This new documentary examines the role of anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963) in American history and asks important questions about the politics of scholarship and knowledge as a social construct. Herskovits, a controversial intellectual who became openly political, introduced African Studies into American academic establishment and started the first African Studies Center at Northwestern in 1948. His work started the debate among social scientists and political activists over the ethics of representation and identity which had a deep influence on African American and African identity. Herskovits advocated for cultural relativism, providing a foundation for the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements in academia that shaped contemporary discourse in critical cultural theory. The film asks complex questions without providing simple answers and works as a catalyst for discussions about values, politics, and cultural identity. The film’s style compliments a compelling story through innovative use of photography and animation and a relentless pace that covers a lot of territory in a short 57 minutes.
HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS, 57 minutes, 2009, Produced by Llewellyn Smith, Vincent Brown and Christine Herbes-Sommers, a co-production of Vital Pictures and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Executive Producer for ITVS Sally Jo Fifer.
For readers in the Boston area, HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS screens as part of the Roxbury Film Festival on Saturday, August 1st, 2009 at 3:30 PM at Wentworth University. It’s currently making the rounds at film festivals, so you should be able to catch it soon in your area. It will also screen on PBS stations as part of the Independent Lens 2009-2010 season. An institutional and educational DVD edition (see link below) is available from California Newsreel. I think that every library and school should consider adding this film to their collection.