They were surgeons, journalists, mothers. They were car salesmen and bank tellers. They were architects and diplomats, children and adults. They were black Americans of the 1960s, and some of their stories are being shared after preservationists at the National Archives' Motion Picture Preservation Lab recently digitized and patched together a never-completed film.
Criss Covac, who supervises the lab, blogs about the challenges of preserving The American Negro, as it is called, which had been sitting in the archive in a complicated mishmash of working prints, audio reels and outtakes in various states of decay. “We have no way to know whether or not the film was ever completed, so the most original and complete copy we have is the workprint and associated audio,” writes Covac. After the library received a reference request for the film, preservationists decided to piece it together and digitize it.
The result is a fascinating glimpse at a film that never came to fruition. Charles Gordone, a black actor and playwright who narrates the film, later in life won a Pulitzer Prize for No Place to Be Somebody. At the time of The American Negro's production in the early 1960s, he was chairman of the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers.
Gordone produced the documentary for the United States Information Agency (USIA), a public diplomacy outlet designed to familiarize the rest of the world with American life and values. Over the years, the USIA became an unexpected repository of the history of black Americans. One of the agency’s most famous films was The March, a documentary of the 1963 March on Washington. The University of Oregon’s "16MM Lost and Found" blog notes that films like The March walked “an especially tricky line.” Since they were produced for foreign audiences, they had the odd duty of both documenting American life and celebrating American values—even when those values upheld segregation, racism and the subjugation of black people.
The American Negro sidesteps this quandary by focusing primarily on the daily realities of black Americans. Instead of showing civil rights marches or black musicians, the film celebrates middle-class black people. The film also features rare interviews with civil rights leaders like James Farmer and Whitney Young.
One of the film’s most fascinating—and chilling—segments asks black people about how segregation affects their daily lives. The film shows how racism touched everyone interviewed, regardless of their socioeconomic class. Though the film ends on a positive note, its power lies in its illustration of the ways in which the ordinary lives of black people in the 1960s were inseparable from the civil rights struggles of their day.