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In faith they trust

Six filmmakers surmounted huge obstacles to bring a PBS series on African American spirituality to the screen.

June 22, 2003|Allan M. Jalon | Special to The Times

New York — Just above a traffic-jammed Harlem, in a sprawling work loft for documentary filmmakers, the photograph of a wide-faced African American man with a generous smile rests on a metal shelf. He looks like the world's most avuncular boss, taking a break in shirtsleeves and suspenders to offer advice.

The picture shows Henry Hampton, whose epic series "Eyes on the Prize" gave the freedom riders, lunch counter sit-ins and mass marches of the civil rights movement their rightful place in history and pioneered multi-episodic nonfiction films on public television. His other films included "The Great Depression" and "America's War on Poverty." Hampton died in 1998, but his memory remains distinctly present in this space, entered through a door next to a busy manicurist's shop on 125th Street.

June Cross, with Hampton's photo at her elbow, laughs and talks about how she kept "talking with Henry" as she managed Hampton's last ambitious project, left unfinished at his death. Called "This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys," it consists of six films about black America's relationship to the divine. The series airs this week on PBS.

It explores the Christian passion that surges from black churches every Sunday, but it goes well beyond the history of the black church. Spread out in pairs of hour-long films at 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday -- viewers will find a mosaic of meditations by six documentary makers who worked to build on Hampton's socially conscious aesthetic in their separate ways.

The films vary widely in style and subject, but they share several themes, including, prominently, the growing role of Islam among African Americans. In the opening film, a black imam demonstrates a ritual of drinking water poured off a page of holy verses to absorb the word of God. A later one explores the story of the Nation of Islam through the eyes of W.D. Muhammad, the devoutly Muslim, independent-minded son of the Nation's founder, Elijah Muhammad.

Another filmmaker goes on an interfaith pilgrimage to "heal" the memory of slavery with black and white Buddhists. Yet another re-creates a scene in which a preacher is said to have reached into the body of important black composer Thomas Dorsey to pull out the snake of sin that had led him down the crooked path of the blues, freeing him to write the pure praise of gospel.

If Hampton's films, over three decades, have an overarching theme, it is the role of African Americans in the struggle to fulfill the promise of American democracy. If this new series blazes a trail, according to longtime PBS producer Judy Crighton, it does so by attempting a study of religion on television, a medium she says is not generally thoughtful on the subject.

"Henry had a particular vision, and it was a coherent vision about how black spirituality contributed to the democratic project," says Cross, who shares the title of executive producer with filmmaker Dante James. "That vision was given to each one of the six producers to interpret, so what you have are six individual takes on how black faith has developed in America."

The films range from impressionistic, even quasi-theatrical, presentations of historical scenes and settings in pre-photographic history to the mix of visual records and recollections of modern events in the tradition of "Eyes on the Prize."

This series about faith tested the faith of those who made it. In the words of series coordinating producer Sharon LaCruise, who is sitting at a laptop next to Cross, "that it is making it to the screen is a miracle."

The planning was well underway when Hampton, always more an impresario of other filmmakers' work than a hands-on man with a camera, died. But the six films were incomplete when Blackside Inc., the company where he housed his tightknit group of filmmakers, went into decline amid internal conflicts and financial problems in 2001. Judy Hampton and Veva Zimmerman, Hampton's sisters, inherited the company.

Hampton's sisters say today that they found themselves running a business they knew little about, and they acknowledge making some mistakes. Some Blackside veterans, they say, have unfairly blamed them for the company's problems. In any case, the factions have united in their praise of Cross, who produced one of the six films and ended up overseeing the whole project by the end.

Still, Cross is quick to tell anyone that the series was always a large collaborative effort. It began in 1996 with conversations between Hampton and people at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy devoted to improving the lives of disadvantaged children.

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