Category Archives: Gerald O’Grady

Understanding Blue: Politics, Pluraversality, and the Muse of Form

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks never met James Blue, but she is a member of the pluriverse he loved.

She lives in Utopia (true!). I saw her on the internet, where I also saw this:


Both videos are examples of regional film.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks addressed her remarks to a live audience in Australia. Toni and Candace first deployed their withering lack of respect for logic in a no-budget web series, Thunder Ant, shot in Portland, not far from the house where James Blue grew up.

Blue believed that regional film = democratized media = increased diversity of voices being heard. As a member of the NEA’s first media funding panel, he voted to fund a network of regional film centers, all four of which still exist today. One of them is the Northwest Film Center, where The  March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem screened on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute.

Blue believed stories could change things. He was fascinated by the exercise of power which came with access to a camera, and never resolved his ambivalence about his privilege as a gifted filmmaker. His awareness of privilege fueled his activism as an educator. It drove him to leave Hollywood. It inspired him to place cameras in the hands of his subjects. He incorporated it into his work.

Was James Blue a political filmmaker?

In the discussion which followed the screening, Brooke Jacobson, an NEA colleague of James Blue, was startled to hear the audience conclude he was not.

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. Wendell Berry


Blue shot Who Killed Fourth Ward?  on 8mm with a two person crew for community television. By contrast, he shot The March, fourteen years earlier, on 35mm with seven two person Hearst Metrotone newsreel crews and the mandate of the President.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, made by Blue for USIA and USIAD respectively, deliver a sense of the world as troubled but benign. In Who Killed Fourth Ward? and The Invisible City, made for KUHT community television, that surety is gone. In them, Blue, following a new muse of form, relinquishes his duties as omniscient, unseen narrator, and enters the film as a participant. He is asking questions, and bringing along a camera to make sure he gets answers. It is easy to imagine if the same Northwest Film Center audience had seen those two later documentaries, they would have had no trouble labeling Blue a political filmmaker.

But was Blue, in Houston, a newly political filmmaker?

The full title of the March On Washington was March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom. Employment, voting rights, the elimination of Jim Crow – these are not minor demands. The organizers had been preparing for this event for decades. In Blue’s voice over narration, he speaks about the potential for violence, and shows the steps the organizers were taking to keep control of the crowd. Feed people, use walkie talkies, maintain a chain of command.

Blue understood what could happen if thousands of citizens squared off against police. He knew what it was like to live in a world where violence had overtaken the civic order. He had directly experienced the war behind the recent Paris Massacre. Disaster, for Blue, was within the realm of the possible.

The narrative Blue chose for his coverage of the March focused on the arriving marchers. It focused on the leadership, including young black men, who, at that time, were never seen in media as being calm, purposeful and in charge, but in Blue’s film are shown to be just that. They were entrusted with keeping safe the 200,000 Americans who had arrived to exercise their constitutional right to assembly. Blue leaves out guest speakers Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte and shows us the politically engaged nobodies who came to walk, talk, listen, sing, and cool their feet in the reflecting pool. He photographs them as if they are a miracle, because to him, perhaps, they are.

the march 3

They are the pluriverse he has come to recognize as valuable.

The March is about them.

Is that political?

For perspective, James Ivory, James Blue’s friend and near exact contemporary, when asked which of his own films he thought was most political, retorted that they all were, or at least he hoped they are all were.

I believe James Blue would give the same answer.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem were screened at the Northwest Film Center on April 25, 2014 as part of UO’s James Blue Tribute. Brooke Jacobson, co-founder of the Northwest Film Center, was in the audience.

So was Sheldon Renan, the author of the proposal that the NEA fund a network of four regional film centers, of which the Northwest Film Center was one. Sheldon Renan, Brooke Jacobson and James Blue all share two distinctions. They all came from Portland, and each one served as an advocate for regional film at the NEA.

Richard Blue, who advised James Blue on A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, and Gill Dennis, who wrote the voiceover narration for A Few Notes, participated in an onstage panel discussion following the screening as did Christina Kovac, who led the NARA restoration of The March, and Gerald O’Grady, a long time Blue colleague and friend, who is an historian of films of the Civil Rights Movement.


Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute, organized by the University of Oregon.

Notes On James Blue is supported by the James Blue Alliance, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance.

Song Of Ourselves: Who Made The March


Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the twin architects of the 1963 March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, were both artists. Bayard Rustin was a singer.


Before devoting his life to organizing labor and to the Civil Rights movement, A. Philip Randolph was an Shakespearean actor.


The background these two leaders had in the performing arts matches up well with the background of the man who documented the March they created and led. James Blue was an actor. His undergraduate degree was in theater.

All three men were prepared to see the events on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963 as theater. James Blue makes sure we understand that the 200,000 Americans there that day did not just passively watch, but instead actively co-created the “spectacle”, as Life magazine called it. They shouted, clapped, held hands and, most of all, sang. The March looks like a newsreel, but it sounds like a musical.

Just as Robert Altman’s Nashville would do twenty years later, The March presents American political life as a contest fought on the stage of pop culture as much as in the voting booth.

Is there a line between these two spheres?

Is it a “black thing” to collapse pop culture and politics?

You tell me.

Here’s James Blue’s boss at USIA:


George Stevens, Jr, (above left) was fourth generation show business. His father, Oscar winning director George Stevens (above right), was active in the founding of the NEA. George Stevens, Jr. recruited James Blue for USIA at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, after seeing The Olive Trees Of Justice.

Here’s George Stevens, Jr.’s boss at USIA:


Edward R. Murrow (like Blue, from the Pacific Northwest) became famous during WWII for his ability to deliver the news under crisis conditions. James Blue likely heard his popular Hear It Now radio program, a spin off of one of the best selling Columbia records in 1948, the historically themed You Can Hear It Now. Hard to believe that we once had best selling history records!

Here’s Edward R. Murrow’s boss at USIA:


President John F. Kennedy’s tie to America pop culture was very straight forward. His father, Joseph Kennedy (above left) had a brief, intensely lucrative tour of duty in the movie business in the late 1920’s. The money he made putting together, and then selling, RKO Pictures helped send his son to the White House. While there, John F. Kennedy tapped newsman Edward R. Murrow to head USIA. Murrow hired George Stevens, Jr., and Stevens hired James Blue.

James Blue was given the assignment to make a film about race in America. He chose instead to make a film about the March. (Ed. note: Since writing this I learned from Christina Kovac it was George Stevens, Jr. who made the decision to film the March. Nevertheless, James Blue’s USIA memo, in which he argues that racial tension in America was caused by white racism, not black poverty, reveals that Stevens’ decision matches up with his own interests.).

the march 3

I saw The March on November 13, 2013 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene as part of the James Blue Tribute. It was introduced by Gerald O’Grady, longtime colleague of James Blue. Sheldon Renan, who served on the same NEA media funding panel in the early 1970s as James Blue, was in the audience.

You can see The March in Portland.

At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Gill Dennis, Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem.

Tickets can be purchased here.

More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.


Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by the James Blue Alliance, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.

Notes On James Blue is supported by the James Blue Alliance. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance.