Henry Hampton’s documentaries withstand the test of time

Henry Hampton; Photo: Dave Henderson, courtesy of Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis.

By Eric Mink

I’ve been thinking a lot this past month about the late Henry Hampton.

One of America’s finest documentary filmmakers, Henry understood the media mindset as well as anyone did, and he surely would have anticipated the tsunami of coverage surrounding the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty on January 8, 1964.

I wouldn’t dare try to put words in Henry’s mouth, but I strongly suspect he would have been, well, disappointed with much of what he saw, read and heard. Notwithstanding the occasional gems churning through the tidal foam, it’s hard to imagine him having much patience with shallow and misleading coverage, much less with ill-informed assertions that Johnson’s ambitious undertaking was a crash-and-burn failure.

And Henry, a relentless visual journalist with uncompromising high standards for accuracy and fairness, would have known what he was talking about.

Henry E. Hampton Jr. was born in St. Louis in 1940, attended Little Flower Elementary and St. Louis University High and graduated from Washington University in 1961. After a brief flirtation with medical school and a staff stint with the Unitarian Church that had him marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, the 28-year-old took his convictions, talent and fledgling media consciousness to Boston and founded Blackside Inc.

Blackside was to become a celebrated independent production company, turning out scores of significant, award-winning documentaries on American social, cultural and political history, while attracting, nurturing and challenging a team of passionate young non-fiction storytellers and researchers.

In 1998, after surviving polio as a child and lung cancer as an adult, Henry lost his fight with a blood marrow disorder associated with his earlier anti-cancer treatments. He was 58.

Henry won his widest acclaim for 14 hours of films on the American civil rights movement: “Eyes on the Prize,” six hours covering the period from 1954 to 1965; and “Eyes on the Prize II,” eight hours that carried the story from the mid-1960s through the mid-’80s.

But another of Blackside’s major projects was “America’s War on Poverty,” a five-hour series that aired on PBS over three nights in 1995. The film is long out of print, but I hung onto a review copy I received all those years ago and watched the old VHS tapes again last week.

To say that the rigorously reported, artfully crafted 19-year-old film holds up well over time would be understating the matter considerably, especially in comparison with last month’s short-lived flood of coverage.

Henry’s documentary — he served as executive producer; Terry Kay Rockefeller was the series producer — examines the planning, operation, problems and achievements of key programs that flowed from President Johnson’s initiative and the support of the American people generally. Its sources include official and unofficial records, personal notes and memoirs, in-depth interviews with direct participants (opponents and supporters alike), archival news footage, academic studies and a treasury of vintage still photos and relevant period music.

What emerges are stories of highly motivated officials, idealistic young Americans, community activists and suddenly empowered impoverished peo ple working together to devise, design and implement programs that begin to make progress in helping Americans overcome dire poverty. 

Nowhere to be seen are the discredited myths — some dating as far back as the 18th century yet still tossed around even today — of people who supposedly bring poverty upon themselves through laziness, incompetence, immorality or even genetic defects and upon whom, therefore, society should waste little time and resources. 

To the contrary, the documentary conveys the contagious hope and eagerness of poor people inspired by Johnson’s commitment a half-century ago. And it emphasizes the clear-headed understanding that real-world trial and error is essential to determining which anti-poverty approaches hold the most potential to produce the best results in circumstances as varied as the Mississippi Delta, the mining-torn hills of Appalachia, the fertile farm fields of California and the urban slums of Philadelphia and Newark.

And for anyone who needs reminding, the film tracks with acute clarity how some, though by no means all, of the poverty program’s work was undermined by vested interests protecting positions of political and economic power and by increasingly fierce competition with the Vietnam War for budgetary resources.

One of the more influential academic works when “America’s War on Poverty” was in production was Michael B. Katz’s 1989 classic book, “The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare.” Last year, Katz, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, released an extensively revised edition retitled “The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty.”

Anyone interested in total immersion in the issue could hardly find a better starting point than Katz’s 2013 update. It exhaustively reviews and assesses historical beliefs and practices relating to the poor; a wide variety of academic theories, studies and statistical analyses of the causes and effects of poverty and anti-poverty policies; the complex political minefields surrounding those policies; trends over time that have brought one strategy or another into favor or disfavor; and a clear distillation of the most basic ways to think about the problem of poverty. (And 46 pages of tiny-print footnotes.)

As fellow St. Louisans whose jobs periodically intersected – Henry the producer, me the TV critic — Henry and I had become professional acquaintances fairly early on. But I felt fortunate when a personal friendship took root after he joined me on the jury of the duPont-Columbia Awards in the late 1980s.

During his decade or so of service, he and I and the other jury members would spend a long working weekend each year at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Our assignment: Decide which of the year’s finalist entries in electronic journalism deserved the honor of being named award winners. Getting seven or eight highly opinionated people to reach a consensus on anything is a challenge, to put it delicately, and our process typically involved discussion, debate, argument, persuasion and sometimes even strategic alliances. No one, as I recall, was more adept at all those peculiar arts than Henry.

And I think few people would have been more dismayed than Henry by how too many contemporary accounts of Johnson’s War on Poverty have come to rely more on ideology and myth than on the kind of research and reporting he practiced and held dear.