There’s an uncanny sense of repetition for the creators behind PBS’ “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard” — a feeling that they’ve told this story before. The tale of a Black serviceman beaten and blinded by police in 1946 took on an added air of history repeating when the “American Experience” episode was being filmed. “We did most of our principal photography at the height of the George Floyd protests,” said producer and director Jamila Ephron at Friday’s TCA Winter Press Tour panel for PBS.
The question, then, on everyone’s minds throughout the project was: How have things changed, if at all? “I learned…that it’s a constant battle,” Ephron said. She said it often felt like a continuous stream of police violence was happening while working on the project.
“What’s important is for people to understand that issues of police violence against Black people…have been with us throughout the 20th century,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Educational Fund, Inc. The job, then, was to make real change happen with their production.
From a research perspective, the production had Judge Richard Gergel’s book, “Unexampled Courage,” to work with, but they were also fortunate to have material Orson Welles recorded documenting the incident. Their only disappointment was the material wasn’t filmed. When Woodard was attacked, the Justice Department was not prosecuting violations involving white law enforcement — with the exception of Judge Julius Wearing, who was the one who presided over the Woodard case. For Gergel, he wanted to answer how this story changed the judge. “As I dug into the story I realized the world of this tragic case [affected him],” Gergel said.
“We lose our history to time,” said the series executive producer Cameo George. They hope Gergel’s book and this documentary will introduce the story to a new generation that needs to know it. “Part of that answer is that the folks who were inflicting racial violence weren’t necessarily proud of it or seeking to publicize it. It was quickly forgotten,” Gergel said. “It was a suppressed memory.”
Today, with body cams and cell phones, there’s more of an opportunity to document crimes when they’re committed. “In 1946 it was just a swearing [to the truth] contest — and a Black man always lost,” Gergel said. Ifill said this is just one of many unknown stories involving Black servicemen. “Black people have not had the agency to tell their stories,” Ifill said.
She said there is a veil of silence over events like those told in “Isaac Woodard,” but “the idea is to not simply accumulate stories,” Ifill said. The goal is to dive deep into the flaws that exist in American democracy, and to use the story to understand the nature of those flaws that exist, get to the roots, and make transformation happen. “It is possible for courts to make a difference,” Ifill said.
“The Blinding of Isaac Woodard” airs on PBS March 30.