“The Children Were Watching” & “The Chair” – (Richard Leacock; U.S.A.)
DOC NYC is celebrating the career of documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock (1921-2011), a filmmaker whose documentaries were a call for social activism in the name of human rights. His films, often so stark and revealing in people’s prejudices, ambiguities, and brutal honesty, would be prevented from being aired on television, too controversial at the time. Along with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Robert Drew, they made films like”Primary,” about the 1960 Wisconsin Primary election between John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. Getting unprecedented access, using light cameras, and filming a la cinema verite, it was a breakthrough and innovation in the world of documentary filmmaking. Leacock’s career paved the way for many documentary filmmakers to film subjects with private access, capture candid moments, make social statements, and open audience’s eyes to worlds they never knew about before.
Two of his films that demonstrate that kind of candidness and brutal honesty were “The Chair” (1962), a feature about lawyer Louis Nizer’s fight to save his client Paul Crump from the electric chair, and “The Children Were Watching” (1960), a made-for-ABC-TV short about school integration in New Orleans. “The Chair” is gripping with courtroom drama and a sense of dread, while “The Children Were Watching” shakes audiences to the bones with the absolute hatred and steadfast prejudice spewed out of ordinary people due to social changes.
“The Children Were Watching” is right in the midst of the controversies that surrounded school integration at the time. In New Orleans, history is made when Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl, became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Mobs of white people who were pro-segregation gathered on her daily walks to and from school, yelling hateful epithets and threatening violence against this child, escorted by U.S. Marshalls to ensure her safety. The vitriol that came out of people’s mouths regarding African-Americans was absolutely horrendous. Talk of “these people,” that “they are trying to be white, and they’re not white,” and that they “have it good” only kept their perspectives narrow and close-minded. The sound quality of the 1960s audio made it a little difficult to understand people’s deafening yells, but the message was clear.
In retaliation, white parents pulled their children out of schools that supported integration, sending them to all-white schools that they had to be bussed into practically the next district. The narration was clearly in favor of integration, pointing out the benefits of integration would have children learn together as equals, and that the attitudes of these parents seeped into the minds of their children, infecting them with racism that they would carry on into adulthood. One man even stated that he thought school integration was a Communist plot, like an infection of American values of capitalism and freedom.
The mobs’ racism was not reserved only for African-Americans, but for white parents who supported integration and sent their children to schools with black students. The film focused particularly on the Gabriel family, a middle-class white family with six kids. Mrs. Gabriel escorted her daughter to and from school, nearly losing in amidst the mob that practically wanted to swallow them both up. But even when they got home safely, it wasn’t over. The mob continued yelling outside of her house, their roars nearly shaking the glass. The children inside, both watching from the window and being distracted with toys by their mother, were trapped, as if there were riots or a war going on outside. The mob was unrelenting, and their influence was close to destroying the lives of the family through social pressure and the high status that race plays in society.
The Chair was unusual in that it was not the case of an innocent man being on death row, as one might surmise from the description of a lawyer saving his client from the death penalty. Paul Crump was on death row for killing a security guard during an armed robbery of a meatpacking plant in 1953. Over the past several years, his lawyer, the famed Louis Nizer (clients included celebrities and journalists) gathered evidence that, while Crump was guilty, he showed that he could be rehabilitated into a civil, individual who showed contrition for his crime, and that killing him would only stop progress of successfully rehabilitating other prisoners to become law-abiding citizens. The film is a stirring drama of the uphill battle to convince a court that an admitted murderer can be reformed, especially playing into any racial politics at hand (Crump was African-American).
The film was a collaboration between Leacock, Drew, Pennebaker, and filmmaker Gregory Shuker, and their work as a team showed magnificently. Leacock’s depth of perspective was evident as he followed the prison warden through the long, winding hallways to the death chamber, where the electric chair waited for its next victim. The chair had a medieval appearance to it, with straps for the ankles, chest, and lap, and a screwed-on headpiece, as a true torture device for those both guilty and possibly innocent.
The hearing itself, while it mostly advocated for Crump to not receive the death penalty (with one or two prosecutors questioning if Crump was truly remorseful for his crime), brought the audience along with its suspense, dependent on the governor’s decision the day of Crump’s execution to save him or not. Even throughout the majority of the film, Crump is not seen, only spoken of by his defenders and reading a statement he made declaring that he has reformed for the greater good of humanity, while accepting whatever fate is bestowed upon him. Without knowing the ending, there is a fear that somebody would be executed, and Nizer would be shown sweating bullets in his office, staring at the telephone as if willing it for good news. The friendly and jovial relationship shown between him and his amiable secretary, who often eased his anxieties with good humor, were light and likable moments in the film.
Both films were landmark documentaries for their time, about the need for change in social issues regarding integration and the death penalty, and Leacock is to be remembered for his pioneer work not only as a documentary filmmaker, but as an advocate for social reform and positive change in the world.