Civil Rights Documentarian Jack Willis
You might not recognize the name Jack Willis, but you have probably seen and experienced his work in some form. In a career that has spanned almost half a century, Willis has been a journalist, filmmaker, television executive, and award-winning producer. During his early years in New York City, he worked for both CBS and David Susskind and developed professional relationships with such prominent media figures as Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and Malcolm X (His first meeting with the Nation of Islam spokesman was in 1961 at Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem).
Willis should be better known today. A current revival of interest in two of his early films made during the civil rights era—The Streets of Greenwood (1963) and Lay My Burden Down (1966)—confirms his importance alongside such cinéma vérité pioneers as Robert Drew (Primary, 1960) and Richard Leacock (Happy Mother’s Day, 1963).
The Streets of Greenwood, made with his friends Fred Wardenburg and John Reavis, is an impassioned 20-minute time capsule that depicts a voting rights rally in rural Mississippi with key appearances by musicians Pete Seeger and civil rights activist Robert Moses, known for his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While this film captures the urgency and idealism of the movement at a peak period, Lay My Burden Down, made a year after President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, presents a more reflective and sobering portrait of its aftermath. Filmed in Selma, Alabama, the focus is on the local tenant farmers who have won the right to vote but are still excluded from the white community and continue to struggle against crushing poverty and deprivation.
Both films will be screened for Andy Ditzler’s Film Love series at Emory University, taking place in White Hall 205 on April 24 at 7pm, with Jack Willis in attendance.
In a recent phone conversation with Willis, we discussed his formative years as a journalist and filmmaker as well as some later career achievements.
The Streets of Greenwood evolved through a fortuitous chain of events. Initially, Willis and a friend wanted to do “A Day in the Life” type portrait of someone in the New York City area. “They were building the Verrazano Bridge and I thought we could do something on steelworkers, who were mostly Mohawk Indians at that time,” he recalls. “None of that panned out, but one night I went to a Pete Seeger concert and went backstage to a party afterwards. I bumped into Jim Forman who was chairman of SNCC then. He and I were talking when Pete came over, and Forman said to Pete that morale was really low in Mississippi. A lot of people were in jail in Parchman Prison and they were going to hold a concert in a cotton field. Would Pete come? Pete immediately said yes, and I said, ‘Can we come and make a film?.’” Forman approved and Seeger even loaned Willis his film camera. “So Fred [Wardenburg] and I and a guy named John Reavis drove to Mississippi [in a car] with New York license plates which showed how young and dumb we were.”
Jeff Stafford: This was your first visit to the South?
Jack Willis: Yes. It was my introduction to Mississippi and it radicalized me. At that time it was as close to a fascist state as you could get. None of the whites in town would talk to us unless they talked to the mayor first, and the mayor was a member of the White Citizens Council, as were all the other officials. In many ways, white people there were more oppressed than black people in the sense that black people at least felt free to talk to us. There was no hesitation. So we shot the film in a week. We got Ed Emshwiller, who was an experimental filmmaker at the time, to come down with us and he shot about half of the footage.
JS: Did you ever feel threatened or in danger for what you were doing?
JW: All the time. Here we are, outside agitators from New York, as they saw us, and we were followed everywhere by either guys with pickup trucks and guns in the back or the cops. I was pretty sure our phones were bugged. I called the local marshall at one point and said we felt threatened. He said there was nothing he could do until there was an incident. So we were pretty much on our own.
JS: I have seen images of Bob Dylan at the Greenwood concert but he isn’t in your film. What’s the story behind that?
JW: He was there and sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about Medgar Evers. We cut it into the film but felt it slowed the film down and took it out. [D.A.] Pennebaker had given us a cutting room, saying “You only get a freebee on your first film.” He’d seen it on our Moviola when we were screening it and called me when he was cutting Don’t Look Back and asked if he could use it. Because he’d given us the room for nothing, I said, “Take it.” He plucked it off the shelf and slapped it into his film just as it was shot, without an edit.”
JS: What led you to return to the South for Lay My Burden Down?
JW: I wanted to go back and show what it was like a year after the Voting Rights Act to see what had happened to the people who were left behind. And that’s ultimately what Lay My Burden Down turned out to be. That film is really about the end of legal Jim Crow and the tenant farmer/sharecropper system that had existed since Reconstruction.
JS: Do you think we’ve really come a long way since then or are we backsliding?
JW: I think it’s a little bit of both. The black middle class has grown but at the same time the lower middle class and the poor are worse off than before. We’re still fighting all the battles of the Civil War. It’s racism. It’s federalism. It’s states rights. It’s my own personal feeling that until we come to grips with slavery and Reconstruction during Jim Crow and what we did to the Native Americans, we’re never going to heal as a nation. We just continue to fight the same battles over and over. People just don’t want to deal with it.
In the years after Lay My Burden Down, Willis wrote, produced or directed a number of influential documentaries for television, such as Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People (1968), Hard Times in the Country (1969), and The Case Against Milligan (1975) and executive produced such series as the Emmy award-winning The Great American Dream Machine. He is also the cofounder of Link TV, the satellite network that launched in 1999 with programming dedicated to international and domestic news and issues not being covered by mainstream media.
Of his later work, Willis is probably best known for his collaboration with Saul Landau on a documentary about their close friend Paul Jacobs. A social activist and cofounder of the magazine Mother Jones, Jacobs was well known for his investigative reports on the government cover-up of the health hazards resulting from exposure to atomic bomb testing in the ’50s. The 1979 documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang is a chilling cautionary tale about the dangers of low-level radiation and is just as timely today, as government officials continue to suppress or downplay the after effects of more recent nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
JS: Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang was my introduction to you as a filmmaker. I remember it received a lot of media attention when it was released, and it didn’t hurt that it won the 1980 Emmy Award for best TV program and the George F. Polk Award for Investigative Journalism on TV.
JW: Of all the films I’ve made, I think that one has the biggest impact.
JS: How did the film evolve?
JW: Paul had come back from the Middle East and was staying with us here in New York. He woke up one morning and he had a pain in his chest. He said it felt like a crab. I’ll never forget that. Then he found out he had lung cancer. He guessed he had gotten it when he was doing his research back in the ’50s, going out into the desert with a Geiger counter, looking for what they call hot spots. When we realized Paul was dying, Saul and I got together and decided to make the film, both to keep him company in his dying days and to carry out his life work. We got Haskell Wexler and a guy named Zack Kreiger to film it for us.
JS: Your documentaries have covered a wide spectrum of social issues over the years. Are there any films or filmmakers who influenced your work?
JW: Yes, one of them was a film made by ABC News called Walk in My Shoes [produced and directed by Nicholas Webster, 1961]. It was about a black man in New York City and exposed what it was like to be black at that time. That moved me a great deal. There was one called The Chair [by Robert Drew, 1963] about the electric chair. And I wanted to take that technique and apply it to social documentaries. I didn’t want to use experts. I didn’t want a host. I wanted to be able to use music and to lap sound over scenes of people talking. None of that was done before.
JS: Are you working on anything now?
JW: The only thing I am working on is a memoir. For a guy my age, that’s what you do, right? [Laughs]
Jack Willis will be present for a Q&A following Film Love’s presentation of The Streets of Greenwood and Lay My Burden Down at Emory on April 24.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening, and other favorite topics for various digital publications.