Most people might balk at the prospect of turning a 400-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book into a 90-minute documentary film. Not Sheila Curran Bernard.
An Emmy and Peabody Award winner in 1990 for her work on “Eyes on the Prize: America at the Crossroads,” Bernard feels right at home adapting the written word for the screen. Her most recent project, “Slavery by Another Name,” originally premiered on PBS stations across the country in February of 2012. The film, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s 2008 Pulitzer-winning book of the same name, told the story of black Americans after the Civil War who continued to be subject to various forms of involuntary servitude rivaling what slaves had faced in the antebellum South.
Bernard, a University at Albany professor, received the writing credit on “Slavery by Another Name,” and legendary black filmmaker Samuel Pollard was producer and director. The film will be one of four shown on Saturdays as part of a Black History Month series called “Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle,” at the Schenectady County Historical Society beginning this week with “The Abolitionists.”
“Slavery by Another Name” will be shown on Feb. 8, while “The Loving Story” is scheduled for Feb. 15 and “Freedom Riders” for Feb. 22. A discussion group led by an area educator will follow each film presentation.
‘Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle’
WHAT: A film and discussion series
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. each Saturday in February
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 374-0263, ext. 3, www.schenectadyhistory.net
Lucky and ready
“My job was to find a story and a structure that would work for a 90-minute film,” said Bernard, who taught at Princeton University before starting at Albany in 2008. “It’s not that it’s new information, but what Doug brought out so wonderfully in his book is how many people were totally innocent but caught up in a system that was designed to exploit labor. People were doing hard labor for trivial offenses. I was thrilled when they called me about writing for the film.”
That was in 2010. It was almost 30 years ago that Bernard, not too long after getting an MFA from Goddard College, landed an earlier writing gig working with Pollard on “Eyes on the Prize.” It was a 14-hour documentary that first aired on PBS in 1990 and attracted more than 5 million viewers. In two episodes, “Two Societies: 1965-68” and “Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More: 1964-72,” Bernard earned writing and directing credits along with Pollard and Steve Fayer.
“I was lucky, and I was ready,” Bernard said of the experience. “It was right after Ken Burns’ ‘Civil War’ had come out, and the group I worked with is still a very close group. The documentary was 14 hours, and it proved to be a training ground for a whole new generation of filmmakers who have gone on to do other amazing works.”
In the moment
Bernard, who grew up just west of Boston, went to Boston University and majored in communication. While she was there, she also studied theater.
“When you tell a good story, even if the outcome is known, you get people to suspend their disbelief and feel the tension of the moment,” said Bernard. “It’s a hard thing to do, getting people to be in the moment, but that’s why you use the same tools as a novelist or a playwright. You create a story that brings viewers into the experience and doesn’t just talk at them.”
Along with her various film projects — which include “I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts,” “Jerusalem,” “Inside Story: The Science of HIV/AIDS,” and “Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France,” — Bernard is the author of a book, “Documentary Storytelling.” She is currently producing a fourth edition of the book, and is also working on another project, “When Harlem Was in Vogue,” a fictionalized dramatic series being developed for television.
“Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle,” is a film and discussion series sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Whenever a film is on PBS, it’s never just a broadcast event,” said Bernard. “It’s also an opportunity for public engagement, and that’s why this series is so important. These screenings are being held in libraries and historical societies around the country, and will get people talking about these issues.”
A look at the series
Opening the series, “The Abolitionists” tells the story of how a small group of reformers in the 1830s launched one of the most ambitious social movements in history. Schenectady County Community College professor Babette Faehmel will lead the discussion following the movie.
On the 8th, Union College professor Kenneth Aslakson will lead the post-movie discussion of “Slavery by Another Name.”
“The Loving Story,” which documents the interracial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving in 1958 and its aftermath, will be seen Feb. 15, with University at Albany professor Kori Graves leading the discussion.
The series concludes with “Freedom Riders,” an inside look at the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South in 1961. University at Albany professor Ibram Kendi will lead the discussion group.