In January 2020, I was scrolling down my television guide and a title jumped out at me: I Am Somebody. It was on Turner Classic Movies and it was just about to begin, so I tuned in. There was host Ben Mankiewicz grinning proudly as he announced that Madeline Anderson’s 1969 documentary had just been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
That news put a grin on my face! I had intimate familiarity with that documentary because I had interviewed Madeline Anderson for African Voices Magazine in my early writing days. I remember being struck by how this tiny woman fought on the front lines of some of the bloody battles of the Civil Rights Movement armed with nothing but grit and a camera. In an early case of “Sistas doing it for themselves,” it was fitting that Madeline Anderson and a courageous group of hard-working black women shifted the paradigm on three of the most divisive and unifying movements of the sixties: race, feminism, and Union solidarity.
Here is a reprint of the interview:
Madeline Anderson: Film Maker, Historian and Visionary
by Walker Smith
Since ancient times, one of the most revered members of our ancestral communities was the griot. The words of the village griot conjured up celebratory images of prosperity, and cautioned against forgetfulness of famine and war. Accurate memory and storytelling skills brought to successive generations accounts of familial lineage, and perpetuated the legacy of great leaders. Written records took the memory method a step further by preserving the words in journals that would long outlive the elders. Pictures were also a part of the telling of our past. From primitive drawings on cave walls and more sophisticated African statuary to gripping Civil War photographs, the need to “see” our history was evident.
With the advent of motion pictures, seeing was suddenly believing. Fast forward to the incendiary 1960’s—a chapter in American history that screamed for documentary cameras to roll. It was a great time to be Black and it was a great time to be a woman—but only if you were armed with superhuman courage and vision. Madeline Anderson fitted the profile. She rolled up her sleeves and documented the history she “felt under her feet” by conceiving, developing, shooting and promoting her own groundbreaking film. It was a controversial piece entitled Integration Report 1.
Today, as the Director of the Office of Black Ministry of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, Ms. Anderson’s schedule is tight, but she took the time to share her experiences with African Voices.
Ms. Anderson, you are one busy Sister! What drives you?
Well, these days my driving force is dedication to the church. It’s part of the same struggle, just a different aspect of it. But when I did Integration Report 1, I was driven by that great force that was unifying us as a people. It was Nation Time! I got fired up and decided it was a time that needed to be recorded for our children. Wherever I have been in my life, I’ve always had an uncanny vision of what was really going on around me, so I guess you could say I felt the history right under my feet.
When did you first become interested in filmmaking?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. When I was about twelve, my hobby was making “flip-books.” These were a series of little drawings done on separate pages, with each drawing done in advanced movements so that when you flipped the pages, you had your own “animated” movie. I was instinctively teaching myself the fundamentals of action sequencing, lighting and shading, gradation and the basic rhythm of movement—like on film. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. But it was an early fascination, and I pursued it into my adulthood, soaking up everything I could about visual media. In my teens, my friends and I would put on plays, and of course, I was always the director, whether they liked it or not. So directing was in my blood.
I began working as an editor for PBS, which was known at that time as NET, and now known as WNET. Most of the guys I worked with were writers, who got funding because of their scripts. They would shoot rolls of film, bring it to me in the editing room, and expect me to shape it into something that made sense. So I would sort through it, and then send them back out with instructions to get a few more long shots, or something to insert between two disconnected sequences, that kind of thing. So, even though I loved editing, one day it hit me that what I was doing was producing and directing. I knew I could do what those guys were doing, so I did. It didn’t happen overnight, I had trouble with some of those union doors, most of them were “father/son” unions, and didn’t want to let me in, but I finally pushed my way in.
What unforeseen obstacles did you encounter in developing your first film, Integration Report 1?
They were not unforeseen! I knew that everyone would think I was out of my mind, as a Black woman to try to break into the film industry. There was one other woman in France named Sarah Maulderer who was making a film entitled Zambi Zunga. But her film was made right after Integration Report 1. We had different styles—different approaches to film making. She was more the “guiding force” type of film maker—the one with the vision who then delegates duties. But I, on the other hand, mostly because of lack of funds, took the “hands on” approach. I had to learn every aspect, from blocking the scenes to editing. I was fortunate to have started out with other film makers such as Shirley Clark, Penny Baker, Graham Ferguson and Ricky Leacock. Ricky Leacock was a noted documentary film maker who had done those NBC concerts with Leonard Bernstein, and Ricky was instrumental in the advancement of my career. We started a company called Andover Productions and within that framework, I made my first film.
Integration Report 1 was originally intended to be the first of many chronicles of integration as it happened. I travelled with the film, speaking and showing it in colleges, schools, and churches, and it was well received. I expected to have no trouble getting funding for the follow up reports, but trouble was what I got. So Integration Report 1 stands alone, but it still amazes me when I think of the people and the times we captured in that film. NBC made a film in 1964 called Sit-Inthat stirred up a lot of controversy, but Integration Report 1 included a sit-in in Greenville, South Carolina that happened in 1960. We showed the world some of the earliest film footage of African Americans being beaten and dragged off to jail. In Washington, D.C., we filmed a big gathering that was sort of a dress rehearsal for the big 1963 March on Washington. We captured Bayard Rustin, Dr. King and grand labor leader A. Philip Randolph planning and pulling the whole thing together. I remember Nkrumah even came over for the event, so we caught some good footage of him, as well. Maya Angelou did the sound track, and all of this was just before the big crest of the Civil Rights movement. It was a matter of following the key players around to all the hot spots, and waiting for the history to happen.
In the mid-sixties a group of us had been trying to get WNET to let us do a series by and for Black people. By that time the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, but here we were still trying to tell our own experience, rather than listening to somebody else tell us what it was like to be Black. We wanted to do it ourselves. Finally, after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, NET agreed to let us do a series called Black Journal. They assigned us a Caucasian producer, and when we asked for a Black producer, they said no. So we went on strike. They eventually gave in and we got our Black producer, Bill Greaves. The show was done in a magazine format, reporting what was happening in the Black community all over the United States. It was an excellent series, winning both an Emmy and the NATRA.
How did I Am Somebody come about?
I had been with NET for a while when I was approached by Local 1199 to have a film made. There was a group of Black women hospital workers who were planning to strike, and they wanted it documented. So I left Black Journal, formed my own production company (Onyx Productions), and I called the film I Am Somebody. After that, I went to the Children’s Television Workshop and did a lot of work there, which I loved. Then I did mostly independent production projects through my company. I made a film for the Ford Foundation called The Walls Come Tumbling Down about the renewal of the projects in St. Louis.
What’s your opinion of today’s Black women film makers?
I think they are very good and creative. I love the fact that they are showing us as we are, with their own unique vision. I really appreciate what they’re doing today.
What advice do you have for today’s women film makers?
As hard as it is to get through those doors, it is harder to stay there. There is still a lack of funding and a lack of attention paid to the Black life experience as it really is, from our perspective. Even today, you can still find us depicted as the clowns, and limited to singing and dancing. But our humanity is still not being shown in an equal manner. So I say, Sisters, just keep pushing and doing what you’re doing. We just need more of it. Things won’t change until we do away with racism.
Most of your works are documentaries. Have you ever considered doing a feature?
(laughing) I was once approached by a studio, I won’t say the name. I was presented with a script that was pretty decent. It was a “Romeo & Juliet” scenario about a Hispanic young man falling in love with a young woman of African descent. I thought it was sweet, and had possibilities. So I agreed to do it, but as they began raising money, the film began to change. Each time money changed hands, something in the script changed. By the time we were ready to start, I read the re-worked script, and it was nothing but a 1970’s-style blaxploitation film! I had to back out, because when you do a feature film, it takes over a year of your life. And I can’t spend that kind of time on something I don’t believe in.
When you did Malcolm X – Nationalist or Humanist? in 1967, you must’ve become something of a Malcolm expert. What did you think of Spike Lee’s film?
I was fortunate to have met Malcolm X before he died. I was working on a film called The Cool World, with Shirley Clark. It was based on a book by Harvey Miller about gangs in the inner city, and we wanted to get the approval of powerful people in the Black community. We had several screenings, and one night we had a private screening for Malcolm X and some of his friends in New York. It was quite memorable. He was the most electrifying person I had ever met. He was so clean-cut and dignified, and his intelligence was so razor-sharp, you could see it in his eyes. He was a devout Muslim and a genuine family man. As far as Spike Lee’s film goes, parts of it were excellent, but at times his mix of styles sort of threw me, to tell the truth. I think he missed one aspect of Malcolm, however. I don’t think Malcolm’s “family man” side was shown enough. Betty Shabazz was the narrator of my film, and she was adamant that her husband be dealt with fairly and truthfully as a whole person, and she was right. Because everyone knows about his political life; I think that his human side was what made him so amazing—that he was all these things to his family and to his people. I am a documentary film maker. It’s my job to capture the truth.
What aspect of film making do you enjoy the most?
I love editing, but I’d have to say I just love all aspects of documentary work. I love real people, real situations, and there’s nothing like being in a hot spot when history is being made. Whatever happens is happening right at that moment, and you have to catch it when it happens. And when you edit it, there can be no tricks. You have to remain true to what you’re doing.
Where can your films be acquired?
Bill Greaves of Black Journal has Malcolm X, Nationalist or Humanist? The University of Indiana has several of my films, and I believe The Schomburg has a few.
What do you feel is your greatest achievement and legacy for the sisters who are following in your footsteps?
History. I filmed history in the making, and it was an honor.
Any new projects in the works?
I keep my hand in. Every year I make videos about the events I do for the Diocese. But one day soon I’d like to make another film, because I have a lot of things I want to do and say before I sleep.
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I Am Somebody is available on the Turner Classic Movies website.