Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, the new documentary on the civil rights movement, looks at what has been, what can be, and what should have been — often through a queer lens.
Hallowed Ground, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison, is both a companion to and a commentary on the iconic 14-episode Eyes on the Prize series from Henry Hampton that aired on PBS from 1987 to 1990. It’s conceived as a bridge from the original series to a new iteration that’s in the works at HBO, and both Hallowed Ground and episodes from the original are now streaming on HBO Max.
Hallowed Ground shows, among other things, how Hampton’s series inspired a new generation of activists. “I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for Eyes on the Prize,” Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors says in Hallowed Ground, noting that she saw the original as a teenager.
Cullors, also an executive producer on the new documentary, is one of several Black LGBTQ+ activists interviewed in Hallowed Ground; others include Prentis Hemphill, Janaya Future Khan, and Ashlee Marie Preston, and Allison is queer as well. The documentary also highlights the work of LGBTQ+ people in the Black civil rights movement in the past, such as Bayard Rustin, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Marsha P. Johnson, and Pauli Murray.
Prentis Hemphill photographed by Michael Fernandez
This inclusion “is important because these stories and these histories have been excluded from the larger narrative for so long. … It was really important to make sure people can identify how queerness, how trans folks, how Black women have been such a core foundation to these movements for Black liberation,” Allison tells The Advocate. “It’s a violence to me not to incorporate these stories. We cannot allow them to continue to be erased or to not be a part of the narrative. … I feel a huge responsibility for making sure I’m always centering Black women and queer folks because we’ve been integral to the movement for Black liberation.”
Indeed, Preston, who is transgender, observes at one point in the film that Black trans women “are the architects of resilience.” Cisgender and presumably straight women get their due too, including Anita Hill, Me Too founder Tarana Burke, Rosa Parks, and Myrlie Evers, widow of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Ashlee Marie Preston photographed by Michael Fernandez
Hallowed Ground sees them and other activists commenting on the events covered in the original series and the more recent injustices that have spurred activism, such as the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. The film makes clear that Black civil rights advocacy has never stopped, even though some histories of the movement tend to jump from the 1960s to the BLM era.
“I am so captivated by the insight offered by all of our interviewees,” Allison says.
Allison’s film also reimagines some events of the past, using figures representing ancestral spirits as the elements of earth, fire, air, and water to bring a spiritual aspect to the commentary. For instance, in one segment the four young girls who died in the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963 are depicted as alive and well, accompanied by a beautiful veiled woman who represents air. “Air allows for the balance of play and joy, which is why we see her with these young girls,” Allison says.
Photograph by Michael Fernandez
“I wanted to incorporate elements of surrealism with these legendary stories and with these monumental stories that have really shifted us as a people and a culture and find a healing way to spend time with them, rather than it being something that was based in trauma, but how do we incorporate the spiritual elements that have guided us through these kinds of histories,” Allison explains. Lenelle Moïse, Allison’s co-writer on the film, calls these vignettes “visual reparations.”
Allison hopes her documentary will motivate new audiences to watch Eyes on the Prize. “I want people to know these histories,” she says. But there’s more. “I want people to understand how to fill in archival gaps. I want us to understand the spiritual nature that has surrounded us as Black people. I want us to define our own ideas of liberation and work in collaboration with time and memory and imagination to create the world that we desire.”
Director Sophia Nahli Allison
Toward the end of the film, activists are asked what the “prize” means to them, and they give answers such as “self-determination,” “liberation,” and “the ability to determine our destinies.” For herself, Allison tells The Advocate, “the prize is the freedom to exist in all our truths.”
Watch a trailer below, and stream Hallowed Ground and part 1 of Eyes on the Prize on HBO Max.