JULY ’64 filmmakers Carvin Eison and Chris Christopher discuss bringing the African American perspective to Rochester’s history, the interpretation of “riot” and “rebellion” and the desire to give visibility to conditions in many American cities today.
What led you to make JULY '64?
In the late 1990s, several influential African American citizens of Rochester passed away. Many people shared a growing concern that the unwritten stories of the black community were passing away as well. New York State Assemblyman David Gantt (who appears in JULY ‘64) approached us with the idea of doing some sort of project that would capture this history.
It has been written that there are two seminal events in the history of Rochester, NY—the opening of the Erie Canal, and the events that have become known as the “riot” of 1964. The contemporaneous reporting of the civil unrest of 1964 was largely from the majority point of view of the Gannett-owned Rochester media. In 1964, Gannett owned the two daily newspapers, as well as the major television station and the major radio station. Although the Gannett newspaper has made many efforts in more recent years to fill out the story, it became clear that the recording of this piece of Rochester history lacked a significant voice—the black voice. Hence, JULY ‘64 was conceived.
The filmmakers recount how a Smithsonian exhibit led them to the music that would become their film’s soundtrack.
Our first interview for JULY ‘64 took us to Virginia. We had some time on our hands, so we spent a leisurely afternoon at the Smithsonian, which had a display on Duke Ellington. One of the items in the exhibit was an Ellington tour schedule for 1964. We were stunned to read that Ellington had played in Rochester’s Eastman Theater just ten days after the rebellion had taken place.
With the help of the Eastman School of Music’s Sibley Library staff, we were able to locate and secure the rights to the live recording—a never-before released version of Ellington’s “Night Creatures.” If you listen very, very closely, you can hear Duke Ellington humming while he plays the piano.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The biggest challenge we faced was in deciding what the arc of the story should be, coming out of the three days of civil unrest. What was the “take away message?” There seemed to be so many directions to go.
Dr. Eric Michael Dyson, who saw an early trailer of the film, remarked that the smaller rebellions of the Sixties actually provoked more paradigm change than the riots that occurred in the mega-cities. In order to test that assumption in Rochester, we commissioned a study from the Center for Governmental Research to track certain social and economic factors over the 40 years since the rebellion occurred. The study looked at population distribution by race, educational attainment, economic status, employment statistics and rates of homeownership. In most categories, we found that Rochester was faring worse now than it was in 1964. The most startling finding was that the problems of racial segregation and isolation still exist—but are spread across a larger geographic area.
In addition to adding the missing perspective of half the community to the JULY ‘64 story, we determined that this was the message we wanted people to hear—despite the upheaval, introspection, pain and loss, not much has really changed. Minister Franklin Florence says it best: “In the ‘60s the problem was health, education, jobs. At the infancy of the 21st century, the problems are: health, education, jobs.”
But this is not to say that Dr. Dyson’s premise was wrong. Progress that was the direct outgrowth of the rebellion include the discontinuation of police dogs for crowd control, the establishment of The Urban League of Rochester as well as Rochester’s first anti-poverty organization (Action for a Better Community), increased employment opportunity through the efforts of activist group Freedom, Integration, Honor, God, Today (F.I.G.H.T.) and a significant increase in the number of black elected officials.
A continuing challenge has been to change the community’s thinking and parlance in relation to the events that occurred in July 1964. We have strong objections to the use of the term “race riot,” and feel that even the term “riot” is inaccurate. It is clear that the original outburst of violence that kicked off the event in the northeast part of the city was spontaneous, but our interview with Darryl Porter reveals (for the first time on record) that the violence that flared up on the second night, across town in the southwest corner of the city, was a planned event. Based on this new information, made public for the first time in JULY ‘64, it is our contention that Minister Florence’s characterization of the event as a “rebellion” is the most accurate.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We wanted to produce a film that would get people thinking. Our original intent was to produce a work that was historically accurate, yet faithful to the memories of the people who lived through the events. Those two objectives do not always fit comfortably together. During the early phases of the production, we had no idea how interesting and sustaining the core story of a three-day rebellion would be—but as interesting as the historical events are, it was always our intention to trace the story of JULY ‘64 in Rochester, New York, up to the present. In doing so, we’ve come to realize that in economic and racial disparity our community still has many challenges to overcome. Beyond the specific story, our film is aligned with the growing effort to provide attention, and give visibility, to the conditions within many modern American cities.
How did you get the footage of the riots used in the film?
The footage was acquired from the archives of two local television stations, and from the CBS national archive, which is now owned by the BBC. We were also able to get access to live broadcast scripts.
How did you get the people of Rochester to speak openly about the riots?
Assemblyman David Gantt contacted several key people on our behalf, and urged them to participate. Constance Mitchell, our primary narrator, had in fact stopped giving interviews about the events of July 1964. We are very grateful that she decided to make an exception in our case, and generously allowed us to come back to speak to her time and time again.
We approached each interview with a set of prepared questions, but always left room to let the interview go where it wanted to take us—and this is often how the most valuable insights emerged. Most people we interviewed were remarkably candid and remembered those days in great detail. Although 40 years have passed, we believe JULY ‘64 captures a degree of honesty and thoughtful reflection that would not have been possible 40 days, 40 weeks or even 40 months later.
Did you encounter any resistance from Rochester’s residents or authorities in making the film?
Yes. We were not very successful in raising funds from local foundations, and would like to take this opportunity to thank Rochester Area Community Foundation for being the only local funder of the documentary.
Despite numerous attempts, we were also unable to secure an interview with the County Executive to discuss the findings of our research specifically in terms of the challenges presented by governing over a county with large urban vs. suburban racial and economic disparities.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?
Filming began in June 2000 with former City Manager Porter Homer, and concluded in May 2004.
Can you provide updates on the people in the film and any changes in the life of the city since the film wrapped?
There have been some significant changes. Sadly, former Mayor Frank Lamb and former City Manager Porter Homer have both passed away. Mayor William A. Johnson stepped down after 12 years in office, and was succeeded by former Police Chief Robert Duffy, who also appears in JULY ‘64. Darryl Porter, shown in the film as a 15-year-old and in a contemporary interview, has been appointed special assistant to Mayor Duffy.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Carvin: I am motivated by counter-narrative, non-corporate stories and the deepest need to express ideas and coordinate the unpredictable intersection of image, word and sound. This will seem foolish to some, but it is very important to stay with the material and work very hard to understand the material until it begins to tell us how it should be put together. We don’t always have this luxury, but it is great when it happens.
Chris: I am motivated by the journey to uncover the story. The opportunity to interview people is an endlessly fascinating experience.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television remains the single-most important venue for independently produced documentaries in the United States. WXXI in Rochester and ITVS were among our earliest supporters.
What are your three favorite films?
Carvin: Citizen Kane, Groundhog Day and The Harder They Come.
Chris: I love original stories and over-the-top characters. My list of favorite films is long, but three that I can watch over and over are Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Moonstruck and (my current favorite) Big Fish.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Carvin: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect. In a very real way, making a film—and especially editing or building a film—is a very similar activity.
Chris: I love all the work that I do and feel fortunate that people offer me interesting work—primarily advising Democratic candidates and creating social messaging campaigns for not-for-profit organizations.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Carvin: Learn to express yourself with words, continuously study and refine your craft, replenish your spirit with ideas and never, ever take no for an answer.
Chris: Be able to speak and write cogently about your story in cinematic terms. Find people you trust who can give you honest and well-meaning feedback. And seriously consider original music.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Carvin: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Oscar Micheaux, Orson Welles
What sparks your creativity?
Carvin: Tangible abstraction.
Chris: Working with a partner provides a safe place to explore every wild idea and crackpot theory.
Photos by Marten Czamanske