St. Clair Bourne was a passionate and brilliant filmmaker, an organizer and a race man.
Saint prospered in the tough world of a principled documentarian of the African-American experience with his gentlemanly intelligence and his love for his people.
Saint had a lot more stories to tell and we will miss him.
St. Clair Bourne was born in Harlem on February 16, 1943, and was raised and educated in Brooklyn, New York in his early years. He entered Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. after graduating from Xavier High School in New York and was aiming for a career in the Foreign Service Diplomatic Corps. But the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s got in the way when he was arrested during a sit-in in Arlington, Virginia in his junior year and left school.
Suddenly adrift, he joined the Peace Corps and served as a volunteer in Peru for two years, helping to publish a local newspaper that became a national award-winning journal during his tenure. Word of the activist reached Ebony magazine, resulting in a ten-page spread on Bourne and he became something of a Peace Corps celebrity. When his two-year term ended, he entered Syracuse University on a work-study scholarship program, earning a dual degree in journalism and political science while teaching Peace Corps trainees. He also started the Student African-American Society, which is now a campus-affiliated student organization.
After graduating in 1967, Bourne won a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School of the Arts to study filmmaking. Again, he became politically involved with the radical Black Student Movement and was among those arrested for taking over the administration building on the campus in 1968. Although this got him expelled again from school, one of his professors recommended him to the executive producer of a new series for public television called Black Journal, the first Black public affairs series in America. Within two weeks after leaving school (and an overnight stay in jail for his campus activities), Bourne was hired as an associate producer. Five months later, he was promoted to a full Producer and spent the next three years making films for that series, helping the staff win an Emmy Award and winning the John Russworm Citation for himself for excellence in broadcasting.
Seeking more creative freedom, Bourne left Black Journal in 1971 and formed CHAMBA, his production company. Soon, four colleagues from the series followed him out the door and CHAMBA became a collective, working on a variety of advocacy-oriented projects. Two years later, his partners left for more conventional film jobs and Bourne was on his own. He was then commissioned by a group of Black ministers to create a film on the African-American religious experience and the result was a narrative documentary, Let The Church Say Amen! It was an immediate success, winning festival screenings, prizes, critical and popular acclaim. It became the first Black-produced film to be shown at the prestigious New “American Filmmakers” series at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, one of the major independent film showcases.
In 1975, Bourne was invited to come as a guest lecturer in the UCLA Film Department and so moved to Los Angeles. At the same time, he was named the North American Film Coordinator for the upcoming Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria, and thus traveled frequently between classes. After his academic appointment was completed, he stayed in Los Angeles, made three more documentaries for KCET-TV, the local PBS station, became a member of the Los Angeles Film Exposition (FILMEX) selection committee and worked with the American Film Institute’s Independent Filmmaker Program as a judge. He was also signed by producer Norman Lear to develop and produce Bourne’s first feature film, a project that never came to fruition because the screenplay was considered too radical.
Bourne spent five years in Los Angeles before he decided that the kind of work he wanted to do was best done in New York at that time. He returned there in 1980 and almost immediately signed to produce and direct Big City Blues, a film on the contemporary Blues scene in Chicago for CBS. Directly on the heels of that production, he produced a major segment of an NBC WHITE PAPER SPECIAL, “AMERICA: BLACK AND WHITE” in 1981 and was the only independent producer on that network project. The film won the Monte Carlo TV Film Festival’s Best Documentary Award.
Bourne then returned to producing his own self-originated work and started a film of the radical Black poet/activist Amiri Baraka (also known as Leroi Jones). The result, In Motion: Amiri Baraka, was broadcast nationally to controversial but glowing reviews. On the last day of shooting on that project Bourne was told about a group of Black activists who were going to Belfast, Northern Ireland on a fact-finding tour. Within a month, he organized a crew, raised the necessary money and left to film the trip. That film, The Black And The Green, has been screened internationally and gives a different perspective to that 800-year-old struggle.
Bourne remained busy. On The Boulevard, a short drama he developed for public television, is a bittersweet love story between two aspiring entertainers in Hollywood affected by economic pressure. Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper a “narrative performance” documentary was commissioned for the PBS “Voices And Visions” series. Selected for the Berlin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hawaii Film Festivals, the film describes the life and times of America’s most beloved Black poet/writer. He completed two films for the National Geographic Society’s “Explorer” TV series: Gullah, about the impact of tourism on the African-based “Gullah” culture of the South Carolina Sea Island people; New Orleans Brass, about the brass street bands in New Orleans and Heritage of The Black West, an educational documentary about the role of African-Americans in the American West.
His acclaimed narrative documentary about the making of Spike Lee’s controversial feature Do The Right Thing, filmed in Brooklyn, was invited to the Munich, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Amiens France, the Festival Dei Popoli and Turino, Italy Film Festivals but even Bourne was surprised when his film was picked up by First Run Features distribution company and received a national theatrical release, something unusual then for a documentary. Bourne then produced two one-hour documentaries for a six-part BBC series with Catalyst TV, a London-based production company. Entitled “Will To Win”, the series explores the political impact of Black athletes on the international sports scene.
Bourne broke new ground as the director of John Henrik Clarke: A Great And Mighty Walk, a feature-length documentary about the respected historian and Pan-African activist. The executive producer and narrator is actor Wesley Snipes. The film has been invited to the Toronto, Carthage (Tunisia), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso, Africa) and Sundance film festivals. He then was hired to direct Paul Robeson: Here I Stand! for the PBS “American Masters” series. He then produced a documentary about photo-journalist/filmmaker Gordon Parks for HBO, which garnered 3 Emmy nominations, followed by Melvin And Mario At Sundance, a documentary short he produced and directed about the Van Peebles father-and-son partnership at the Sundance Film Festival for the Sundance Channel. For the last three years, Bourne is shooting a documentary series on the rise, fall and legacy of the Black Panther Party and most recently started shooting a docu about Memphis-based veteran photographer Ernest Withers, whose work includes the assassination photos of Martin Luther King.
In addition to his own projects, St. Clair Bourne has been the executive producer for four documentary films. A Question Of Color, by Kathe Sandler, explores beauty standards and skin color discrimination within the Black community. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, had a two-week theatrical run at NYC’s Film Forum Cinema and was broadcast over the PBS network. Ben Brand and Jonathan Mednick’s Opposite Camps, a humorous and thought-provoking look at race relations, chronicles six weeks at a New England summer camp where white counselors and Black campers try to create a new community. Innocent Until Proven Guilty by Kirsten Johnson, a portrait of a young public defender in Washington, DC, James Forman, Jr., gives an insider’s perspective on the American criminal justice system as Forman struggles to help three of his juvenile clients turn their lives around. Twelve Disciples Of Nelson Mandela, by Thomas Allen Harris, is the latest film that Bourne has executive-produced. It had its world premier at the Toronto Film Festival, has been nominated for a Spirit Award and won Best Documentary at the LA Pan-African Film Festival.
Bourne was currently executive producing Visitors, a documentary by Turkish filmmaker Melis Birder about New York City women who visit their loved ones in upstate NY prisons each weekend.
In addition to his production experience, Bourne has designed and taught film courses at Cornell University and CCNY-Queens College, served as guest lecturer at UCLA’s Film Department and Yale University. He has given filmmaking seminars at various universities and media art centers. Invited by the Canadian Film Board, Bourne gave a weeklong seminar on documentary filmmaking for the Canadian Black Film/Video Network. In Summer 2006, he curated a special film program, Class in America for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Although Bourne continued making documentaries, theatrical feature films were to play a larger role in his activities. He was developing two dramatic feature film projects: The Bride Price, a contemporary thriller set in Senegal about a romance between an African-American businessman and an African holy mans daughter, and The Visitor about an African Muslim filmmakers visit to an African-American counterpart when 9/11 erupts.
Overall, Bourne’s films concentrated on changing cultural and political trends, a theme he continued to explore in his work.