“Sermons and Sacred Pictures” at MoMA in ‘Tributaries’ program


Tributaries: Zora Neale Hurston and Other Chroniclers of the Deep South

A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration
June 9 and 10, 2015 

Introduction by Lynne Sachs

After looking at Jacob Lawrence’s haunting “Migration Series” painting exhibition upstairs here at the museum, watching the movies that are part of A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration makes me feel as if Lawrence’s canvases have come downstairs and started to breathe.  Tonight we will experience the cinematic “tributaries” that come together to articulate our understanding of life in the South – particularly for African Americans – during the early to mid part of the 20th Century.

In 1989, I made a pilgrimage to Eatonville, Florida to participate in the first ever ZORA! Festival celebrating the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African American writer and folklorist I had recently become aware of through her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. I remember driving in the vicinity of Eatonville, which is a bit like the back yard of Disney-dominated Orlando, and spending – without the assistance of a GPS of course – what seemed like hours trying to find this little village that was not even on the map and almost no one in Orlando had ever hear of. Eatonville was incorporated in 1887 and was one of the first self-governing all-black municipalities in the United States.

This was the town where Zora Neale Hurston grew up and a museum had just been built in that town in her honor.

Thanks to the hard work of author Alice Walker, American readers at that time were beginning to discover the passion, sensuality and artistic virtuosity of Hurston through her fiction, her folklore investigations and more recently, her films. In tonight’s digitized 16mm film, you will watch her 1928 anthropological documentary footage which will give you a chance to see how inspired she was by the richness of the culture she so appreciated in the area of the South where she grew up. Like Rev. L.O. Taylor, the subject of the film I will be screening tonight, Hurston had an uncanny appreciation for what we might call the “familiar”, a very different approach to a visual anthropologist who must travel afar to make a “discovery.” She recorded stories, songs, and traditions from African-Americans in small Florida communities like her own hometown. As we all know, these were images that generally never made it into the history books. Like Taylor, the act of filming for Hurston is not simply an act of witnessing but rather engaging, seeing and being seen.

Filmmaker Pare Lorentz’s documentary “The River” received support from the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. The film was shot in “spectacular” black and white by the renowned cinematographer Willard Van Dyke. The film was made in 1938, the same year that Billie Holiday sang and recorded “Strange Fruit” her searing interpretation of the experience of seeing a lynching of a Black man, which you can also experience upstairs. While Lorentz expresses a bold economic and environmental critique of agrarian life in the US during a period of struggle, he does not address race issues. Nevertheless, this is the troubled South from which the people in Lawrence’s paintings are escaping. In contrast to Taylor and Hurston’s images, there is a polish to the film – the fingerprints of the makers themselves are subsumed by the good intentions of the documentary project as a whole. The voice over narration is authoritative, its intention persuasive.

Next, we will take a look at Fox Movietone’s “Itinerant Negro Preacher” which was made by a documentary movie team in 1925, the earliest period that is represented today. Here you will see a far less personal but certainly enthralled lens. The Fox camera man follows a traveling preacher revealing the word of God to anyone who will listen.

Now I will talk a little bit about my film “Sermons and Sacred Pictures”.

I first saw Reverend L.O. Taylor’s films and heard his audio recordings when I was 17 years old in the late 1970s

  • he’d recently died and his wife had given his entire movie collection to the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis for safe keeping
  • As a high school student in Memphis, I became part of a folklore team that took a cumbersome 16mm film projector around to Rev. Taylor’s churches in order to identify who the people were in his films
  • Early on, I realized the novelty of someone like Taylor who was committed to “shooting from the inside out” in what he called his Taylor Made Pictures
  • Eight years later, I returned to Memphis, after I too discovered I wanted to be a filmmaker, and not a “director” in the traditional sense of the word, to walk around Rev. Taylor’s neighborhoods where had preached and filmed – with my own 16mm Bolex
  • Like Taylor, I issued my own unofficial license, I didn’t work with a bona fide news agency – I had the freedom to explore, ask questions and engage with a part of town that was, honestly, new to me – one that was quite different from the Memphis I had known

As I began to intertwine my new color material with Taylor’s images, I felt as if we were in the process of creating something together. Throughout the making of the film, I had guidance from three filmmakers who were living in San Francisco where I was currently studying.

  • 1) I interned with Bruce Conner — avant-garde film’s found footage impresario and a devoted gospel music fan — for a year and he helped me to jump into the film images with reverence and spunk
  • 2) Trinh T. Minh-ha — filmmaker and cultural theorist — helped me to grapple with my own distance and difference from the people in the images but also to find a comfort in my connections to the story
  • 3) Experimental filmmaker and early film enthusiast Ernie Gehr showed me how to see each frame in Reverend Taylor’s films as a photograph with a specific history and composition
  • Over my two years of shooting and editing, I discovered that it was in the sound that I felt that the people in these films most “came alive” – it was in the voices and the splash of the water that I felt the miracle of the medium as it “journied” through time and space. As film curator Josh Siegel noted in his introduction to this series, perhaps what is most startling about these films is that we have a window into the “interior worlds” of African Americans living in early to mid-century America. We as a 2015 audience are able to see what mattered most to these artists of long ago.

My first screenings of “Sermons and Sacred Pictures” were in Rev. Taylor’s very own church. We had hundreds of people from Taylor’s community and far beyond there to celebrate a man who had given so much of his life to his people. Like Spencer Williams in his now legendary “Blood of Jesus” and Hurston in her moving image documents, Taylor was a filmmaker who realized that through the lens of his camera he could preserve and convey significant strides in Black American history as well as dramatic, deeply spiritual moments that somehow brought those of us on the earth a little closer to something he called God or heaven.

Pearl Bowser and Lynne Sachs at MoMA.