Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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Co-Producer/Director Joan Brannon
 
What I know is
Black skin could get you whipped
and worked
like the strongest mule
But I had only two legs to stand on
One for stripping tobacco
in the hot August sun
The other to balance myself
against the misunderstanding
that I, too, was a cash crop
Harvested in my mother’s womb
to be picked
and sold to the highest bidder.

“About Slavery” by Joan Brannon

Joan Brannon, the co-producer/director of Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, describes the story of the movement in Kentucky as “elusive.” Though aware that some of the people she knew had been powerful forces in the fight for civil rights, she didn’t know their individual stories. “There’s a rich history in Kentucky that hasn’t been revealed,” says Brannon. “My interest in the project was to be part of that.”

Most of the documentary’s visual images are of events that happened in Kentucky. Many photographs—of segregated schoolhouses, a lynching, a Klan rally—have never been so widely seen. “I’m a Kentuckian,” she explains, “yet while I was growing up, I didn’t see a reflection of myself in media.”

But most of the story is told not by images, but by those who lived it. Relying on the movement’s participants to tell their stories was one of the suggestions made by a focus group of 11th-grade students, one of the documentary’s important target audiences. “Very early on we talked to teens about what appeals to them [and] what turns them off,” says Brannon. “I wanted to make an honest effort to make something that they could embrace.”

The students who participated in the focus group didn’t know much about the civil rights movement, according to Brannon, though they felt inundated with images of Martin Luther King Jr. “They didn’t want to hear any more about the ‘dream’ speech. They wanted to know what happened in Kentucky.”

One very important insight the students gave the filmmakers was “to let the people talk.” Instead of relying mostly on images and narration to tell the story, Brannon says they let people who were part of the movement have the time to sit and talk.

Interviews with history’s eyewitnesses resulted in hours of personal stories that had to be winnowed down for the hour-long documentary. “We originally tried to keep the interviews to one hour, but they were so riveting,” Brannon says. Interviews averaged about two hours each, and many lasted longer, she says.

Being true to the stories of the people who have done this amazing work was an important personal challenge, says Brannon. The resulting documentary is a project she is proud to be part of.

“The documentary is very powerful, but because of the length and format, we were only able to touch on the subject,” she says. “I hope that it makes people really want to talk to someone who lives down the street or who goes to their church who really was a hero.”

—Marianne Mosley

Living the Story > About the Project > Joan Brannon