Were it not for a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, the history major and the history maker might never have connected – and the feature-length documentary, Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock might not have been made.
That they did meet is testament to how the power of commitment, art and dogged determination brought to mass audiences the story of Bates, one of the civil rights movement’s feistiest, and least-known, heroines.
Bates was one of 75 women featured in Brian Lanker’s 1997 photo exhibit I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women who Changed America on display in Atlanta, when Sharon La Cruise, a college history major from New York, saw it. (Two years later, the exhibit would become a book project of the same title.)
The exhibit’s companion piece sparked her curiosity.
“It had these stories of these incredible African-American women who have suffered really some serious hardships in their personal lives, but had become these really special people in their various fields,” La Cruise said on the eve of her documentary’s screening on PBS’ “Independent Lens.”
“Out of all those women, I was really drawn to Daisy Bates’ story because her story of losing her mother to rape and murder and finding out at such a young age, and then becoming the woman who’s fighting to desegregate [Little Rock, Ark.] Central High in 1957.”
It was then that the idea to make a film about Bates took hold.
Dismayed that Bates had been absent from the history books she’d studied while an undergrad at Adelphi University, La Cruise thirsted to lean more. She read Bates’ autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock. She even wrote Bates.
“I didn’t realize at the time that she was very ill,” she said. “Her attorney wrote me and then I just kind of waited. … A year passed by and I still hadn’t really done anything, because I’d never worked on a feature-length documentary before, and I already had a full-time job.”
In 1999 Bates died. La Cruise never got the chance to meet her to fill in the gaps of her story. That’s when La Cruise decided she “needed to go into the field of documentary films and kind of learn the craft.”
Leaving behind a corporate job at Coca-Cola, La Cruise moved to Boston, where she began her apprenticeship by working at the renowned documentary company Blackside Film & Media, best known for the award-winning Eyes on the Prize.
She spent a year there, working on other filmmakers’ documentaries and learning top to bottom how to make a documentary. So it wasn’t until 2004 that La Cruise went to Arkansas and started taking steps to actually make a documentary about Bates.
The project took La Cruise seven years to complete because, like most historical documentarians, she had to work to support herself throughout the project. She was never able to work on the film full time.
As executive producer/writer and director, La Cruise was responsible for fundraising.
“I was never generating enough money for me not to work,” she said. “It’s a much heavier burden to take on all these things as an independent who doesn’t have the support of a company. It’s just you; and you bring people on board when you can afford to pay them.”
She credits the help of mentors, including June Cross, a colleague from her Boston days, with helping her navigate the very competitive world of fundraising. Early funding came from the National Black Programming Consortium, which provided a seed grant to begin conducting interviews and create a trailer; the Southern Humanities Council, National Endowment for the Humanities, The Arkansas Humanities Council, the New York State Council on the Arts. Completion funding came from Independent Television Service (ITVS), which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“ITVS’ mission is to enrich the cultural landscape and public media with the voices and visions of underrepresented communities, and reflect the interests and concerns of a diverse society,” said Claire Aguilar, ITVS’ vice president of programming. “We chose to fund Daisy Bates, because the film told a compelling story about a black woman in the civil rights struggle, from a first-time filmmaker who had dedicated over seven years of work towards research and production.”
In 2011, ITVS funded 67 programs between production and development funds – 10 of those programs featured African Americans and six were made by African-American filmmakers.
It’s been largely the result of ITVS’ free monthly screening series, Community Cinema, that the film has been screened in more than 50 different places, from New York to Hawaii.
“They are wonderful! Without them I would still have been wandering in the desert,” La Cruise says of ITVS. “Most of us filmmakers – we barely have enough money to finish our films. And so them stepping in and having their resources and these relationships is critical” for getting the film into places that she wouldn’t have been able to access on her own.
“I really want the film to get into various school systems around the country,” she added. “I want kids to learn more about Daisy Bates and study her. I think for quite a bit of them, they know about Little Rock. It’s Daisy Bates they don’t know a lot about.”