The groundbreaking Oscar-nominated and Peabody and Emmy award-winning documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” from documentarian and historian Henry Hampton, is coming to a new audience.
HBO Max, HBO and Anonymous Content’s AC Studios are joining forces to bring the 14-part PBS docuseries to HBO, where, starting Monday, viewers will be able to stream part one of Hampton’s chronicle of Black history and the civil rights movement, which debuted in 1987.
But the legacy of “Eyes on the Prize” does not end there — part one of “Eyes on the Prize” will be followed by the premiere of a one-hour Max Original documentary special, “Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground” on Aug. 19.
The new special is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker and artist Sophia Nahli Allison (“A Love Song for Latasha”) with executive producers including Patrisse Cullors, Mervyn Marcano and De La Revolución Films’ Melina Matsoukas, as well as Anonymous Content’s Joy Gorman Wettels, Bedonna Smith, Blackside’s Judi Hampton and Sandra Forman.
Cullors, Marcano, Matsoukas, and Allison joined Variety via Zoom to discuss the new project and what it means to carry on the legacy Hampton started.
Marcano, Blackbird co-founder and award-winning storyteller, and Cullors, the co-founder and former executive director of BLM, artist, activist, bestselling author, boarded the project first, after Gorman Wettels, who had been working to get a new iteration of “Eyes” off the ground for some time, approached Cullors.
“Patrisse and I have known each other from movement work,” Marcano says, explaining how the collaboration began and noting that Gorman Wettels had been working to get a new iteration of “Eyes” off the ground for some time.
Once the duo signed on, he says, the next step was figuring out how to make the documentary “bridge the gap” between past and present, telling stories that have gone untold.
“The question for us was How do we tell a really honest story about what it is to be alive in this moment, and be grieving,” Marcano explains.
“There’s also a very unique kind of feeling, where everyone constantly talking about 2020 being this ‘watershed year’ or how ‘There’s never been a year like it,” he continues. “And for many of us, this feels like an echo and a repetition [of movements past]. And it is exhausting and we don’t know where to go with those feelings. ‘Hallowed Gound’ was our attempt to meet that moment, and meet those feelings, and introduce new audiences to the ‘Eyes’ cannon through that.”
Cullors also expressed gratitude for Judi Hampton, Henry’s sister and the current president and CEO of Blackside for her support on the project and “the role as an elder that she has played, as she’s been holding on to this archive, and she so generously offered it to us.”
“I didn’t get to meet Henry Hampton,” Cullors tells Variety. “But I get to meet him through his beloved sister who has been, honestly, a really incredible guide for us.”
Allison adds: “[I’m] just so grateful that she trusted us with this history, with this task. She has protected the work of Henry and Blackside so beautifully, and it is such an honor to continue this legacy.”
In a press release announcing the projects, Hampton said, “I remember watching the pilot of ‘Eyes on the Prize’ with Henry when it was first created, and I immediately knew this film would be a life-changer for all who saw it.”
“A special thank you to Joy Gorman and Anonymous Content for reaching out to me years ago with passion for the original series and a dream to help bring ‘Eyes’ to a new generation,” she continued. “We are grateful for the stellar team of artists and activists who’ve come together to reimagine ‘Eyes on the Prize’ in a way that will move and inspire a whole new audience.”
From there, the team approached Allison, with the idea to do a more unconventional documentary, leaning into her sensibilities as an experimental visual artist to reimagine the work of “Eyes on the Prize” and weave the stories of the past together with Black peoples’ contemporary experiences and struggles.
“This is the dream project to work on,” Allison says. “I was a young girl when I first saw ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and was just so amazed by the collection of our history. But also, intrigued by what other histories no longer exist as evidence or as a tangible archive.”
Once she officially boarded the project in Dec. 2020, things came together rather quickly, with Matsoukas joining the team, thanks to her longstanding relationship though movement and activism with Cullors and Marcano.
“I was so honored; ‘Eyes’ had such an effect on me, as a young woman as a filmmaker, and really reinforcing how the weapon of art can be used in movement and was really influential in me creating my voice and the activism that I do in my own language,” Matsoukas says of signing on to executive produce.
Allison calls the Emmy-nominated and DGA and Grammy-winning filmmaker her “fairy godmother.”
“I’ve learned so much from all three of these individuals,” Allison says, calling Cullors a “healer,” and Marcano, the “Big Papa” of the project. “Their brilliance as artists, as organizers and movement leaders, so which is felt like the correct marriage of minds coming together to make something radically new.”
Filming began in earnest in February, with the crew working through the added challenge of COVID to get the timely project done.
“Creating a documentary you need time, and then on top of that, we’re trying to incorporate these magical realist elements, and it was not easy,” Allison recalls. “But we all understood what this project was, what it could be, and this became my life for months.”
It was a challenge, but, the filmmaker notes, “Henry Hampton’s experience was also a challenge. He did not have an easy journey creating ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and so I think it’s a really interesting echo of what it means to put together our histories. We’re having to do a lot of scavenger hunt, and we’re having conversations through time.”
To craft the companion film, Allison, her co-writer Lenelle Moïse and the team of producers worked together to interwork the archival footage with 15 new interviews (including one with Cullors) and a set of powerful and visually-stunning vignettes choreographed to mirror or evoke real life scenes like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Having so much of the archival footage in juxtaposition to contemporary footage was really this opening, and this moment, to fill in the gaps,” Cullors says.
“There’s so much archive that you couldn’t possibly put into the 60 minute film,” Marcano agrees, noting that the 14-parts of “Eyes” and the footage that made it up represent the greater “necessity for a living archive” of Black history. “It’s never complete.”
First, Allison watched all 14 episodes of Hampton’s original series. “I would do my own personal transcription of any quote, any archival visual that stood out to me, any interview that was interesting, or that I felt we really needed to spend time with,” she explained. “Then I began thinking about these re-imaginings to accompany these histories, and void of these histories.”
A big part of the success of the special is thanks to the project’s editor Andrew Morrow. Morrow joined the project on the recommendation of Matsoukas, after the duo collaborated on projects like Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
“Andrew’s ability to find the echoes in the archive — visually sonically, and emotionally — is unmatched. Andrew was the hidden weapon here,” Marcano says.
Where most documentaries would’ve utilized more protest or newsreel footage, the “Hallowed Ground” team was able to personalize their special even more thanks to Hampton’s archive.
“One of my favorite moments is seeing the beginning of Rosa Parks’ interview,” Marcano adds, as an an example of Allison and Morrow’s “brilliance.” “You see her take a deep breath about a question she’s probably been asked a million times. But it’s that moment, where you see Rosa Parks in a flash, and probably a way that you haven’t seen her before. She’s slightly irritated; she’s tired.”
“That’s the beauty of what ‘Hallowed Ground’ is doing — it’s complicating the archive,” he explains. “These people who have been lionized to the point where they don’t exist anymore get to become human again, and so do we through that process.”
The work to bolster the “Eyes” cannon, continues beyond “Hallowed Ground,” with a brand-new iteration of “Eyes on the Prize” which set to stream on HBO Max.
Details of the project are currently under wraps, but the filmmakers share some of the topics they didn’t get a chance to explore via the special that could make good fodder for the upcoming project.
“It’s going to be a further exploration of a lot of the issues we see come up [in ‘Hallowed Ground’],” Marcano explains. “There’s lots of conversation out in the world about social movements and their power, and how they shape us.”
“Something we imagined early on that we might think about in this film, and we didn’t want to spend a ton of time on in the end was this question of backlash and rage that we’re seeing from white people,” he adds. “This film was not about that, and we’re really glad about it, but we can anticipate that we will you know be covering some of that [moving forward.]”
Another topic left on the cutting room floor was the discussion of land liberation.
“Throughout the editing process we realized it just stood out. It just felt awkward. It didn’t fit within the overall narrative,” Allison recalls. “That’s one that I deeply miss. But I understand that story, and that history, needs time. But also we discovered that our interviewees in the film, were already speaking about that without naming it. But that definitely is a piece that’s not in there that I would love to revisit one day.”
Despite the fact original “Eyes” had a lot of coverage of Attica, Marcano adds, the filmmakers couldn’t find a place for the discussion about closing prisons and jails in this project.
“We would take it in, we’d put it out. We saw some echoes, but it just didn’t feel right to try to make mini-episodes of ‘Eyes,’ inside of ‘Hallowed Ground,’” he explains. “We had to make ‘Hallowed Ground’ stand on its own, as that deeply spiritual piece. Knowing that what we have here are nuggets that meet an emotional moment and serve as jumping off points to explore further in the series when there’s more time and space to dive into it.”
Ultimately, the same way that “Eyes on the Prize” influenced the filmmaking team that is carrying the torch into this next phase, Matsoukas hopes that “Hallowed Ground” does the same for future generations.
“I hope that people are really inspired; that they learn, but are also intrigued,” Matsoukas explains. “That they find space to remember to celebrate, to continue the fight, but they also have room for safety, and each other.”
“One of my favorite pieces [is the interviewee who says,] ‘This country was built on us forgetting and not remembering,'” she adds. “This archive and this piece is all about us knowing who we are, where we came from, and where we will take the future.”