Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin
a documentary by Morgan Atkinson
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Below is the press release for Morgan Atkinson's new documentary on the life of John Howard Griffin that, among other things, gives the personal story behind this milestone book in our efforts to overcome racism and intolerance of all kinds. Michael Johnson discusses his experience of watching the video in a blog entry. Copy and paste this linkto read that entry.
You can purchase the DVD, find out about upcoming promotion events, and make contact with Morgan at either of these two web sites:
John Howard Griffin is best known today as the author of Black Like Me, which tells of his 1959 journey through the American South disguised as a black man. But there is much more to Griffin than that extraordinary experiment in race relations. As a new documentary shows, John Howard Griffin possessed an uncommon vision of our shared humanity, and spent his life in a fearless search for truth.
In Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin, award-winning filmmaker Morgan Atkinson tells the story of Griffin the journalist, music scholar, photographer, Texas farmer, civil rights activist, and Catholic convert, a son of the American South who became a citizen of the world and stirred the conscience of a nation.
In print for almost fifty years, Black Like Me is an important document of the Civil Rights era. It tells how Griffin, using medication that darkened his skin, disguised himself as a black man and traveled through the deep South, experiencing firsthand the injustice and indignities that were part of everyday life for African Americans. After the book was published, Griffin received death threats and was hanged in effigy on the main street of his Texas home town. But he also gained international respect and a platform as a human rights activist. He traveled the lecture circuit widely, occasionally with activist Dick Gregory, who is interviewed in the documentary.
"Uncommon Vision" focuses on Griffin's social activism and also examines how his spiritual commitments shaped him and inspired his prolific creative life as a writer and photographer. "Life is very rich, if you are willing to take a chance," he wrote, and proved it throughout his own life. From his childhood in a segregated Texas town, to fighting with the French Underground during World War II, using an ambulance to carry Jewish children to safety, serving with the U.S. Army in the South Pacific and becoming a confirmed pacifist after the war, he approached every circumstance as an artist to see what could be discovered. He endured ten years of blindness incurred by war injuries before his sight unexpectedly returned. He said of that experience, "Blindness changes a man's view of things, he sees all things as miraculous."
After the Black Like Me death threats, Griffin took his wife and children to live in Mexico. There, he became an accomplished photographer, documenting the life of the Tarascan Indians. Unrest in Mexico led him to return to Texas. "I may be the only man expelled from France by the Nazis, run out of Texas by the Klan, and driven from Mexico by the communists," Griffin said.
His acclaimed photography and activism brought him into contact with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, who is the subject of another documentary by Morgan Atkinson, Soul Searching. Griffin was selected to be Merton's official biographer, and lived in the monk's famed hermitage for weeks at a time. He was unable to complete the biography, however, because of his declining health.
Atkinson's work on the Merton documentary introduced him to Griffin. "As I would talk to Merton's friends at the monastery and in academia, they would mention Griffin as a very interesting person in his own right. As I began to research him, I found out how true that was."
For Atkinson, Griffin's life and work testify to his deep understanding of humanity. "There is no other. The other is me," Griffin wrote. "Sometimes that's comforting, sometimes not. It's always challenging," says Atkinson.
Before his death, Griffin wrote that his one source of regret was "all the time I spent foolishly when I could have done something for someone else." He died in 1980 at the age of 60. At the time, he had only fifty dollars in his bank account. But as "Uncommon Vision" shows, he left an incredibly rich legacy of moral clarity, spiritual wisdom, and artistic achievement.
The film includes interviews with experts including Robert Bonnazzi, Griffin's biographer and literary executor, and Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post book critic. Yardley says Black Like Me is comparable in influence to Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath: "At a time when attitudes about race were changing, when opportunities were beginning at last to open up for African Americans, this book was there. And so it was one of the things that nudged the process along."
"Uncommon Vision" has been produced with funding by the Catholic Communications Campaign of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It will be shown on Kentucky PBS affiliates in the fall, with other television showings and public screenings to be announced.
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About the Filmmaker
In a 25-year career as an independent producer, Morgan Atkinson has written and produced twelve documentaries that have been broadcast on public television, in addition to producing many other commissioned works. His primary focus is on programming that examines issues of community, culture, and the contemplative life.
Over the past five years he has presented programs and led retreats based on his award-winning documentary "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton," which aired nationally on PBS. He has presented programs nationwide at universities, retreat centers, churches and community groups. He co-edited a companion book to the film, also entitled Soul Searching.
A lifelong resident of Louisville, Kentucky, Atkinson's other award-winning films include "A Way of Life," a reflection on Kentucky's passion for basketball, "Falls City," a wry look at Louisville's ill-fated Falls Fountain, and "A Change in Order," an account of the societal changes that face the Ursuline Sisters in Louisville.