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Frame By Frame: Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Laurens Grant Talks ‘Jesse Owens’, ‘Freedom Riders,’ Forging Her Own Path

Frame By Frame: Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Laurens Grant Talks 'Jesse Owens', 'Freedom Riders,' Forging Her Own Path

Our next conversation in the ongoing Frame
By Frame
 series is with acclaimed filmmaker Laurens Grant, whose decades-long career includes directing the
2012 Emmy-winning documentary on Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, and producing
the Emmy and Peabody award-winning “Freedom Riders” in 2010.


Here, Laurens discusses how she found
her way into making documentary films, her cinematic influences, and the impact
of her work.

On her beginnings in

I never planned on being a
documentary filmmaker. I received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and my lifelong
dream was to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to be the next Langston
Hughes or Ernest Hemingway because I loved reading their stories about covering
the Spanish Civil War. Like these men, I wanted to make a difference in the
world. But there were so few African-Americans, much less women of color with
foreign posts at major newspapers. So as a rookie reporter interviewing for
jobs, I was told it would be take me decades to get a foreign post, if at all.

But I was too impatient to wait. So I
worked at newspapers around Chicago, including The Chicago Tribune, and then got a job as a copy editor at an
English-language newspaper in Mexico City. I then learned Spanish at UNAM, what
they call the oldest university in the Americas, and was soon able to report in
Spanish. My experiences lead to other writing opportunities for American
publications, including Newsweek, the
Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, San
Francisco papers, etc. Then I got a job with Reuters in Panama.

I covered so many topics and met so
many world leaders with the fascinating backdrop of Latin America that I wanted
to somehow bring my storytelling to screen. The TV documentary world was
exploding, so that’s where I made my transition to documentaries. I was hooked!
In hindsight, I ended up forging my own path. This ended up being a reflection
of my life – don’t wait for people to tell you “yes”; you’ll spend
your entire life waiting. It’s hard to get breaks in the business, so I guess I
didn’t wait for one. I found a way to get one and broke through the door.

What attracts her to a project:

Somehow I cling to this notion that I’d
like to make a difference in the world, so I’m drawn to projects that I hope
may do that. I also enjoy the process of discovery – what’s new that I can
learn? And I hope this excitement in discovery will come across in the

I was wrapping up work on Hour 3 of
the four-hour series “Latin Music USA: The Chicano Wave” for WGBH
when the director Stanley Nelson called and asked if I wanted to produce his
next documentary called “Freedom Riders”. It was the call of a
lifetime. I said yes instantly! I had no idea about the film’s impact, nor that
it would win 3 Primetime Emmys and a Peabody. We premiered at Sundance, Oprah
dedicated an entire show to the freedom riders and clips were licensed in “Lee
Daniels’ The Butler”. Just a remarkable journey.

For “Jesse Owens,” PBS’
American Experience series realized they hadn’t done a full documentary
treatment on this great American athlete, and the Olympics were approaching so
the timing was perfect. I really wanted to direct the film as I thought sports
would be an exciting gateway to address larger cultural and geopolitical themes
in a documentary. So I lobbied for the opportunity.

On film influences:

Before it was officially called “binge
watching” I binged on work by filmmakers recognized as the masters of the
documentary form – the Maysles brothers,
Pennebaker, Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, the “Eyes on the Prize”
series, Barbara Kopple, Ken Burns, Stanley Nelson, etc.
The format, style
and tools have changed so much since then, but the desire to tell a good story
has not.

On the skill sets of a producer
and director:

I started on the producing track,
which was probably a natural transition from journalism. As a reporter, you need
to investigate, cultivate sources, learn how to read government documents,
navigate police or military and develop a moral compass that allows you to get
at a truth without unnecessary exploitation. It can be a fine line. In
journalism school, we discussed famous law cases along with law and ethics. I
think these skills translate well to producing. Then you add to that the nuts
and bolts of producing  – production,
offline, online post-production, and managing the production team, and you’ve
got your producing tool kit.

As for directing, you turn over a lot
of those responsibilities to the producer. I think as a producer-director, it’s
sometimes hard to let go of some of those producing tools because you know what
needs to be done and you know how you would like to have things accomplished.

But as the director, you have to realize that your main
responsibility is vision
– that huge, amorphous yet
specific task – how to translate your vision to the screen and how to
communicate with your team to get your vision on screen. Some people got their
break on the directing track, so they don’t really have that conflict. But now
in this era, we’ve got to multitask so much and wear so many hats, that I think
it helps to have both producing and directing skill sets. So if you’re
directing a film and a scene calls for a 1900 steam engine train, for example,
and you have a limited budget, you can put on your producer hat and figure out
a way to creatively make the scene work by licensing footage or doing something
more evocative and cost-effective instead.

On the social impact of her

For “Freedom Riders”, PBS
spearheaded an effort to have college students go on a trip with actual freedom
riders from 1961 and stop in the same towns, where some of them experienced
incredible amounts of violence. The students used social media to describe
their experiences of riding in those towns with the activists today, some 50
years later. And young law students are intrigued by the case law and legal

“Jesse Owens” was screened
before a number of high school and college students, and their feedback was
really rewarding. They were really impacted by Owens’ experiences on the track
and in life and the skill sets he developed to survive and become a sports icon.

I think a lot of people presume
younger audiences won’t enjoy or benefit from documentaries, much less
historical documentaries, because they will be turned off by the archival
footage in “black in white”. I hear that all the time! It’s really a
misconception. Younger audiences in particular are hungry for films that engage
them, inspire them and allow them to take life lessons from the past to help
them cope with school and life today.


Part 2 of our conversation with Laurens Grant is forthcoming, where
she breaks down the nuts and bolts of producing documentaries, including the
specifics of research and fundraising.


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