Great Docs: ‘Eyes on the Prize’

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Eyes on the Prize is the most comprehensive — and moving — civil rights documentary series ever made. The landmark production by Blackside — which runs a formidable 14 hours in total — was first aired on PBS in two parts in 1987 and 1990. The series traces the Civil Rights Movement from the ’50s through the ’80s, with particular attention to the movement’s milestones, including the Emmett Till case, Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, riots in Detroit and Watts, and Attica prison. There are segments on the major figures of the period, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton.

Eyes on the Prize

I fell in love with the power of documentary when I first saw Eyes on the Prize as a junior in high school. I had studied the Civil Rights Movement before, but not like this. There was an emotional power to the stories I hadn’t experienced before. Seeing Bull Connor set dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters, and then hearing the testimonies of those protesters as they react to the infamous footage is an intense experience. The sense of injustice in scenes like this is palpable. Equally amazing is the courage of people like Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, and the Little Rock Nine to stand up to it.

Like many great docs, Eyes on the Prize is masterful in its mix of interviews and archival footage, and this is the lasting, legendary legacy of the series. To hear the students from Little Rock comment on the footage in which they are escorted past jeering mobs by National Guard troops is a revelation, as it humanizes the struggle for social justice. For me, Eyes on the Prize led to studying the Civil Rights Movement in my academic career and pursuing work in the documentary field. The legacy of the Eyes directors lives on at POV, too — we’ve shown the work of several of the directors and producers, including Paul Stekler, who was the director of Last Man Standing (POV 2004) and a co-director of Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (POV 2004), and Orlando Bagwell, who was a consulting producer for Chisholm ’72 (POV 2005). Sam Pollard edited Chisholm ’72 (POV 2005) and was the executive producer of Brother Outsider (POV 2002), among others.

The tragedy of the Eyes series is that the rights the production company had secured for all the archival footage in the films were allowed to expire, compromising the availability of this seminal masterwork. With the help of the Ford Foundation, educational rights were renewed in 2006, and PBS’s American Experience aired the first six hours of the film that year. Now, in honor of Black History Month, American Experience will show Part II, the remaining eight episodes, on Sundays throughout the month of February.

After that, however, you’ll need to see if your local library has a copy, or try your luck on EBay.

Eyes on the Prize has a great story to tell, and it tells it extremely well.

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David Nanasi
David Nanasi
David has worked on POV's website since its infancy, helping to develop and nurture it, as well as producing special features. David also oversees and administers POV's internal network, maintaining hardware and software for the POV staff. Prior to joining POV, David, served on the staff of CyberEd, an 18-wheeler Internet classroom that toured nationwide. Since 1997, David has worked independently as a computer consultant, including systems, networks, databases, and web design and construction. David's favorite documentaries are: 1. Eyes on the Prize - Henry Hampton (Executive Producer) 2. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 3. The Thin Blue Line - Errol Morris 4. Roger & Me - Michael Moore 5. The Camden 28 - Anthony Giacchino
  • Laura Alexander

    FOREIGNID: 23367
    Although I love history I was never much interested in current events so I missed most of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening; of course I was also only vaguely aware of the Vietnam War until I entered college in California. In addition to lack of interest in current events was my enduring belief that there was little I could do to effect changes in politics or policies.
    At an individual level I still believe that, but am encouraged by the obvious fact that large groups of committed people can and do effect politics and policies. “Eyes on the Prize” is a marvelous documentary, perhaps without the emotions of Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls”, but a comprehensive and educational outline of the struggle and the cause.
    I have no racial prejudices. There are people that I dislike and/or condemn for a variey of reasons, but every race is represented in that group. I try to think back to my childhood and adolescence to identify how my parents accomplished this absolute disinterest in anyone’s race in relation to their value or rights and I don’t remember it ever being mentioned or taught. I think this is the answer. Growing up in my home, I never heard a racial epithet; never heard anyone demeaned because of race or origin or anything like those. I do remember my parents’ negative reactions to anyone who used racial epithets; so I guess I learned by observation, not by instruction.
    I don’t remember any minorities in any of the elementary or junior high schools I attended, but I remember a black girl at my high school. We were both on the school paper staff and this was way before computers, so every two weeks we spent hours at a print shop with other paper staff, all white, proof reading gallies and waiting for the next mock up. This took hours so all of us would go out to eat at one restaurant or another, all of us white kids and Doris, the black girl. There was never any problem at the school or the print shop or any restaurant; nor did we expect any and I for one would have been shocked had there been any, but it just never occurred.
    Looking back now, I wonder if anyone worried; if Doris worried. I don’t know; it just wasn’t a concern at my school or in my town. I lived in one of the Confederate states then. What made my state and my town so different from those shown in the film? I don’t know.
    At any rate, the one thing that bothers me about some documentaries on the Civil Rights movement is when folks at that time speak of the War Between the States as if it were about slavery and the fact that the documentary doesn’t make clear that the war had very little to do with slavery. It was a war fought for money and power; as all wars are. The Great Emancipator didn’t care about slavery; he just used it as a bandwagon for the ignorant to jump on to disguise the real causes of the war. He didn’t issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863 and then only to make sure that no European countries would side with the South. It is never mentioned, but that proclamation only freed slaves living in states which were in rebellion. If the war was about slavery why wasn’t the proclamation issued in 1861, and why didn’t it free all slaves?
    I watch the rabid proponents of segregation in documentaries and they are so far beyond my frame of reference that it almost doesn’t seem real; although I know it was. But they are so stupid and illogical and hateful that one wonders how whole groups of people like that could have existed, and how quick they would have strung me up if I had been around them and started laughing; they were so pathetically juvenile, but unfortunately, like the Nazis, they for too long had the power of life and death over the powerless and the helpless.
    So, thank you to the makers of historical documentaries everywhere, who guard the records and provide the facts so that people like me can learn the history with which they lived concurrently, but which they missed.