Revising Documentary as Evidence – Eyes on the Prize

Film makers use documentaries to communicate about actual events or situations and to honor known facts by directly referring to the historical world through the use of a range of voices and the vitality of expression. Documentaries that document a stock of metaphors, values, ideas, practices, and beliefs that are shared among the members of specific communities and groups in particular present non-fictitious historical occurrences. Before their consumption, the content that they present is manipulated through editing in order to give them certain dramatic characteristics, which ends up tampering with their accuracy in depicting the historical reality. Indeed, it is this manipulation of information that makes historical researchers to approach documentary films with skepticism. This paper uses Eyes on the Prize as an illustration to explore the authenticity and accuracy of documentaries in documenting historical evidence. Eyes on the Prize gives a clear picture of the role that documentaries play as sources of historical events. Nevertheless, the refinement of actual images and rhetorical devices in the film, as well as its dependency on media sources are possible interferences to its precision in presenting historical facts. Thus, the accuracy of a documentary depends on its use of primary sources and the way it integrates other secondary sources to substantiate and truthfully document realities.

Before exploring the evidential qualities of a documentary, it is imperative to scrutinize the historical event, the questions of reception, and the cultural context that it presents. Since the 1930s, when filmmakers began to use the word documentary to describe the discrete practice of filmmaking, it has been recognized as a form of social and democratic pedagogy aimed at promoting education and mechanisms of social reform. The majority of documentaries try to identify the people who wield power, information, and influence in order to include them in the final works. It is easy to place Eyes on the Prize in this view point because it represents a record of one of the most turbulent and greatest movements of the 20th century: the civil rights movement. However, it is also necessary to analyze it from a profound point of view. For instance, on critically analyzing the elements that make up individual episodes of the film, it is easy to notice that Eyes on the Prize portrays a collective discourse.  Lefevre and Ana Maria (517) state that a collective discourse “lists and articulates a series of operations on raw data constituted of statements obtained through empirical polling using open-ended questions.” Even though Eyes on the Prize does not use polling as a technique, the documentary uses multiple individual statements from people to build upon the presented data. Each collective statement represents a credible account of the phenomenon under description and, thus, it symbolizes a pragmatic fact.

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Eyes on the Prize attempts, and indeed manages, to present raw visual elements to exhibit historical proof of the Civil Rights Movement. These mainly consist of raw footage and photographs. Documentary films often rely on information that can be presented in visual formats. Therefore, the lack of visual evidence for the ideas being presented renders the documentary unconvincing and weak. Documentaries that focus on sensitive and controversial themes tend to avoid filming the witnesses, either to protect them or because of the lack of consent. This makes it difficult to present the evidence to the audience. Despite the conflict-ridden nature of the Civil Rights Movement, Eyes on the Prize overrides this practice to incorporate graphic evidence of tortured African Americans, as well as the views of white Americans who support them.

Just as filmmakers carefully select words to make a script, they also deliberately select the images to present in a documentary from a broader range of possible images. The images that are eventually presented depend on the ‘angle’ that the filmmaker intends to present. In other words, a documentary is composed of edited reality. On examining Eyes on the Prize, there are several factors that rule out the manipulation of the presented evidence and preclude the film from being considered a drama-documentary or an acted one. First, the incorporation of evidential documentary footage reflects the quality of audiovisual technology at the time, including black-and-white footage and pictures. Nevertheless, it is a common occurrence for film-makers to alter graphic evidence in order to make it fit the context that is being presented. For Eyes on the Prize, the context dates back to the 1950s when TVs and cameras are only capable of showing a monochrome display. While the digital age has altered the way photographs are produced and received, it has not destroyed the evidential qualities of the presented photographs. They are accompanied by interviews with witnesses and news reporters of the era. Moreover, various events that happen between 1955 and 1956, during the Civil Rights Movement, are well represented using archived footage. A case in point is the appointment of Martin Luther King as a leader and his role in the Montgomery rally in the first episode, where African Americans actively engage in a city bus boycott as an attempt to suppress segregation (34:17). Eyes on the Prize covers these events, as well as the ones that follow in a credible way that harmonizes with documented evidence.

While Eyes on the Prize may be a genuine and original narrative of the civil rights movement, it is necessary to ascertain that its film makers have not distorted the content in any manner, whether it is typical of its accounts, and whether it represents comprehensible and clear evidence.  Indeed, the film does not epitomize idiosyncratic sources of data. Rather, it represents a collection of produced materials that are primary in nature. It makes use of periodic music, independent films, news footage, and more in order to tell the stories of the civil rights movement. These archival materials help the audience to differentiate it from a work of fiction. In aesthetic terms, Rothman (4) describes a fictional feature film as “an extension of nineteenth-century artistic forms: the novel, drama and photography. The documentary mode appeared, was invented in a sense, to meet new artistic and communication needs arising in the twentieth century.”  The use of multiple archival materials, as well as primary sources of data such as interviews and statements in the Eyes on the Prize demonstrates the undistorted representativeness of the film as a source of evidence.

 A greater part of the film has presented newspaper articles, photographs, and accompanying interviews with participants of the movement. In particular, newspapers and news footage are common in the film owing to the fact that the media was drawn to Martin Luther King Jr.’s public actions at the time. The content presented in of Eyes on the Prize can be scrutinized by comparing it to how other secondary sources have presented it. For example, the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil rights movement and the end of segregation in particular as presented by Anderson (28), Kindell (144), and Kirk (13) well harmonizes with that presented in the film’s first episode (41:49). Additionally, the truthful depiction of the used sources can be confirmed by closely assessing the meaning of every phenomenon as presented. Meaning represents the documented analysis of the film and its comprehensibility (Austin 230). Eyes on the Prize has appropriately situated its content in its relevant historical context and symbolized the significance of the events it presents in the same way that multiple secondary sources have presented them. However, it is important to note that, although there are is harmony between the information presented by the film and the one presented by other sources, the movie has used news footage in multiple instances to give an account of the civil rights era. This shows an overdependence on media sources and a possible bias. Notably, the content presented is reliant on the viewpoint or position that the media takes, further implying that any case of prejudice in the media sources constitutes an error in the interpretation of the film and the depiction of the movement.

In agreement with Berman (129), this paper concludes that although a documentary is non-fictitious, it is necessary to carry out a close examination to establish whether it is reliable, representative, and clear in meaning, or whether it is just a murky heap of evidence and memory. Eyes on the Prize represents documentaries as reasonable sources of information on historical events. Nevertheless, because the refinement of actual images and rhetorical devices in the film can orient it in a way that gives it a political meaning, documentary films should be considered as sources of historical information  based on the primary sources they use, as well as those that attempt to inform about the same subject. The power of a documentary rests in its tendency to use reliable sources of evidence and its uniqueness in retaining the meaning of the phenomenon that it seeks to communicate about.

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