Independent Lens is kicking off Black History Month this week with Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock (premieres Thursday, February 2 at 10pm in some markets; check local listings). We caught up with filmmaker Sharon La Cruise to talk about how she came to the project, and why so many people have never heard of this central figure in the civil rights movement. We also hung out with La Cruise at this month’s Television Critics Association meeting in Los Angeles, where she helped us highlight our great slate of films for this month.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope the film will create a resurgence of interest in the role of women in the civil rights movement and serve as a reminder to Americans that the struggle for equal education in America continues.
What led you to make Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock?
I fell in love with Daisy Bates’s story and wanted to share her story with Americans, thereby returning her to her rightful place in our history.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
One of the main challenges in producing this film was that my main subject had passed away and there were parts of her life that she never spoke or wrote about. Another challenge was that Daisy Bates became famous in 1957 and her autobiography ends in 1960, so there is very little archival material on her before and after that time period. In some instances I was forced to use personal letters to piece together the timeline of her life post-1957.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I truly believe the measure of a person’s life is the friends they left behind. Daisy Bates left behind a wonderful group of friends who loved her for all she was and wasn’t. The instance I reached out to these friends and told them I wanted to do a film on Daisy Bates, they gladly opened their homes and lives to me.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I would have liked to include Daisy’s activism in the 1960s. She worked for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to register black voters, and she supported the college students in Little Rock during their sit-ins. On a lighter note, I would have loved to include a hilarious story about Daisy cheating at poker.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
There are several but my favorites would be the moment Daisy realizes that her life is a lie and she is an orphan; another scene is when the Little Rock Nine describe the abuses they suffered inside Central High School.
What do you remember most from the process of making the film?
One of my earliest interviews was with one of the white students from Central High who participated in burning and stabbing an effigy outside Central when the Little Rock Nine were locked out. We were introduced by a third party, so we had never met. The day of the interview he arrived and realized much to his surprise that I was black! His first words were a bit belligerent “Are you the one doing this interview??” I said, “Yes.” He responded, “Well, I’m going to tell you a few things you might not like.” I told him to be honest throughout the interview and that would be fine with me. It was a very complex interview because unbeknownst to me, he was hard of hearing. We had to devise a system so he read the questions in advance of my asking them. He was very honest throughout and although I didn’t agree with many of his comments at the end of the interview I really respected his honesty. Since then we’ve become pen pals. Every now and again he would write me to see how I’m doing and find out if I was able to find funding and give me ideas of where to look in Arkansas. He didn’t end up in the film because there wasn’t enough time. But that interview always stayed with me.
The only time I remember ever crying during an interview was when I interviewed Jefferson Thomas, who was the first of the Little Rock Nine to die. When he described the pain he suffered at the hands of the white students in Central High and the day he begged God to just give him the strength to endure it. I started to cry for the loss of his childhood and innocence. Yet he wasn’t bitter; he found a way to make jokes about his predicament. He was inspirational.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
I’ve screened various versions of the film over the years and the response has always been enthusiastic. Adults and teenagers are always baffled as to why they’ve never heard of Daisy Bates before. The people in the film have seen portions of the film. They love the film and are always amazed at depth and richness of the archival material. Most have either never seen Daisy Bates when she was young or remember her then. They are all very excited to see the final version of the film and can’t wait for a premiere in Arkansas.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
It is extremely difficult, and I must confess that although I had worked in it for many years before beginning my own film, I was still unprepared for how difficult it could be. What keeps me motivated is love of the subject and the commitment I made to both Daisy Bates and her supporters that I would finish this film. Also, I compare working on this film to jumping off a cliff — once you jump there’s no going back.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I grew up watching PBS and fell in love with documentaries because of their exceptional programming in the ’70s. The PBS audience is very loyal and unique in their love of documentary films. It’s a dream come true to have my film join the impressive list of films that have showcased on PBS in the past.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Personally or professional? I rarely had any vacations and since I’ve had to spend so much time going to Arkansas I haven’t been able to return to my former hometown Atlanta.
What are your three favorite films?
My Lai Massacre; Eyes on the Prize; and Going Up River: The Long War of John Kerry
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
I would recommend that aspiring filmmakers find a film community to join before starting their own film. No one can make this journey alone and the people who complete the journey tend to have developed an extensive network of supporters along the way.