African-American Artists 'Make Their World'

Article excerpt

Henry Hampton, the late African-American filmmaker, devoted his creative life to showing people of color have fought for and in many ways shaped such hard-earned victories as desegregation and voting.

In his landmark series "Eyes on the Prize," he depicted these activists as "civilized soldiers." Now, in what has turned out to be his swan-song project, "I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African- American Arts" (to air on PBS Feb. 1-3 during Black History Month), Hampton reveals the good fight that has been fought by artists of color since the beginning of the 20th century, and still goes on today.

He has chosen to illuminate the lives of many lesser-known, but no less important, artists. They range from actor Bert Williams, who struggled to transcend the limitations of the black minstrel traditions, to Oscar Micheaux, one of the first black filmmakers, to today's rap artist Rakim, and spoken-word artist Saul Williams. Regarding his choice to avoid the towering figures among this century's African-American performers, such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Bill Cosby, Hampton remarked that elevating lesser-known figures is the point of his story. "This production is ... {a} journey into the powerful interaction between African-American culture and the larger American society," he said. Series co-executive producer Sam Pollard explains Hampton's goal as "telling good stories, and also bringing to the fore people whose stories haven't been told before. The decision to go with lesser- known figures was important" in order to illuminate history, he says, adding, "We came to the conclusion that Bert Williams's story might be much more interesting in terms of the type of tension that he had to deal with." The series, divided into six hours over three nights, opens with the first generation of African-Americans born into freedom. Minstrels George Walker and Bert Williams fought stereotypes of the day to win mainstream audiences. New Orleans witnessed the birth of a new American art form - jazz - while at the same time, early 20th- century film pioneer Micheaux documented the trials of blacks on film. Throughout the six hours, contemporary African-American artists provide commentary on the historical figures. Actor Ben Vereen observes that when Bert Williams was interviewed in Britain, he was asked what it was like being a black man in America. …