Film and Media

Making The Great Depression for Public Television: Notes on Collaboration with Documentary Filmmakers

James Green | Oct 1, 1994

In recent years the growing collaboration between historians and filmmakers has generated sharp debates emphasizing the difference between academic history with its interpretive characteristics and documentary filmmaking with its dramatic requirements. The debate will continue and so will the collaboration, thus heightening the need for the two groups to "more fully educate themselves to the other's crafts."1 My own involvement in making The Great Depression, a seven-part series produced by Blackside, Inc., of Boston for the Public Broadcasting Service, highlighted the differences between historians and filmmakers, but also helped me see how the two groups can work together effectively. Starting out as an academic adviser to the series, I ultimately became very involved in the production process and received a good deal of education about the filmmakers' craft. So it is as a collaborator as well as a historical adviser that I write about the making of The Great Depression series and the problems arising from the process.

The Great Depression aired on PBS stations in November 1993 and attracted a good audience; its ratings were 60 percent higher than the normal prime time ratings for public television programs. Over twenty-two million viewers saw some part of the series on the 280 PBS stations carrying the broadcast.2 The previous success of Blackside's two award-winning series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize I and II, and the popular response to The Civil War helped create public interest in this kind of programming as did very favorable newspaper and magazine reviews of the series.

The Great Depression was shaped by the guiding genius of Henry Hampton, the president of Blackside, whose Eyes on the Prize received great critical acclaim, a large television audience, and wide use in schools. In making Eyes, Hampton and his team created a formula for successful historical films that would guide the new series on the United States in the 1930s. The formula begins with an unswerving commitment to factual accuracy in documentation. In our first meetings, a producer, not a historian, affirmed these high standards. Award-winning filmmaker Jon Else acknowledged the temptation to use visuals that approximated the events being featured, but warned against treading on this slippery slope. "Everything should be what the audience believes it to be," he wrote in a memorandum to producers. "We must adhere to a rigorous standard of accuracy," Else insisted, "especially when borrowing from fiction to structure well-told documentary stories with drama, resolution, tragedy, and humor."

The Blackside team consulted historians throughout the planning and production of the series, but the decision made for Eyes about using scholars on camera remained in place. Only participants or those directly related to participants would testify on film unless a historian, such as John Hope Franklin, spoke as a witness to events from the thirties. This decision reflected Blackside's commitment to telling history from the bottom up—a point of view derived in part from the civil rights movement and in part from the new social history. My previous experience in producing a documentary film about the United Mine Workers with Barbara Kopple convinced me that actual witnesses provided an authentic tone that could be compromised by academic voices.3

Henry Hampton insisted that all producers receive in-depth presentations of the latest scholarship by professional historians in what he called a Blackside "school," but he made clear that the series on the Depression would not offer comprehensive historical coverage. The Blackside formula required story-driven history. From the start, historians advising the producers were told, "We are not telling the complete history of the Great Depression. We are telling stories from the Great Depression." The historians on the project found it difficult to understand how much this approach differed from producing historical scholarship with its emphasis on comprehensiveness and critical interpretation, but as we drove deeper into the production process I could see how some scholarly insights were lost on the producers seeking story-driven history with dramatic power.

Hampton wanted to produce a series about the Great Depression using the successful Eyes approach because he knew the antecedents of the civil rights movement lay in the thirties. The new series could not be centered on one movement, however, and its dramatic colors could easily fade while producers painted a vast portrait of the nation's history over more than two decades. Hampton and Senior Producer Terry Kay Rockefeller, who had been trained in a history graduate program, therefore drew heavily on the guidance of historians in selecting stories for the series.

Initially, the advisery group included Nell Irvin Painter, Alan Brinkley, Joan Hoff, and Susan Ware. They appreciated the dilemma posed by the project—that it lacked the powerful beginning of Eyes I—the Emmett Till case in 1956—and an equally powerful conclusion—the March on Selma in 1965, in which Hampton participated. Furthermore, the scholarship on the period, while extensive, still lacked inclusiveness where women and people of color were concerned and still seemed dominated by political and institutional concerns. Painter argued that Blackside enjoyed a unique ability to make a series of films "about the 1930s for the 1990s"—in other words, programs free from some of the conventional cultural and historiographical baggage of the period, programs infused with current multicultural sensibilities. Grounding the series in the new social history rather than the old institutional history would help producers shape programs with popular appeal for the 1990s for audiences not easily drawn to old debates about the causes of the 1929 stock market crash, the personal characteristics of FDR, or the successes of New Deal programs.

With Nell Painter's idea as a guidepost, in 1990 Blackside staff developed treatments for a series of programs and produced a pilot film, After the Crash, which examined the early 1930s with emphasis on two 1932 demonstrations, the Hunger March on Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn and the Bonus March on Washington. When Hampton was stricken with a life-threatening illness in 1990, Rockefeller, a veteran of Eyes II productions, carried on, securing a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and planning an even more extensive collaboration with academic advisers. I met with her in the spring of 1990 and offered suggestions for the series based on my own work in the labor history of the period.

An expanded group of history advisers met that summer for a screening of the pilot and a discussion of the treatments. In 1991 the staff decided on a provisional set of eight programs, reflecting Blackside's commitment to history from the bottom up. For example, Jon Else would produce a set-up program on the 1920s about Henry Ford and his workers, not about presidents Coolidge and Hoover. There would be no program entirely devoted to Roosevelt and the New Deal, but a film on La Guardia's New York would show how federal programs affected the city. No program about Huey Long, the subject of a Ken Burns film, but instead one featuring the little-known story of Upton Sinclair's Campaign to End Poverty in California. I suggested a labor show on the 1934 textile strike and the organizing of the steel industry rather than the oft-told sit-down strike saga which tended to dominate the visual presentation of workers' struggles in the period. Black responses to unemployment and the New Deal would be seen throughout, but African American life would be depicted mainly through the career of Joe Louis and what it symbolized, together with the story of the antilynching campaign.

A number of advisers emphasized the critical role of the left and the misunderstood actions of the Communist party. Robin Kelley, one of the series advisers, whose own superb book Hammer and Hoe provides new insights into black involvement in the party, made this case very compellingly. In the end, producers could not put many of Kelley's suggestions into their films, but he still recalled the process as "amazingly democratic and supportive." He told The Nation he had advised on over a dozen films for the NEH and usually felt he was "just there for the grants," but at Blackside, producers took their cue from Hampton, who "really listened."4

The following summer, producers were hired for the production of eight programs, and Rockefeller asked me to help her plan a Blackside summer school for them so that they could read and discuss historical literature with a group of historians. The Blackside School on the Great Depression proved an exciting experience, covering six full days of discussion with a heap of historical reading for the producers. The filmmakers gamely listened to twenty-eight historians and several participants in Depression events. One day Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., held forth on the coming of the New Deal, and Thomas Kessner, La Guardia's biographer, set the New York scene during Roosevelt's first one hundred days. To spice up this discussion, I invited the gruff, fast-talking artist Ralph Fasanella, who presented an entertaining slide show of his own paintings on working-class life in the city during the 1930s. His visual storytelling and his intimate memories of La Guardia proved to be a high point of the week.

Then the real work began as producers dug into their stories to see if they could really be told in dramatic Blackside form and to see if, as Hampton often said, good history would make good television. I spent the rest of my sabbatical working full-time with the producers to find oral history witnesses for their shows, to collaborate on developing their stories while checking for historical accuracy and interpretive currency.

Decisions about program content eventually evolved out of many meetings and screenings in ways that defy precise description. No program proposal could go forward, however, without these ingredients: first, exciting newsreel footage and still photography of actual events and people; second, good storytellers (that is, interviewees) who had played roles in our stories or who would remember those who did; third, stories with a colorful local setting and a link to national events, dramatic stories with a good starting point, a suspenseful climax, and a powerful resolution; fourth, cultural diversity in the stories' characters and witnesses; and fifth, tales that could be told about ordinary people suffering but struggling through the Depression, fighting not only to survive but to change America as they knew it.

Finding these ingredients for each program meant that aspects of the Great Depression that seemed crucial to historians simply could not be told well on film. For example, for the labor show, my special project, we selected the 1934 textile strike because so many women participated, but preinterviews through phone conversations failed to turn up good storytellers. The strike ended in a crushing defeat and many workers suppressed its painful memory.

We found great storytellers for other episodes of labor's struggle in the thirties, but other problems arose. Initially, the program's producer, Lyn Goldfarb, wanted to do an unusual film featuring women and people of color whose faces and voices did not usually appear in labor history documentaries, a program that would reveal the work force of today in its Depression form and might depict food, commercial, or service workers instead of men toiling in coal mines or auto plants. But these stories all encountered problems meeting the series's criteria. We found no newsreel footage of the exciting efforts to organize black and white meat packers and stockyard workers in Chicago. Shockingly, not a single newsreel image of A. Philip Randolph could be found from the late 1930s, when he emerged as the nation's most important black leader; therefore, we could not build him into our labor show treatment. Goldfarb's dedicated effort to tell the story of the Chicana pecan shellers in San Antonio faced similar dilemmas because the key storyteller, a Communist organizer, refused to be interviewed on camera.

Goldfarb devoted most of her time to her first assignment, a program about the popular unrest of 1934 and the forces that created the Social Security Act in 1935. The film she made, however, turned out to be the full story of Upton Sinclair's 1934 campaign for governor of California based on strong witnesses and lost newsreel footage she discovered late in the process and on excellent storytelling which highlighted the nefarious role of Hollywood studio czars in subverting Sinclair's campaign. The story of the Social Security Act could not be told in such a dramatic fashion.

Financial and temporal constraints dictated other decisions. Foundations and corporate underwriters expressed little interest in supporting films about the Depression, and one of the eight programs was cancelled. One story from this film—about the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas—would be combined with one union story to make a program about the labor movement. Time did not allow Lyn Goldfarb to carry on with this project and it was assigned to Dante James, who was finishing the program New York/New Deal about La Guardia and Roosevelt.

I had been working closely with James on this project and learned a great deal from him about the filmmakers' craft and the requirements of visual storytelling. Along with other advisers, I had pushed for some treatment of Harlem's black nationalist and Communist movements, for a look at the Puerto Rican community in Spanish Harlem, and for an emphasis on the great 1933 strike in the New York needle trades which revived industrial unionism in the city. We researched all of these ingredients and debated their place in the story, which was driven by La Guardia's career. As I began to think more like a filmmaker, I understood the producer's decision not to incorporate all our suggestions into his program, mostly because of scarce visual evidence and because of the need to follow a dramatic story line without unnecessary deviation.

I also helped James research a story about the impact of the New Deal on the Navajo Nation, but that proposal suffered from our inability to find a clear story line through a bewildering world of tribal and federal politics and our failure to locate good footage from Arizona. The series goal of producing a multicultural history of the Depression for the 1990s faced many problems of this sort. As a result, The Great Depression treats several episodes of African American history that could be visually documented—for example, the Harlem riot of 1935, Joe Louis's fights, Marian Anderson's famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial—but does not depict most of the interesting events historians proposed about other racially oppressed groups.

In sum, biases in the documentary evidence and the demands of narrative construction favored certain stories. Time limits then worked against the producers' opportunity to find unconventional visuals and unusual story treatments for those whose stories had been hidden from history. The producers' main challenge was to rise above these limits and create exciting films with unconventional voices and subjects, films not controlled by the powerful documentary images and cultural symbols created in the Depression era and recreated in popular media and in academic history.

For example, labor films set in the period usually possessed a certain look and sound derived from populist imagery, union lingo, and left-wing ideology. Dante James wanted to make an unconventional film about Depression-era unions, using a powerful segment he created on the suppression of the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. I suggested pairing that tragedy with the victory of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a curiously untold tale in previous union documentaries. The steel industry had been richly documented in film and in photos because of its dominant role in the economy and in the CIO's organizing strategy. I suggested a certain location, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, as a place to anchor the story. This "perfect company" town in the heart of "Little Siberia" not only exuded industrial oppression, it allowed us to connect a local story to a national one. Ten workers fired by Jones and Laughlin Steel Company for organizing that town took their case to the Supreme Court and won in the epic case that upheld the National Labor Relations Act and bolstered the New Deal in 1937.

Aliquippa had been built by Tom Mercer Girdler, the key corporate figure in our story, the man who would head the industry's offense against the CIO. He was the perfect antagonist to our steelworker protagonists. The social movement focus of the Eyes series remained in this program, and so did the requirement that storytellers come from both sides of the street: those who suffered and protested as well as those in power who opposed social protest and could offer what Hampton called "testimony against interest."

While working on this program, I discovered that a young filmmaker of the 1990s could make a moving documentary about unions in the 1930s that escaped some of the genre's conventions and conveyed a powerful message about the role of unions in expanding democracy. In helping to research and develop the script for this program, Mean Things Happening, I learned more about Blackside's kind of storytelling and the minimalist style used in writing narration. Sitting with the producer and editor while they constructed the film helped me understand why many historical insights could not be included. It was difficult and often painful to give up what seemed historically essential, but in the end I understood the essence of the filmmaker's craft: telling powerful stories with pictures. Labor history research guided us all the way, but it could not help us find the inherent dramatic structure in our stories. Once the story lines had been discovered and developed, however, they could be used to present labor history on film without any factual distortion.

My own experience as a historian collaborating with filmmakers did not resolve differences between history with its empirical tradition and emphasis on instructive interpretation and filmmaking with its artistic tradition and its emphasis on dramatic presentation. The Blackside producers took historical scholarship very seriously but I learned more about the filmmakers' craft than they learned about mine. As a result, my own historical thinking and writing has been challenged and greatly enriched.


1. Quote from Daniel Walkowitz, "Telling the Story: The Media, the Public, and American History," Perspectives (October 1993).

2. Statistics from WGBH Research Department. The Great Depression is available for educational use from PBS Videos at 1-800-328-7271.

3. Out of Darkness: The Mine Workers' Story, a one-hundred-minute video, is available from Communications Dept., United Mine Workers of America, 900 15th St., NW, Washington, DC 20005.

4. Kelley quoted in review by Lewis Cole, Nation, November 29, 1993, p. 672.

—James Green was an adviser and a research coordinator for The Great Depression. He is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and serves on the Community Advisory Board for WGBH, the local PBS television and radio station.

Tags: Scholarly Communication


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