Photo: Jim Harrison
Arts & Humanities
1st Heinz Awards - 1994
Henry Hampton received the 1st Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities for his creativity, his curiosity, and his seriousness of purpose, as manifested in the outstanding contributions of Blackside, Inc., the independent film and television company he founded in 1968.
From modest beginnings, Blackside has become one of the most successful independent production companies in the world. But success hasn’t changed Henry Hampton, who, remembering his early struggles, regularly mentors young minority filmmakers.
Among Blackside’s productions are the landmark television series Eyes on the Prize I and Eyes on the Prize II. Other Blackside documentaries include The Great Depression, Malcolm X and America’s War on Poverty. Mr. Hampton’s work and that of his producing team has been described as “history as poetry,” but it is not the kind of poetry that sugar coats difficult and divisive issues. He believes that Americans of all races must truly understand their past before they can deal with the present, much less master the future.
Mr. Hampton grew up in St. Louis. After dropping out of medical school, he went on to work as an editor, and later as director of information, for the Unitarian Universalist Church. When a Unitarian civil rights leader was killed in Selma, Alabama, the church decided to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march.
During this first visit to the Deep South, Mr. Hampton started to think about capturing the struggle for civil rights on film. With no experience but armed with a desire to learn, he set about questioning conventional production processes and devising uniquely personal techniques. Finally, he was ready to make exactly the kinds of documentaries he envisioned.
Eyes on the Prize received six Emmys, a Peabody, and an Academy Award nomination. It has been broadcast around the world, and is used as a teaching tool on as many as one-third of four-year college campuses in the U.S.
Mr. Hampton pushed his company to deal with what he calls “messy history,” the kind that doesn’t supply the neat conclusion the public so often wants. He believes that media can help people use the perspective history offers as they deal with contemporary problems.
Despite the weighty problems with which his films deal, Henry Hampton remains a joyous man, undeterred by the effects of both childhood polio and a battle against cancer. His vision of a just and compassionate future for all Americans fuels his spirit and permeates his work.
Note: This profile was written at the time of the awards’ presentation.
Henry Hampton passed away on November 22, 1998.