James Baldwin was a powerful voice in the modern Civil Rights Movement. As a journalist, he reported on significant historical events, particularly in the South, and he attended major marches, including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
The documentary “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” was made in 1982, by the husband-and-wife filmmakers Dick Fontaine (who died in October 2023) and Pat Hartley. I interviewed Pat Hartley in February 2024. Why? Because James Baldwin is an iconic figure in American literature and I wanted to know more about him.
Pat Hartley is an African American actress of Black and Hungarian descent, who starred in several Andy Warhol films when she wasn’t modeling, and a photographer born in the high energy of NYC. Her husband, Dick Fontaine, was a British documentarian and filmmaker.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” has been described as a work of political history about the civil-rights movement—and about the ongoing failure of the United States to make good on the promise of justice and equality for Black Americans.
Click below to watch my exclusive interview with Pat Hartley.
Clockwise from left – Pat Hartley, Dick Fontaine, James Baldwin, Smokey Fontaine (son of Hartley and Fontaine)
It was after the turmoil of the 1960’s. Ms. Hartley and Mr. Fontaine were an interracial couple creating magic without a care as the new decade opened. But life and legacy offered them an opportunity, a moment that they could not refuse or ignore. The couple founded Grapevine Productions and, as their debut project, were able to assemble some extraordinarily rare footage from the heart and heartache of the Civil Rights Movement, the central and chaotic time in America’s history. From their creative vision, they knew that there was a story there, one that needed and deserved to be told.
With the perspective of stunning imagery captured by European television’s vantage point (England’s Central TV especially), the footage dug deep into the marrow of the movement. And then the directors knew that they needed a guide. Hartley and Fontaine were already friends with the iconic James Baldwin, the prolific pundit and critical commentator of a generation, who had appeared regularly on television, often with Dick Cavett, and battled conservative William F. Buckley in a legendary debate at Cambridge. Baldwin had profound landmark interviews with poet Nikki Giovanni and author/activist/educator Dr. Maya Angelou. When they all spoke and “Jimmy,” as they lovingly called him, came on board with the project to be its voice and shape its vision, they knew that they had something powerful indeed.
Baldwin is leading the conversation that surrounds the stunning visuals and letting the visuals be visceral and speak for themselves. Baldwin, Hartley and Fontaine (the latter passed in October 2023), take their time to build upon the story that’s already there, but what they do is allow the story to breathe, as Baldwin visits photographs and journeys back to places where history was carved into being. As a New Yorker, Hartley was, like many including Baldwin, determined to never revisit the South, but they knew that what they had in their hands was a story that had to be told, there in the 1980’s, just two decades away from an American atrocity and only Baldwin, with this visionary team, could bring it all to life.
Now screening at NYC’s Film Forum until Thursday, February 8th, 2024, as part of the venue’s series regarding Mr. Baldwin as well as this year honoring the centennial of his birth, the Hartley/Fontaine-produced documentary, I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE, offers a direction towards history that feels real and raw and riveting in new ways. Hartley offers that she didn’t have “the temperament to be a pacifist,” and knew that the training that young people received to endure that brutality that they knew would visit them during their efforts as freedom riders, those who traveled South to intervene and support, was something she would not have been able to do. But what she was able to conceive in this documentary is a telling of stories that ache the soul.
When Baldwin speaks the names Medgar, Malcolm, Martin, it is an alliteration that you don’t want to hear but that history cannot ignore. Hartley and late husband Fontaine tell the dizzying, dazzling, disturbing journey of the Civil Rights Movement with the voice of a pioneer, a storyteller and a truth bringer that can only be wrapped in the person of the poignant powerhouse of an American writer and civil rights activist.
Baldwin (in conversation with his brother David), but not narrating the story per se, walks us through the pains of history that sounds so contemporary in 2024 that it can make your shoulder slump with chagrin. But Baldwin’s conviction and clarity, his audacity and insistence impart strength at the same time. His commentary in 1982 about how Atlanta–touted now as a Black Mecca, especially in entertainment–endured a great “makeup job to make things appear different” and the mask that hides its painful past and he wonders aloud what MLK would think of the city today, is searing in modern context.
The documentary features appearances from many of Baldwin’s contemporaries and friends, including writers Amiri Baraka, Chinua Achebe, Sterling Brown, and Civil Rights titans Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, David Dennis and Oretha Castle Haley.
I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE speaks of the impact of this era, with Baldwin noting, as does Hartley, that it was “too painful to create or write in America.” What the filmmakers and their commentator have created for us to behold decades later is a work that is a reminder of the wonder of the spirit of a people who prevail through adversity. The journey of the film is well paced and is “not at all scripted, nothing laid out” and Hartley notes that she could tell that it clearly “took a tremendous toll on Jimmy to hold these stories” physically and emotionally, but he knew the impact they’d have on the American zeitgeist. He was indeed prolific and perhaps prophetic.
I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE is traveling across North America during the month of February 2024. The venues and dates are as follows:
- 2/8 – TIFF, Toronto
- 2/10 – Portland Maine Museum of Art
- 2/16 – AFI Silver, Silver Spring, MD.
- 2/17 – Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn – Pat Hartley in person
- 2/17- Time & Space Limited, Hudson, NY
- 2/19 – Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley
- 2/21- Roxie Theater, San Francisco
- 2/21 – Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
- 2/28 – Lightbox Film Center, Philadelphia – Pat Hartley in person
For more information go to: http://www.thefilmdesk.com
I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE is available for screenings and film festivals. For booking inquiries, please contact The Film Desk – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pat Hartley is available for interviews. For inquiries, contact Double XXposure Media – email@example.com