‘Niagara Movement’ depicts early battle for civil rights

By Darlene Donloe

“The Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights,” an hour-long documentary by WNED PBS, delves deep into a national crusade that forged the civil rights landscape for the 20th century and beyond. 

The documentary will be distributed to public television stations around the country by American Public Television beginning Feb. 1. The film will premiere during Black History Month at 8 p.m. Feb. 12 on the World Channel.

The film explores the Black elite and intellectual society at the turn of the 20th century and examines the heated national debate and conflict three Black leaders — sociologist W.E.B DuBois, publisher William Monroe Trotter and educator and orator Booker T. Washington — had about how best to foster equality and opportunity for Black Americans.

“The Niagara Movement” recounts a moment in Black history that may have turned the tide in the civil rights movement.

Some movements during their formation are wrought with conflicting external and sometimes internal forces. Such is the case in director Lawrence Hott’s latest documentary.

“The Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights” examines the heated debate and conflict between W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter, an educated newspaper editor and real estate businessman based in Boston, Massachusetts with Booker T. Washington on how to best uplift the race and secure equality for their community.

Hott, who began producing documentary films in 1978 when he left the practice of law to join Florentine Films, takes the audience on a journey that pulls back the curtain and reveals some shocking behind-the-scenes conflicts regarding the civil rights movement.

A prolific filmmaker, Hott’s awards include an Emmy, two Academy Award nominations, a George Foster Peabody Award, five American Film Festival Blue Ribbons, eleven CINE Golden Eagles, screenings at Telluride, and first-place awards from the San Francisco, Chicago, National Educational and New England film festivals.

His first production was “The Old Quabbin Valley” (Outstanding Independent Filmat the New England Film Festival), a portrait of a water resource controversy in Massachusetts. His film “The Garden of Eden” was a 1985 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short. Other co-productions include the award-winning “Niagara Falls: The Changing Nature of a New World Symbol,” “The Adirondacks: The Lives and Times of an American Wilderness” and “Sentimental Women Need Not Apply: A History of the American Nurse.”

Several of his films have aired as part of “The American Experience” series on PBS.

In 2002-03 Hott completed three films for PBS broadcast, the one-hour “Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness and Survival,” the two-hour “The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced,” and the one-hour “Ohio: 200 Years.”

I recently spoke to Hott via phone from his home in western Massachusetts about his latest project.

DD: Why isn’t the “Niagara Movement” more well-known?

LH: The reason we don’t know much is because it didn’t last very long. Now we realize how important it was. It was overshadowed by the NAACP, which came out of it.

DD: You could have done a documentary on any subject. What about this subject intrigued you?

LH: This is absolutely the right time to do this. The rise of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and so many other stories are all connected with police abuse. They changed the temper of the times. People outside the Black community are much more aware now. Black protests are louder now. The timing is right.

DD: Why is this story important?

LH: It shows there has been a long history of civil rights in this country. The movement coalesces at this period. Until then, there was no real movement.

There was all this infighting between Dubois and Trotter. They didn’t use women well. They ran out of money early on. They nearly spent all their money on one legal case. They stayed exclusively Black and didn’t work with the rich, white people. The NAACP was known to work with and get some of their money from white people.

DD: What do you want people to know?

LH: History is about very powerful African-American leaders a long time ago who worked hard to make a difference. History is important. It teaches us lessons. You see the children of this movement are all over the country. Everything has its roots in the Niagara Movement.

DD: What challenges did you encounter?

LH: I’m not African American, so I had to figure out how to do it the right way. So I made sure to have a diverse crew and advisors, and do an enormous amount of research. This is a history film that takes place when there were very few motion pictures. So I worked with an animator. I had to develop a visual style and a really good score. This is not a traditional score. I had to tell a story. There were three main stories about three strong personalities. I had to figure out how to weave it all together.

DD: You do mostly documentaries but call yourself a filmmaker instead of a documentarian. Is there a difference?

LH: I think of myself as a filmmaker with a concentration on documentaries.

DD: Why is your concentration on documentaries?

LH: True stories are more interesting. I always learn something new. I learn something about our history. It’s challenging to make it interesting. In a way, I go back to school in a good way. It is no small thrill to know millions of people are seeing what you worked on.

DD: So, at the end of the day, what do you want people to know about the Niagara Movement’s legacy? Is it the legacy of Washington, Trotter and DuBois?

LH: People would dispute that these three guys are the Niagara Movement. But the legacy wouldn’t be there without them.

DD: You have made a variety of docs including environmental history films. What goes into your decision when choosing your next project?

LH: It has to have some importance. It can’t be frivolous. It’s something that people have to be interested in today. It has to have a story. There needs to be a throughline that can be connected.

DD: What did you learn that you didn’t know? What should the public know?

LH: You should know beneath this whole film is the role of the Black press. I was not aware of how many Black newspapers there were at the time and how important they were. The Black press was writing about Black issues for Black people. Without the Black press, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about this story.

“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s newsmakers or celebrities. 

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.