confrontation was near. I rushed home to New York to inform my backers and hire a crew, then returned to shoot. While I was away, the police invaded the center and beat the kids, radicalizing the parents. I felt that the “Jersey approach” would not work in this situation, given that the climax had already happened. Ultimately, the resulting film shows a wider perspective of the Black religious experience than that situation would have, and that was the purpose of the production.

It would be difficult to make a film like Let The Church Say Amen! in these times. I don’t think that the documentary form will disappear, but I do worry that the playing field is getting smaller and creatively more constrained. As the American government has drifted to the right, the flow of news and information, money for production and broadcast time for documentaries have all been cut back, while the impact of entertainment in the news has taken its toll on the viewer. The documentary as we know it—once a source of information and inspiration—is an endangered species.

 

St.Clair Bourne has specialized in exploring African life in the United States and internationally, with an eye toward finding common links among people of African descent. He has produced, directed and written documentaries over the past 25 years, and is currently working on two films, one about Cuban baseball and another about Jamil Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, the 60’s militant.

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