Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Indie Grits write-up

Property The Daily Gamecock

The Indie Grits Film Festival devoted a portion of one of its sessions this past Thursday to honoring the life and work of local filmmaker John Lewis through footage compiled of his early 1970s movie, “Miracle at Valley Park.”

The documentary chronicled a concert performance by the Chambers Brothers at the height of racial tensions in Columbia after several students rioted at Dreher High School. The footage, assembled for the screening by USC’s Moving Image Research Collections, contains the concert footage as well as contextual interviews with Lewis, members of his crew and the Chambers Brothers.

Lewis passed away earlier this year from complications stemming from Parkinson’s disease.

Another man featured in the documentary was the Rev. James Redfern, who at the time was a self-described black militant in Columbia working for equal job opportunities for African-Americans. Redfern was in attendance for the screening and shared his thoughts on the documentary and on Lewis.

“John Lewis changed Columbia and South Carolina,” he said. “This [film] ... is the forerunner. Every major show that has come through the Coliseum is because of John.”
Redfern spoke at length and answered questions about the state of the civil rights movement in Columbia at the time of the concert. He said the event and its film helped open up doors and gather attention for the way it brought people together at a time of great tension.

The documentary was produced at bare-minimum cost, as Lewis used his job at WIS to provide his crew with equipment. John’s wife, Inge Lewis, was also in attendance and offered her reflections on how the project came to be.

“John just did it,” she said. “He was so persuasive. They built the stage. I don’t know how because they didn’t have any money.”

The celebration of Lewis and his documentary was only one part of what was a larger presentation of footage culled from the Moving Image Research Collections. The Collections’ interim director, Mark Cooper, said the event hoped to “highlight and celebrate the indie and gritty spirit.”

Items showcased included excerpts from the Fox Movietone News Collection and the recently acquired Chinese Film Collection. One item from the Home Movie Collections was of a family hosting a party full of illegal drinking during Prohibition. Ben Singleton, MIRC’s production manager, told the audience that the short will be used by famous documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in an upcoming series on Prohibition.

While the event as a whole showed off many gems from the MIRC, which Indie Grits director Andy Smith called one of Columbia’s “finest treasures” full of world-class programming, the star of the evening was very much Lewis.

“John could see all our communities, and he empowered us,” Redfern said. “We never even considered the power of art,” he said, speaking of Lewis’s civil rights efforts.

He was sure to emphasize that having someone so willing to use all his creative prowess to document these crucial civil rights moment helped spread and support the local movement.

Unfortunately, MIRC does not hold a complete print of “Miracle at Valley Park.” Cooper encouraged the audience to let him know if anyone knew of any surviving portions of the film for the Collections to house.

It was clearly an evening of celebration, remembering one of the largely unseen and unknown cultural landmarks of Columbia’s recent memory.

“I’ve known people around the world, and there was only one John Lewis,” Redfern said.

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