Monday, September 13, 2010

Fearless Like Him

If Joaquin Phoenix is looking for his next dramatic project, Louisville, Kentucky native Morgan Atkinson has a suggestion. Consider making a biopic about John Howard Griffin, author of the seminal 1961 undercover expose Black Like Me. "I think Griffin's story would make a great feature," says Atkinson during an interview with FilmStew. "There's a lot of rich material I cut from the documentary."

Nevertheless, Atkinson has managed to do great justice to his subject with Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin, which premieres Thursday, September 16th at the Clifton Center in Louisville. Beyond Griffin's radical attempts to experience the plight of the segregated American "Negro," the documentary details his work with the French Resistance during World War II to smuggle Jews to safety, his indoctrination with a tribe on the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and his miraculous recovery from ten years of blindness to become an accomplished photographer.

Alongside his medically altered self
(Copyright SEPIA Magazine)

Griffin passed away in 1980 and his widow died some twenty years later. But all four of the couple's children are coming in from the Fort Worth area for this week's screening. Griffin is buried in Mansfield, TX, where his Shakespeare-inspired tombstone reads, 'Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'

"There was a guy from Pittsburgh who did a similar journey [to Black Like Me] in the late 1940's," Atkinson shares. "He worked for a newspaper and they ran a series on it. But for whatever reason, it didn't click the way Griffin's account did."

"I'm told Griffin was not aware of this and I believe that," he adds."Griffin wasn't looking for a good gimmick story I don't think. His was truly an act of conscience and exploration. However, he wasn't a complete innocent and did realize that this was a potentially engaging story."

Made over a span of two and a half years for low six-figures, Uncommon Vision includes interviews with Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, friend Dick Gregory and estate executor Roberto Bonazzi. The late Studs Terkel, who died in 2008, famously described Griffin as one of the most remarkable men he had ever met.

(l to r) Atkinson, Post critic Yardley

Atkinson is planning to tour the documentary for the next year and a half, starting with an October 28th screening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and including a trip to Los Angeles in December. He has also locked in an upcoming local PBS airing and is hoping eventually for a national one like the 2008 broadcast of his previous documentary on Trappist monk and prolific author Thomas Merton, which attracted a viewership of close to 3 million.

"I'm not sure if President Obama has read Black Like Me," Atkinson replies when asked. "I'd be surprised if he hadn't. I do know they have a painting in the White House that Michelle acquired by a New York artist who took a key passage from the book and did a treatment of it."

"Griffin was friendly with and in frequent contact with Dr. Martin Luther King and many other civil rights activists," he continues. "He agreed with Stokely Carmichael's observation that it was a book primarily for white people. Griffin had no illusions that he was telling African-Americans anything new about race relations."

[Morgan Atkinson / Duckworks Inc.]

No comments:

Post a Comment