NEGROES WITH GUNS filmmakers Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts, Cara Pilson and Cindy Hill collectively talk about the challenge of filming the story of a still-controversial civil rights leader in the Deep South, boning up on knowledge of civil rights-era music and the desire to restore civil rights figures to their rightful place in history.
What led you to make NEGROES WITH GUNS?
We have a particular interest in unknown stories of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a fascination with individuals who demonstrate considerable courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Rob Williams also intrigues us because he challenged and provoked leading mainstream civil rights leaders by refusing to acknowledge non-violent protest as the only means to achieving civil rights. His story expands this country’s popular notions of the Civil Rights Movement to include the philosophy of armed self-defense. In addition, NEGROES WITH GUNS has the great dramatic elements that a filmmaker looks for—suspense, tragedy, conflict and triumph to name a few—and a complex main character, soft-spoken but rebellious. Early on, a man confident in the right and might of the legal system and later, a man defiant in the face of what he considered the hypocrisy and repression of the world’s leading democracy.
The filmmakers recount how times have, and haven’t changed in Rob Williams’ hometown of Monroe, North Carolina.
Shortly after the film was completed, we screened it in Monroe, North Carolina, Williams’ hometown and site of the racial melee. After the screening, and to everyone’s surprise, the mayor of Monroe presented Rob’s widow, Mabel, with a key to the city. Forty-three years earlier, a Monroe city official had promised Rob Williams if “he didn’t get out of town, he’d be hanging in the courthouse square by midnight.” The Williams fled Monroe that night with city and state officials as well as the FBI in pursuit. Despite giving Mabel Williams a key to the city, Monroe has no memorial to Rob Williams, not even a street named in his honor.
Why is it that many people have never heard of Rob Williams?
Rob Williams was in exile, primarily in Cuba and China, from 1961 to 1969, or at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in this country.
What part of Williams’ life did you find most fascinating and why?
We were fascinated by Rob’s early years in Monroe, North Carolina when he decided that no matter what the cost, he would not be passive in the face of virulent racism and oppression. He was not only alienated from the white community; he was ostracized by blacks in and outside of Monroe who felt his actions threatened their way of life, their economic livelihood.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Robert Williams kept everything—newspaper clippings, copies of his political pamphlet, The Crusader, photos of his travels to Cuba, China and Tanzania, letters and personal writings. In short, he provided us with a great majority of the raw materials we needed to piece together his life story. Our challenge was to wade through the massive amounts of material and cull out the most pertinent aspects.
Try as we might there were certain intriguing elements of the Rob Williams’ story that we wanted to include but couldn’t for stylistic reasons or time constraints. One of the first things we learned was that Rob Williams’ hometown, Monroe, North Carolina, was also the hometown of former Senator Jesse Helms, Jr. In fact, the two men were contemporaries. The irony didn’t escape us that the forefather of the Black Power Movement and one of the staunchest defenders of the “Southern Way of Life” grew up in the same small Southern town. In fact, during the height of the 1961 race riot in Monroe, only one reporter was able to interview Williams before he fled Monroe for eventual exile in Cuba—that reporter was a young Jesse Helms working for WRAL-TV.
Did you meet with any resistance in making this film?
We found among older residents of Monroe, feelings still run high and are frequently divided along racial lines. Even whites sympathetic to Williams’ struggle for equality are quick to point out his impatience and describe what they see as his penchant for violence. We tried to interview whites that witnessed or participated in events relevant to the Williams’ story but only one agreed to speak with us. One white person agreed to let us use his antique car for a stylization until he found out that we were doing a film on Robert Williams. Ironically, Williams was remarkably restrained in terms of aggressive actions, despite constant threats from the Klan and others.
How did you choose the music in the film?
The 13 songs featured in our film were pulled from approximately 15 hours of "Radio Free Dixie" broadcasts. To use this material, we had to not only identify the song and the artist—a relatively easy task in some cases and quite a daunting one in others—but also identify the specific album on which the song appeared. In some cases, we identified the songs by going back to the old play lists that Rob and Mabel kept along with the recordings. For those we could not find, we used a number of approaches, including calling on jazz and blues artists to lend their “listening expertise” in hopes they could identify potential artists. And last but not least, desperate phone calls to Rob’s widow, Mabel Williams, to see if she could make one more attempt at digging around in the bottom of the closet to unearth the album in question. True to form, Mabel came through.
We selected songs from "Radio Free Dixie" broadcasts to serve as narrative devices to introduce key turning points in Rob’s personal and political struggles. In short, music by Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Leadbelly, among others, serves as another story element to provide content and mood. The impact of the "Radio Free Dixie" music is made even stronger through the score provided by Terence Blanchard. We felt Blanchard, an internationally acclaimed jazz composer, could capture the soul and spirit of Rob and Mabel Williams as well as the context of the times.
Where did you find the archival footage used in the film?
We desperately wanted to avoid using widely-viewed and thus clichéd footage of the Civil Rights Movement that would only serve to keep our viewers at arm's length. We wanted archival material that related directly to our subjects and their struggles. Much to our delight, we discovered a wealth of rare film footage and interviews. For example, our research turned up a 1964 documentary produced by a Charlotte, North Carolina television station in which Rob Williams is interviewed while living in exile in Cuba. Given the tendency of most television stations to discard outdated materials, we were thrilled to discover the station had kept a copy of the original hour-long film.
As luck would have it, we also tracked down the raw interview tapes of a freelance television journalist who had conducted an on-camera interview with Williams in the late 1960s. We also found photographs taken during the height of the civil rights demonstration in Monroe. In all, we worked with close to 50 different film and photo archives around the world, as well as members of the Williams family, to piece together the visual history of Robert F. Williams.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We hope to restore Rob and Mabel Williams to their rightful place as important civil rights figures who defied the white power structure without the protection of large numbers or the attention of television cameras. We also hope this story will cause people to think long and hard about what it means to be a patriot and what constitutes acceptable dissent in this country.
How did you gain the trust of the Williams family?
Before we began pre-production on the film, we talked with Mabel and her son, John, about what kind of film we wanted to do, that is, a piece that relied on the voices of the participants, not a narrator, to tell the story and one that gave us complete editorial control. Both granted us complete access to themselves and to relevant recordings, writings and personal letters. Mabel and John Williams never asked to see the film in progress or impose their own viewpoints. In fact, they did not see the film until it was finished and publicly screened for the first time.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?
Spring 2002 to Fall 2003.
How did you find/obtain the "Radio Free Dixie" recordings featured in the film?
The Williams’ family had entrusted the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan with the recordings. With the permission of the Williams and the library, we secured copies of many hours of "Radio Free Dixie" programming.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
We’re largely motivated by the continued opportunity to meet fascinating people, like Mabel Williams, who have shaped history or are in the process of doing so. Making films is such a creative risk; an exhilarating as well as frightening adventure, but one that ultimately makes us better people no matter the commercial or critical success of the film.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is the best forum for independent films about civil rights and social justice. The audience is an informed one, anxious to learn about new ideas and re-think conventional ones.
What are your three favorite films?
We all agree this may be the most difficult question for us to answer. Some of our favorite films include: When We Were Kings, Harlan County, USA, Thin Blue Line, Into the Arms of Strangers, Night and Fog, Scottsboro, Salesman and The Donner Party.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Laundry, dishes and yard work.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
The four of us who served as directors and associate directors are academics, as well as filmmakers. As disappointed as we would be not to make our own films, we would still have the great pleasure of working with graduate students who are in the process of becoming talented and creative non-fiction filmmakers.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Cookies, hands down. . . portable, sweet, comforting and evocative of all that was good in your past and all that might be in your future.
Which filmmakers have influenced your work?
Barbara Kopple for her dedication to telling stories about the struggles of ordinary people to achieve dignity and respect in an often-hostile environment. Ken Burns, for resurrecting the historical documentary and making us passionate about the past. And Steven Spielberg, for his willingness to take risks and his ability to find the humanity in even the darkest moments of life.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
We’re somewhat sheepish about offering advice when we feel we still have so much to learn. Perhaps our only piece of wisdom might be to find a good story worth telling.
What sparks your creativity?
Our creativity is sparked by arguments—sometimes pretty heated—among ourselves as to what the film should be about, what it should look like, what it should sound like. The four of us have worked together for more than 15 years making films and, in the process, staying in flea-ridden hotels, eating badly and infrequently and traveling on holidays. We think this has earned us the right to speak candidly and forcefully about our views and vision.