The last days of Rev. James Bevel’s life were filled with contradictions. Though dying from pancreatic cancer, he was still deeply philosophical in his staunch support of non-violence, a belief and practice he helped mold as a key advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.

But Bevel, who died in 2008, was also weak and prone to occasional ramblings as he fought the disease that ended his life at age 72. This period was captured by filmmaker Seth McClellan. His new documentary, Bevel’s Last Sermon, will be among the films shown during the Black Harvest International Film Festival kicking off Friday Aug. 6, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The 27-minute film was shot in December 2008 during the last 10 days of Bevel’s life. Having been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, Bevel was given months or weeks to live.

This would be the second encounter McClellan had with Bevel. He interviewed the reverend in 2006 for his documentary King in Chicago, which chronicled Dr. King’s time in the city during summer 1966.

Bevel was at King’s side then and throughout many efforts. Bevel’s later years were engulfed in controversy, even right up to his diagnosis. In April 2008, Bevel was convicted of having sex with his daughter when she was a teenager in the 1990s. Another of his adult daughters made the same claim. Bevel, however, declared his innocence and denied those claims to his death.

McClellan asked Bevel about the claim during the seven hours over two days that he videoed the reverend at his bedside.

“I don’t really know. The only people who know are Rev. Bevel, who has passed, and his alleged victims,” McClellan said.

McClellan maintained that his film doesn’t take sides but presents Bevel’s thoughts about what happened. The filmmaker also kept his views out of the movie. Documentaries tend to have a specific point of view, McClellan said.

“I wanted to do pretty much the exact opposite and let Rev. Bevel’s words speak for himself. I just wanted his voice to come through.”

Bevel, though, was not the same person McClellan met just a few years earlier, the filmmaker recalled. The cancer had taken its toll on Bevel, making him weaker. Several breaks were needed during filming.

“He wasn’t as physically strong as before,” McClellan said. “And he had been through a trial, and that was a very unpleasant experience, so I think that came through.”

Bevel also shares other aspects of his life during the interview. He was born in 1936 in Itta Bena, Miss., a small community in the northwestern part of the state. He grew up on a plantation and was one of 17 children born to his sharecropper father and an abusive mother. Bevel recalled his childhood in the film. He recalled that his mother didn’t know how to love. He also recalled having had sex as a child with neighborhood girls.

But Bevel would later join and become a prominent leader in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He was among Dr. King’s most trusted advisors and helped organize several efforts, including organizing youth protestors following the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Birmingham Baptist Church that killed four young girls. McClellan expressed admiration for Bevel’s work in the movement.

“This guy had a huge impact on America history,” he said.

But McClellan also acknowledged that Bevel did things many would feel were destructive.

“Something happened, and he was indeed convicted,” he said.

But among Bevel’s greatest legacy, according to McClellan, is his stance on non-violence during the movement. The reverend talked about it at some length in the film. “He had a clarity of faith and a strong conviction,” McClellan said.

Bevel’s Last Sermon premiered at film festivals earlier this year and will also be shown on Wednesday Aug. 11, during the Black Harvest Fest.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

If you go

  • The 16th annual Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video
  • Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; from Aug. 6 through Sept. 2.
  • Bevel's Last Sermon shown at 8:15 p.m. Aug. 11.
  • For festival information call 312-846-2600 or visit: www.siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest2010.