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Montage

Reel Revolution

A television documentarian looks back.

March-April 2017

Documentarian Kent Garrett ’63 returned to Harvard last fall for a screening of his work.

Documentarian Kent Garrett ’63 returned to Harvard last fall for a screening of his work.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

 


Documentarian Kent Garrett ’63 returned to Harvard last fall for a screening of his work.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

 

For an anxious, endless moment in 1969, Kent Garrett ’63 thought he’d been stranded in Vietnam. En route to film a long-range patrol, the helicopter carrying his small documentary crew suddenly landed. The pilot threw their equipment out the window, told them to jump out, and sped away to a firefight. “And so we’re standing there in the middle of nowhere,” recalls Garrett. “With these white, shiny cases. Three black guys. And we’re saying, ‘What the heck?’” They waited, terrified, not realizing that the pilot had coordinated with the patrol beforehand. When the soldiers arrived a few minutes later, “We’d never been as happy to see anybody as those guys.”

Garrett went on that reporting trip for the television program Black Journal, created by NET (the network later succeeded by PBS) after the Kerner Commission, in the wake of serious race riots in 1967, pushed for more expansive and integrated media coverage of black communities. “It was really revolutionary times,” Garrett said at a Harvard Film Archive screening this past November. Though short-lived, Black Journal recently has earned more widespread recognition among critics and scholars as a key, neglected chapter in the history of African-American cinema. At a time when the Hollywood studio system shut them out, public television provided an essential platform for black independent filmmakers, and Black Journal, with its offer of a 10-week crash course in basic film production, became an important training ground for producers and technicians.

The show had a contentious start. An early segment on the clothing brand that popularized the dashiki almost fell through when the proprietor objected to the story’s having only white producers, reports media scholar Devorah Heitner in her book, Black Power TV; and at a party celebrating the release of the first episode, in June 1968, a well-meaning white assistant served fried chicken and watermelon. Black staff members objected to the gap between the program’s promise—to be a national production by, for, and about African Americans—and its reality under white management. Garrett and his colleagues eventually went on strike, leading the network to name William Greaves, then in front of the camera as co-host, as the new executive producer. Under black editorial control, “The feel of the pieces changed. We didn’t have go through a white filter,” says Garrett. “There’s kind of a directness. And I think that was reflected in the pieces.” 

They also reflected Greaves’s background in underground cinema. Despite the staid norms of public television, Black Journal aired documentaries with expressive cinematography and emphasized man-on-the-street interviews over editorializing narration. Garrett’s 1969 documentary Black Cop, a nuanced portrait of policemen in New York City and Los Angeles, intercuts interviews with police officers and members of the communities they patrolled. Its mood shifting between jittery and oddly placid, the film follows its subjects down busy streets, into dim stations: a typical day on the job, set to the music of John Coltrane. One scene, especially striking in the age of body cameras and Facebook Live, records an altercation between an officer and an angry driver whose keys have been confiscated. The incident is resolved without excessive force; some unrealized tension dissipates. Even the most minor incident, the scene implies, can be fraught, and must be handled with care.

Black GI, about African Americans in the military, also takes a keen interest in life’s daily texture. The camera zooms in on elaborate handshakes and hand-embroidered Black Power patches, or a broom pushing spent shells off a riverboat. But the film foregrounds this intimate detail with bigger questions: the introductory sequence provides a capsule military history that starts with the Spanish-American War; later, Garrett sharply questions minority officers about soldiers defending rights abroad that they can’t fully exercise at home. It’s hard to imagine a typical news documentary closing, as his does, on the image of a closed fist against the blue sky of Vietnam.

Black Journal’s funding dried up in the early 1970s, and when PBS decided to stop airing the show in 1976, the program took refuge on commercial airwaves under host Tony Brown. “Greaves knew what we younger staff members didn’t,” executive producer St. Clair Bourne later reflected. “This film making opportunity would not last, but the films would.”

Garrett had gotten his start in television directing advertisements. “I remember spending months on a set, trying to get these cereal things to pop out of the box correctly, so we’d have the right shot and all that,” he says. “That was not particularly good for the mind.” Black Journal showed him the medium’s potential power: “You could see it raising the consciousness of people as you traveled around the country.” He went on to work at NBC and CBS, winning two Emmy Awards and covering the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1984. But by his third decade in the news business in New York City, he felt the powerful need to escape. He moved upstate and became an organic dairy farmer, though he still worked as a news director for a local Fox affiliate between twice-daily milkings. “What happened with me—or what happens, maybe, with a lot of people in the city—is you get a little ego,” he says. “And the nice thing about cows is that they’re going to shit on you anyway. They don’t care if you have three Emmys, or 20 Emmys.”

He has since sold the herd (“It’s a young man’s game”), and is currently at work on a book called “The Last Negroes at Harvard,” about the experiences of the 18 black men and one black woman in his class. Their undergraduate days predated the campus unrest of the 1960s, Garrett points out. “There was a sort of sense of innocence, then.” Still, the first-year contingent entering in the fall of 1959 included the most African-American students Harvard and Radcliffe had ever admitted—enough, says Garrett, that they developed a sense of group identity. They brought Malcolm X to speak at Eliot House, and attempted to start a black student association. “In many ways, we were curiosities,” he says. “But as the consciousness increased in the nation, it increased here, too, with us.”

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