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.
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.