Jul 26, 2014
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PBS 'Freedom Riders' Filmmaker Recalls Homewood Childhood

Homewood native and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laurens Grant brings the thrilling stories of American history to life.

PBS 'Freedom Riders' Filmmaker Recalls Homewood Childhood PBS 'Freedom Riders' Filmmaker Recalls Homewood Childhood PBS 'Freedom Riders' Filmmaker Recalls Homewood Childhood PBS 'Freedom Riders' Filmmaker Recalls Homewood Childhood

This month, the PBS documentary  The Freedom Riders will broadcast riveting, previously restricted footage of a flaming Greyhound bus and interviews with its passengers, civil rights protesters, who braved violence and sometimes even death 50 years ago in pursuit of an integrated America.

The civil rights era documentary owes much of its arresting images and interviews to the work of Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Laurens Grant, a Homewood native and alumnus of .

Grant now lives in New York, but recently did an interview with Patch via phone and email about her Southland childhood, her journey from journalism to documentary filmmaking and  The Freedom Riders which airs May 16 on PBS.

Power of the human spirit

Grant said that producing the Freedom Riders documentary has left her with some abiding lessons.

"What stayed with me overall was the power individuals have, the power of the human spirit," Grant said. "As a nation, it just makes me proud that people were willing to risk their lives and jobs. They didn't wait to be led by a famous person, they were leading themselves." 

Documentary filmmakers must utilize all the tools of a story-teller to present the lessons of history, according to Grant. 

"Make it like a thriller, because it is so thrilling," Grant said.

She faced the challenge of adapting the detailed “Freedom Riders” book by historian Raymond Arsenault to documentary form.

"How do you tell the story in two hours? You can't do 700 pages in two hours," Grant said.

Gathering the historic materials and interviewees for a documentary project like  The Freedom Riders also presents a logistical challenge for Grant.

"As a producer, my middle name is 'make it happen,'" Grant said. "You need to get everyone together to tell their story, stay on schedule and budget."

"You strike up a rapport with individuals you want to be in the film, you want people to be at their best and tell their plans," she added. "What do they know, what do they remember, can they tell their stories in front of millions of people? There are so many things at stake ... we're all in this journey with you and it's a conversation."

Remembering Mamie Till

Grant collaborated with Director Stanley Nelson on  The Freedom Riders. The two previously worked together on the 2003 PBS documentary  The Murder of Emmett Till. While working on that film, Grant became well-acquainted with the late Mamie Till Mobley, mother of the 14-year-old lynching victim, Emmett Till.

"Mamie Till was a force of nature," Grant said, citing the Chicagoan's decision to conduct an open-casket funeral for her murdered son. "I can only imagine, as a mother, you're grieving and devastated. But she, in a split second, decided to let people know a wrong had been committed; she wanted people to see this." 

The Murder of Emmett Till won a Sundance Jury Award, as well as a Primetime Emmy and the Peabody Award for best documentary. The documentary was also credited with helping to prompt the U.S. Department of Justice to re-examine the 1955 racially-motivated murder in light of additional eyewitness accounts.

Grant also co-produced two four-hour series for PBS:  Slavery and the Making of America: Seeds of Destruction, which received an Emmy, as well as the recently released  Latin Music USA: The Chicano Wave. With Nelson, Grant also mentors emerging filmmakers of color at  firelightmedia.org.

Storyteller her entire life

Grant's parents, interviewed at their home in Olympia Fields, say their daughter has been a storyteller since her childhood.

Mother Joyce Grant, a retired schoolteacher, recalls her oldest child writing, casting and directing the family play each Thanksgiving.

"They were the stories she wanted to tell and wanted everyone to be in," Joyce Grant said.  

More recently, Joyce Grant attended an Oprah show taping about "The Freedom Riders," which incorporated a clip of her daughter's documentary. 

The elder Grants said they moved from Chicago's Roselawn neighborhood to Homewood to ensure a good education for their children, which includes Laurens' two brothers, Nathan, now a New Orleans banker, and Nelson, a graphic artist in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood.

Father Nate B. Grant, a communications professor at Chicago State University who also owns   his own industrial film company, said he initially envisioned a medical career for his only daughter. Then, he said, Laurens wrote, The Killer Lollipop. Although unknown outside of Homewood, the self-produced work was soon "one of the most popular books" at , he said.

Grant also wrote for the Panther Press, the junior high newspaper, and was features editor for The Voyager at .

After graduating from , Laurens Grant studied at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, then headed off to Mexico, alone.

"I was petrified, I was not happy at all," recalled Nate Grant.

However, the Medill graduate made connections, mastered Spanish and ultimately worked as a foreign correspondent, leading the Reuters bureau in Panama. 

In her father's opinion, that independence and tenacity is what has made his daughter successful as a documentary journalist.

"Her people call her the 'super producer," Nate Grant said.

He is especially proud of the arresting footage of the burning bus which is included in  The Freedom Riders.

"Somehow, she found out that it existed, and not only that it existed, but that the FBI had it," Nate Grant said

He said he is proud of his daughter's ability to interview anyone, including members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Grateful for Homewood education

For her part, Laurens Grant said she's grateful for the education she received in .

"In English, I had good teachers, my foreign language teachers were great, my science teachers were good and I was in drama," Grant said.

At the time, courses in the arts and languages were regarded as "necessary tools" not supplementary programs, she said.

Next steps

Grant is already hard at work on her next project, a documentary about the life and achievements of African-American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. 

"You must tell these stories, because people forget," Grant said.  

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