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From the Masters at the Movies column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Masters and the Movies, Take 11: Stan Katz on Eyes on the Prize

Robert Brent Toplin, October 2009

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to AHA members principally in connection with their outstanding general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these scholars’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites them to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this month’s commentary Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University describes his experiences working with documentary filmmaker Henry Hampton. Katz has positive recollections of serving as an adviser to some of Hampton’s projects. He notes that Hampton welcomed conflicting voices when planning his programs, took scholars’ advice seriously, and incorporated recommendations in the finished films.

Hundreds of historians have worked in various capacities on film projects, and their experiences have been mixed. Some historians found the work rewarding. Like Katz, they were able to make significant contributions to portrayals of the past in film and television. In other cases, historians complained that filmmakers appeared only to seek the approval of a scholar (often to satisfy funding agencies). The completed productions showed little evidence of academic input. In a few cases historians decided that they could improve the sophistication of historical cinema by learning more about the craft of filmmaking and directing their own projects.

It is easy to understand why Katz had a favorable impression of Henry Hampton’s approach to planning documentaries. Many who worked with Henry Hampton praised his openness, curiosity, and hard work. A licensed pilot and avid golfer (despite physical difficulties from a childhood bout with polio), Hampton served for more than two decades as the board chair of Boston’s Museum of African American History, and he also gave lengthy service to the Children’s Defense Fund and the Revson Foundation. Hampton’s best-known documentary production was Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. The television series attracted more than 20 million viewers, received six Emmys as well as a Peabody Award and a DuPont Circle Award for Excellence in Radio and Television. High school and college teachers continue to screen the programs in their classrooms to this day. Hampton’s Boston-based organization, Blackside Productions, released other notable films, including Eyes on the Prize II, The Great Depression, America’s War on Poverty, Malcolm X: Make It Plain, and I’ll Make Me a World.

Stanley N. Katz has long been associated with the history department at Princeton University and with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has been president of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Society for Legal History. He has also been vice president of the AHA’s Research Division.

Katz has published numerous books about legal history and colonial American social and political history. Much of his recent scholarly work has focused on approaches to conflict resolution in the United States and in other cultures such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Israel.

—Robert Brent Toplin (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, emeritus) is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board and edits the essays in the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized.