More than Talking Heads details the production, original use, and recent restoration of the 183 unedited interviews conducted for the second series of the pivotal civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. You can watch the restored interviews here.
Subtitled America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985, its eight episodes cover what happened after the March on Selma. Despite the promise of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the new freedoms African Americans had gained were meeting resistance from white communities and politicians, especially in northern urban cities. (For the sake of ease, the nickname Eyes II is used to refer to this second series.)
The collection features interviews with revered leaders in the struggle for social justice and Black equality such as Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Huey P. Newton, Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, and Muhammad Ali.
But more importantly to Eyes on the Prize’s interest in a people-powered form of social justice, it also includes the voices of regular folks who lived in the communities covered in the series. They marched in Chicago for fair housing. They elected Carl Stokes as the first Black mayor of a major city. They built Resurrection City for the cause of economic justice. They lost their sons in the state’s violent repression of the Attica Uprising. They protested against police violence.
While documentaries that over-rely on talking head interviews are sometimes belittled as being old-fashioned, these recordings show the exact opposite. When done properly, as they were in Eyes on the Prize, the documentary interview is a highly skilled and deeply researched method of constructing historical evidence through personal testimony. The interviews done for Eyes on the Prize are not oral histories; instead, they are carefully crafted interviews with the goal of gathering specific information.
These interviews are pieces of an important documentary program and are worth preserving and watching for that fact alone. But they can also inspire others to continue the freedom movements the interviewees struggled for. Moreover, having the individuals who personally experienced the events covered in a documentary to recount what happened was a political act on the part of the Eyes on the Prize producers.
The following teaser video is a compilation
of various interviews showing the wide variety
of topics that this collection covers.
This exhibition starts with a background of both series of Eyes on The Prize, which was produced by St. Louis native Henry Hampton and his Boston-based company, Blackside, Inc., the largest African American film studio at the time. Eyes II was originally broadcast in early 1990 as a follow-up to the immensely successful first series Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954–1965, also known as Eyes I, that PBS first aired in 1987. (Visit the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s exhibit Freedom Song for more information on the interviews in Eyes I.)
The exhibition then describes the production of the second series. Creating an eight-hour documentary program that covered twenty years of turbulent American history took a great deal of work. Blackside organized itself into four production teams that spread out the filmmaking labor while still maintaining a cohesive style across the eight episodes. These four teams and other Blackside staff spent close to three years conducting historical research in archives, regularly consulting scholars and activists, pouring through massive television news libraries for footage, interviewing 181 people - two of them twice - as well as writing, revising, and rewriting scripts, and editing the episodes.
The question of how those interviews were made and used by Blackside in Eyes II, and how they can be used now, is the central focus of the second half of More than Talking Heads. Over the eight years it took Blackside to produce Eyes I, they developed many techniques to get usable on-camera quotes from interviewees. As such, these interviews are not free-flowing chats but are constructed interrogations built out of historical research and organized for a television documentary. There is a tension between the producer’s need for a soundbite that can be edited into an episode of public television and the interviewee’s truthful and emotional account of their personal experiences of a shared event.
A small case study on the interviews included in the seventh episode story on the white protests against school desegregation in Boston shows in closer detail how much of an interview was included in the final version and how much was left out. The stories, facts, and opinions recorded in the interviews but not shown on TV start a discussion of how these historical resources have been used after the 1990 broadcast of Eyes II.
Henry Hampton and Blackside knew that the interviews they conducted for both parts of Eyes on the Prize not only recounted major events in the struggle for Black equality but were important historical artifacts in their own right. For example, Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton passed away between the time he was interviewed and the first broadcast of Eyes II. By starting a non-profit company to protect these interviews and organizing several educational programs on teaching the history of the civil rights movement with Eyes on the Prize, Blackside ensured that their archive would carry on well into the future as a robust historical resource.
The Washington University Libraries is honored to carry on that work since the collection was donated to the university in 2001. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in collaboration with the digitization experts at Preserve South, the 183 interviews from Eyes II have been digitized, assembled, and shared online. Most interviews are now available in their full-length version for the first time in over thirty years. The last sections of the exhibit describe this archival work of recuperation and outline the lasting legacy of Eyes on the Prize through examples of how scholars and filmmakers have begun to reuse these interviews.
A list of interviewees and the subjects they discuss, and links to related resources and collections, are provided at the end of the exhibition to aid in research and teaching. Additionally, the browse feature includes a selection of documents from the archives, showing a small sampling of how Blackside produced Eyes II
This exhibit was researched and constructed by Noel Fortman, a Washington University student in the Film and Media Studies graduate program, and Andy Uhrich, Curator of Film and Media.