Poverty is put under microscope in PBS miniseries

January 15, 1995|By Michael Blowen | Michael Blowen,Boston Globe

Henry Hampton, the man responsible for the PBS miniseries "America's War on Poverty," has just returned from the dentist. He wanted to get a tooth repaired before heading to Los Angeles, where "Poverty" will be screened for the nation's television critics before premiering at 9 p.m. tomorrow on PBS (Channels 22 and 67 in Maryland). The right side of his face feels a little numb, he says, as he settles into his small, cluttered office at Blackside Inc. in Boston's South End.

Mr. Hampton, 55, may be having trouble with a molar or two, but he hasn't lost any of his bite: In "America's War on Poverty," Blackside Inc. has created a seminal work in nonfiction television.

"Eyes on the Prize," the series on civil rights that put Blackside on the map, won nearly two dozen awards, including the George Foster Peabody and Alfred duPont awards. The stories in both that series and the sequel, "Eyes on the Prize II," are dramatic tales of blatant racism -- billy clubs, attack dogs and the KKK. Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown battled the established white leadership with rhetoric and protests.

"America's War on Poverty" assumes the more difficult task of dramatizing what seems to be an amorphous topic, the social programs of '60s and '70s and their impact on the poor.

Instead of exploiting the topic, "War on Poverty" does its best to relate the human, political and racial causes and effects of urban and rural poverty.

"We're looking at poverty and racism and the problems generated from it and what's becoming the violent deterioration of society," says Mr. Hampton.

His office, which occupies a tiny corner of the multistoried Blackside building, seems cluttered. On one table there's a boxed video set of "Eyes on the Prize" next to a monitor.

Ever since he founded Blackside in 1968, Mr. Hampton has kept the production company floating -- sometimes just barely -- through tenacity that brought results.

"My father didn't raise me to take 'no' for an answer," he says. "We've always had problems raising money for our programs. At first, it was because we didn't have a track record. Now, it's because the political climate has changed and money is tighter. It's never easy.

"Every one of our projects has presented different obstacles," says Mr. Hampton, who been producer and executive producer of numerous documentaries, including "Eyes on the Prize," "Eyes on the Prize II" and "The Great Depression." His work has been critically acclaimed by reviewers and educators. He's won Emmys and Peabody awards. But it's still not easy.

"We have a great group here of people who work hard and argue hard and fight hard for these programs," says Mr. Hampton.

"The subject matter we choose is difficult to sell to foundations and granting organizations. They, quite understandably, want to associated with subjects that are easier to digest. But we've been very fortunate because our backers are extremely loyal -- and smart. They want to be associated with multiculturalism and projects that add something to our knowledge," says Mr. Hampton. With an uneasy smile, he says, "We're at a dangerous and marvelous moment in history. The optimistic view is that a lot of things have been under the surface, and they've found their constituency. The pessimistic view is that it's going to provide a lot of difficulty for the people who can least afford it."

Mr. Hampton rubs his cheek to massage away the numbness. "I'm an optimist. What choice do we have? What's the alternative? You can only ask a TV series to do so much. We need to go forward from here."

Where?

"Hopefully, toward better leadership," he says. "We hunger for someone who means what he says and says what he means."

That sounds like a description of Mr. Hampton's approach to filmmaking.

"We don't think in terms of sound bites or in people telling other people what to think," he says. "We believe in eyewitnesses testifying to what they saw and heard. . . .

"We like to listen to the voices we don't often hear," Mr. Hampton says. So one welfare mother relates: 'All the kids were going to the science museum. My son came home with a piece of paper, and I think they had to pay $3 or something like that. I called the school, and I said, "Look, I really don't have $3 for tomorrow morning, is it possible that I could pay the money, you know, when I get my check?' Everything is based on your check. She said, 'No, I'm sorry. Your child won't be able to go.' "

So can we win the war on poverty?

"Not on television," he says. "Television provoked by controversy can open up the dialogue, but it can't solve the problem."

The windows of Blackside open on two neighborhoods. Out one window, overlooking the gentrified end of Worcester Street, are parked a pair of Volvos. The other window sits above Shawmut Avenue, where there are no cars parked and gentrification is just another word.

"In the morning, all the people from that side of the street leave for work and the people from the other side slowly make their way on to the other, other side," says Mr. Hampton. "About 3, just before the yuppies start coming home, people start floating back to the other side of the neighborhood. It happens every day."

Like many of his documentaries, Mr. Hampton leaves the observation for the viewer to contemplate -- to think about its meaning before another disturbing image dissolves into the next.

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