The Bourne Legacy
By Tom White
Bourne left us, having succumbed to a pulmonary embolism following an operation to remove a brain tumor. He left us at the peak of his creative powers, with so much left to offer, so much wisdom and knowledge and humor and honesty to impart.
As was typical of St.Clair, he was working on many projects at the time, the most ambitious of which was a four-hour series for PBS about the Black Panthers. St.Clair had over 40 films to his credit, in a career that spanned four decades. Just as he had chronicled history––with his documentaries on such giants as Paul Robeson, Amira Baraka and John Henrik Clarke––he was part of history, having been expelled from Columbia University for his involvement in the student protests in 1968. And he was there as a producer on Black Journal, the first American television devoted entirely to African-American issues.
He also gave back, mentoring scores of aspiring filmmakers and teaching at colleges and universities across the country. And he served on the IDA Board of Directors. What follows are thoughts and reflections from some of the many media makers whose lives and careers he touched and impacted.
Though I knew Saint by reputation, I had only actually met him a few years ago. The Katrina catastrophe had just occurred, and our festival, Full Frame, quickly decided to use its curated program to address the urgent issue of Class in America. I associated St. Clair with African-American film and the filmic voices of his community, and I wondered if the intersection of those voices with class would resonate with him. They did in a huge way.
St. Clair created a powerful program that deepened the discussion and exposed issues often masked by other urgencies, such as race and poverty. Given that the race theme drove his own work, his ability to step outside of it and yet marry it to the equally complex one of class was masterly. Indeed, that it was St. Clair Bourne who chose to go beyond race in this discussion lent even more weight to the argument.
I’ve worked with many great documentary filmmakers and curators in my ten years at Full Frame, but there are few with whom who I bonded as quickly as I did with St. Clair. Coming from such different places but connected by our common love of documentary and the way it serves humanity—posing vital questions, sometimes though rarely offering answers—was what forged this friendship. We spoke frequently about the industry, films we loved and his frustrations––which were quickly assuaged by daily small triumphs. He’s the person I would be calling now with the sadness of losing a valued friend, knowing that I would not be able to share more. Well, I intend to keep talking to him anyway. I cannot let a thing like death stand in the way of this ongoing conversation, and I know his voice, similarly, will continue to be heard by his community of brothers and filmmakers. I will do whatever is needed to keep that voice alive.
Founder/former Artistic Director, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
The unexpected loss of St. Clair Bourne has sent shock waves through the entire filmmaking community. As a black filmmaker, long-time colleague and close friend, however, his loss is an especially painful one for me and a very real blow to the black filmmaking community. Suddenly, the full impact of Saint’s contribution to us is quite clear. We can now more fully appreciate the significance of the role he played for so many of us for so many years—not only by documenting our history but by acting as advocate, mentor and advisor to so many younger filmmakers (and to some not so young ones, such as myself). Saint was a natural born leader with an uncanny understanding of complex issues of real significance not only to the black filmmaking community but to the black community at large. Over the years, we could, and we did, count on him to keep us informed and connected and to speak out on our behalf, not only with his films but with his perceptive and always intelligent Chamba Notes—not to mention his effective behind-the-scenes organizing talent. Saint took it upon himself to remind us to keep our eyes on the prize without asking for anything in return, including our appreciation. The legacy of his leadership and consciousness-raising films will continue to inspire us and the next generation of filmmakers well into the future. The next question we should ask ourselves is: Who will, who can, step into this saint’s shoes?
2004 IDA Career Achievement Award Honoree
As a documentary filmmaker, St. Clair gave us insight into the lives and work of some extraordinary black men, leaving a vital record for us. Most of the men he documented were "first" in their field, and great warriors in their own right. As was Saint. From his expulsion from Columbia for his protest work, to his battle for black producers/directors at Black Journal, and his fundraising efforts for his documentaries, St. Clair knew how to successfully fight for his ideas, and for those without access or voice.
In the early ’90s, St. Clair was a judge for National Black Programming Consortium’s (NBPC) annual film/video competition. Of course, he was placed in the public affairs/documentary category. After two grueling days of judging, screening and discussing the public affairs/documentary entries, St. Clair pulled me aside and asked to be moved to another category—comedy, drama, music videos, it didn't matter. I was shocked that the great man would consent to judge any genre other than documentary, and especially not comedy. But I then realized how deliberate Saint was in his docs; to record not only the struggles, but the triumphs as well––and not just the challenges, but lessons in how to overcome the challenges. He knew that this balance is crucial to not only helping the viewer maintain his/her emotional health, but also makes a more complex and intelligent film. We continue to be inspired by his passion and brilliance, and guided by his wisdom and work.
Founding President and Chief Executive Officer, National Black Programming Consortium
I am blessed to have had such a deep collaboration with my mentor, St.Clair Bourne. Before I had even met St.Clair Bourne, I had seen his film Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper. I was a budding filmmaker who had just moved back to New York after traveling through Europe on fellowship from Harvard College, and I was struck by the film’s creativity and originality. It was unlike the standard talking head documentaries with which I was familiar. It was more of a meditation on Langston Hughes, his work and poetry. The film had a direct impact on my decision to engage the documentary form with freedom and a sense of exploration.
I met St.Clair in 1987 at a panel on Black Film at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. After that, it seemed like I ran into him at nearly every cultural and media event I went to in New York. I remember him once commenting on my mohawk and earrings telling me that every time he saw me, I looked different. I was later to realize why this resonated with him, as throughout his career and life he was dedicated to recreation and re-invention. It was easy to be with St.Clair. As a black gay man, I never felt any pressure to be anything other than who and what I was at the time, and we started a friendship that was to last for nearly 20 years.
When I left public television in the early 1990s and started making my personal experimental films, St.Clair was very encouraging. I remember visited him to show him what I considered a rathe risqué film I had done exploring Queer desire within an African Diasporic context. He was totally into the filmmaking and told me that what I was doing was right on the mark and that sexuality and gender were to the ’90s that the black arts movement was to the late ’60s and ’70s.
It was at that meeting that St.Clair began instructing me in the business of filmmaking. He shared a contact management system, telling me about the importance of gathering information about people he met during his travels, activists, press, members of the film and journalism communities. He had a newsletter, “Chamba Notes,” that he would send out with updates on his projects as well as the communities he was involved with. Now in retrospect, I can see how far ahead of time he was—engaging social networking while building a community, which was a central part of his work and strategy as a filmmaker. He also taught me about the importance of educating people about what we were trying to do, which was especially important as black filmmakers who were interested in pushing the documentary form. St.Clair frequently shared with his mentees his experiences developing and realizing his projects, and he introduced many of us to his team, including his publicist, accountant and lawyer.
With each of my feature documentaries, I would seek out St.Clair’s advice and feedback on my works-in-progress. It always felt safe to do so with him, and he is credited as creative consultant on VINTAGE-Families of Value and E Minha Cara/That’s My Face. However, it was my last film, Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, that our collaboration became formalized. St.Clair was the co-executive producer and as such was extremely helpful in setting up the production in South Africa, bringing on creative folks such as my writing consultant Paul Carter Harrison, as well as working with Sam Pollard. It was amazing working with this team on the production. Working together, I found St. Clair protective, inspiring, insightful. After the film was complete, we toured together to premieres in Toronto and Miami. It was working on and touring with this film that I realized the international scope of influence of St.Clair and his work. African filmmakers from West to South spoke about the importance of his films to their cinematic and cultural education. Another common theme was the extent of appreciation for his honesty, activism and support and nurturance of their work and careers.
For me and many of my generation, St.Clair’s life and work were models to which to aspire. He was a Renaissance man with an ability to be many things at once: artist, activist, journalist, photographer, writer, producer, mentor and student of life. Sometimes he was a fierce warrior, as when I was negotiating a contract with a potential funder and he took the meeting with me and afterwards said, “We backed him up, didn’t we?” But he also had an innocence that reflected a pure heart. His abundant humor, good spirit and creativity came out of the same place. He marveled discovery and was open to new ideas, people and places. He was also humble as when he shared with me the news of two recent lifetime awards at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Pan African Documentary Film Festival in Accra, Ghana.
Community was also central to St. Clair’s work. During his recent stint in Los Angeles, he established documentary collective BAD, the LA version of the Black Documentary Collective he had created earlier in New York. Wherever he went, he established new communities, networks and audiences for black documentary film, creating family consistently with a spirit of generosity
At this past Sundance I spent of time at Black House where I encountered other black filmmakers. When I mention to one that St.Clair was my mentor there was a chorus of folks who said similar things. He was a mentor to so many of us and we all felt like we each had a personal intimate, creative and relationship with him. We have all been blessed by our relationship with this titan.
When Woo Jung Cho, one of the producers on Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, first learned of his passing, his first comment was, Does he have any children? I replied, not to my knowledge. She then asked, Who will take care of him? My response was that my generation of Black documentary filmmakers are St.Clair Bourne’s heirs. We are committed to keeping the fire alive.
When I heard of Saint’s death, at the age of 64, for days I could not stop thinking the word “community.” Every time I’ve had to write some words to someone, either informing him or her or sharing a virtual embrace, this word community appeared in the correspondence. Truth is, none of us can think of our collaborator, colleague and friend without it. He was always down for “the community,” as he would say with his own distinctly implied quotation marks, eyebrows raised.
And this commitment and concern gave birth to lots of things. Increasingly, he saw his role as one of mentor and facilitator. Before I jumped shipped for Africa, he was acting as my executive producer on a film I started developing about black debutantes. A more realized venture was his collaboration with Thomas Allen Harris, executive- producing his powerful, very personal documentary, The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, about freedom fighters exiled during Apartheid. This commitment also gave birth to the Black Documentary Collective in New York and its Los Angeles counterpoint, BAD/West—two organizations of up-and-coming new makers into whom Saint breathed both his enthusiasm for the work and his love of “the people” with the whole force of his 6’4” being.
And now, as I contemplate this profound loss, I’m thinking that all of this stands in such stark relief to the recently released studies these days that try to siphon off the affluent African-Americans from the poor blacks who try to define where we are today in terms of our consumer behavior, and not on the basis of anything that really matters, that really should matter. The thing Saint taught us is that, at the heart of the matter, is some pretty clear stuff. You are either down for your people or you ain’t.
Saint never got confused about that.
Executive Director, National Black Programming Consortium
From the time I began to have an interest in film, St.Clair was always there.
He was a rock, a tree, a true race man and, of course, a great and inspiring filmmaker. His independence in filmmaking, action and thought was a beacon for us all.
We will all miss him.
His work lives on through his films, and those, like me, whom he pushed, prodded and inspired to be better artists and humans.
May he rest in peace.
I met St.Clair Bourne in 1980 when he hired me to edit his film Chicago Blues. I had known about him for a long time and he had a reputation as a formidable presence. But in getting to know Saint, I learned that beneath that outwardly gruff and standoffish exterior was a guy who had a lot of heart and compassion. Here was a guy always looking for the next job. But Saint never wavered in his commitment to the documentary form, no matter the hardships. And with all the work he had on his plate from conjuring up concepts, writing treatments and pitching ideas, Saint was also a generous man with his time in helping guide those of us who were looking to make films that he thought had something to say about the African-American experience. Saint was a shining light for many of us into understanding the importance of who we were and where we came from culturally and politically. He was a race man and proud of it. He is missed terribly.
St.Clair Bourne was a wonderful, importantly prolific black documentary filmmaker and a mentor to many black filmmakers like , Sam Pollard and Thomas Allen Harris. It was a role he took on because he had been generously mentored by William Greaves at WNET’s Black Journal in the late 1960s. As an artist, he was deeply influenced by the Black Power/Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanist Movements, and saw his work as being the documentary film arm of those movements. You could not be near St. Clair without being infused with those values. For decades, St. Clair’s productions were nurturing grounds for younger filmmakers and crew people. He cultivated a network of black production people and worked closely with other people of color. There was hardly a region or even country where Saint did not know of a “blood” working there in film.
Saint thought it was paramount that black documentarians have a space to support and nurture one another, exchange ideas and help generate productions. In 2000, he founded the Black Documentary Collective, an organization which thrives today with 80-plus members. A few years later, he formed a similarly important organization in Los Angeles called BAD. His more recent project—his Chamba Notes blog—kept people informed and connected globally. Saint is well-known for his body of film work, but his role as a nurturer of black film talent, and of spaces for black filmmakers was another major part of his legacy. I can hardly envision the world without St. Clair in it.
I don't remember when I first met Saint, but I'd first "encountered" his father on screen at Blackside. His dad, St. Clair Bourne, Sr., was a journalist who had been interviewed for the company's PBS series, The Great Depression, and he told moving stories about Harlem during the 1930s and ’40s. When I met filmmaker St. Clair, I immediately "recognized" the father in the son. Not only did I notice that they looked and spoke a lot alike, but they shared a commitment to African-American empowerment as well as a gift for crafting compelling stories. He was so supportive of younger generations of film- and videomakers of all backgrounds. I'll always cherish sitting with him and my sister in a booth at Amy Ruth's during the Prized Pieces Festival in 2004 just hanging out. I am still stunned that he is gone.
-Tracy Heather Strain
The Film Posse, LLC