I Am Somebody: An Interview with Madeline Anderson

Madeline Anderson

I Am Somebody: An Interview with Madeline Anderson

By Ashley Clark

From Metrograph Vol. 7, Spring 2017.

The documentarian discusses how she began her career as a Black, female filmmaker in the early 1960s.

The Cool World

Pennsylvania native Madeline Anderson may not be a household name, but she is a trailblazer in the world of nonfiction filmmaking. An African American, female voice in a predominantly white, male world, Anderson came to prominence with her first film, Integration Report 1 (1960), made under the aegis of Richard Leacock‘s Andover Productions and shot, in part, by Leacock and Albert Maysles. Offering a panoramic overview of the black struggle for civil rights, it closely captures marches, sit-ins, rallies, and boycotts, while also featuring a pan-African scope—there is riveting footage of Kenyan freedom fighter Tom Mboya delivering a speech.

Other compelling works in Anderson‘s multi-decade career include A Tribute to Malcolm X (1967), made for Black Journal, the first nationally broadcast Black newsmagazine; and her classic I Am Somebody (1970), which follows 400 Black female hospital workers who went on strike to demand a fair wage increase in Charleston, South Carolina. Additionally, Anderson worked in a variety of roles on Shirley Clarke‘s bracing, Harlem-set drama The Cool World (1963). In March 2016, I spoke with Anderson—sprightly and chatty at age 88—about her remarkable, incomparable career.


When I was growing up, I was an avid moviegoer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I used to go to the movies every Saturday and stay in there all day long. So, I loved movies from a very early age. I also saw how black people were depicted, and then also [things like] Tarzan and the Apes and Gene Autry films. We were always depicted as being not too smart and we didn‘t have clothes on, and the white man was always smarter. It was not an image that made you proud of who you were. So I decided that I was going to be a filmmaker. I was going to depict proud Black people.

I also read everything that I could find, both in school and in the public library. We didn‘t have books at home because my father and mother were not educated. We were poor, like a lot of people, Black and white, in the 1930s. The only book we had was the Bible, which I read endless times. My willed desire to make films was to educate Black people with their achievements so that we could be proud and not be depicted as clowns and funny people.

Of course, the two greatest occupations to aspire to for black females were nursing and teaching. I was a good student and I was able to get a scholarship to go to Millersville State Teacher‘s College. While I was there, in the ‘40s, I was only the second black person to ever attend. The person who preceded me was very light-skinned and sort of more acceptable than me, because I am who I am—I‘m dark-skinned and don’t have straight hair. After a year, I decided I wasn‘t going to be a teacher—I just went there to sort of please my parents. But I really wanted to be a filmmaker. Of course, everybody ridiculed that idea. A poor, Black female? You could never be a filmmaker. But I never gave up on my dreams.


I was fortunate enough to get some scholarship money to study psychology at New York University. While there, I was always looking for work, and I saw on the bulletin board a position for a babysitter boarder, for Dr. Eleanor Leacock, the wife of Ricky Leacock, a well-known filmmaker. So, I interviewed for the job, and to my incredible astonishment and good luck, after I told them what I wanted to do, they said, “Oh, that‘s a wonderful idea!” They supported me in going to school and in my idea of trying to become a filmmaker. And more than that: Ricky became my mentor. He‘d formed a company called Andover Productions, which was a part of a group that called themselves The Filmmakers—the group included Willard Van Dyke, Shirley Clarke, D.A. Pennebaker, Ricky, of course, and a Canadian filmmaker, Graham Ferguson. [With Andover] I learned technical and artistic ways of everything that went into making a film. I was in-house production manager. I handled renting equipment, buying raw stock, keeping the books. I learned business, technical, and artistic abilities there. So, that’s how I became a filmmaker.

“My willed desire to make films was to educate black people with their achievements so that we could be proud and not be depicted as clowns and funny people.”


I was very fortunate. I directed it, and produced it through Andover. I hired an editor and a crew. The wonderful, incredible thing about that experience was that all the crew members were African-American men in the unions of their craft, and the editor was a woman. At the time it was happening, 60 years ago, it was like a normal thing. A few weeks ago, I read about what it is like to be “other” in Hollywood in The New York Times, “other” meaning not a rich, white man. It‘s like the world is standing still, in a way. Although there are more opportunities and more options, the same obstacles are there.


I went to visit Robert F. Williams in North Carolina—he wrote the book Negroes with Guns, and he was advocating that Black people arm themselves and kill the oppressors. Of course, he was a member of the NAACP, and there was nationwide opposition to his advocating that. Now, when we were there, that was very dangerous. As soon as we hit town, we were followed. Threatening cars were driving by while we were inside filming.


It was. I was a young woman, and I was a mother at that time. All during my career I was also having a family. The crew were older than me, and they were in the industry. They were very protective, very cool. So, we got what we got, and got out of town—even then we were followed. Nothing happened to us, but it was a threatening environment. Let‘s say that. It was the KKK way of doing things.


Oh, yes! After I made 1, I thought it would be much easier for me to make a body of work that depicted the struggles of black people for freedom in this country. So while I was making 1, I started looking for money to make 2. I didn‘t get encouragement, either from the Black community or the white community. One or two of the critics at that time in the Black community dismissed it as not being a “film” because it carried a message—I wasn‘t out to make entertainment, so I was very happy with that criticism! But it didn’t help me.


Well, I went to the networks. There was no interest. I guess I gave a lot of people some laughter about the thought that a black woman would come and ask for money to produce a film about struggles for equality in the Black community. I was getting nowhere. I had to think of how I could stay in the industry and continue to make films. I decided to get into the union. I‘d had a little bit of experience with unions before I left Lancaster, and I knew the importance of a union. In order to make films, you had to be in the union, but you couldn‘t get a job unless you were in the union—it was a catch-22. I made Integration in 1959, and it was released in 1960. Between ‘60 and ‘62, I had two years of working on non-union projects. It was terrifically horrendous and exploitative, and in a couple of instances, dangerous.

But I was so fortunate and blessed in my marriage. My husband was trying to do the same thing in his career. We worked together and we supported each other, but I would not have been able to do what I did, or what I had to do, if I had not had that support from my husband. Because all during that time, I had four children! I was, like, pregnant all the time and pursuing my career. What I did required a lot of courage, and physical and mental strength. He supported me in everything that I did, and I did some incredible things.


When I was working with Ricky, of course, as I told you, Shirley Clarke was there. Shirley called me and she said that she was making The Cool World, and she wanted me to be involved. We struck up a friendship. She wasn‘t easy to work with, but I had worked in worse, very bad conditions. What I liked about Shirley was that she was honest, even though she was tough. If you were doing your job, she was pleased, but if you weren‘t, she wasn‘t, and she let you know it. She used to say to me, “I don‘t mind divas if they can sing.” So she got a reputation, which I think was too harsh, in some ways…

Integration Report 1

Is it the kind of thing that if it were a man, it would have been like, “Oh, look at this mercurial genius!”?

That‘s exactly right. She didn‘t care. She was strong, she was courageous, she was also outrageous. When I worked with Shirley, she treated the crew so wonderfully. Now, she was working with Frederick Wiseman at the time, he was the producer. They wanted to get this film into theatrical release, and so had to have union workers in the editing room—the editor was a wonderful African American man, Hugh Robertson. I was Shirley‘s assistant in everything. When we were on location shooting, I was the script clerk and the AD. When we were in the editing room, I was her assistant and took care of the organization. Hugh and Shirley got me an application to the editor‘s union. That was the beginning of my fight to get into the union, because now I was legitimate: I had a job on a union production. It was a wonderful thing for me. I got my foot in the door. After that, I was on my way.

Tell me about coming to the I Am Somebody project.

In 1968, the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was working at NET [National Education Television], and there was a nationwide hysteria to control Black people. Remember the riots and all of that? They decided, “Hey, maybe one of the ways of controlling them is to give them some programming. Let them look at TV and maybe they won‘t go out and burn down things.“

While I was there [as a staff editor at NET], the strike started in Charleston with about 400 Black women workers at the Medical College Hospital of the University of South Carolina. I thought to myself, “Oh, I have to make this film.” I did my regular thing of going to the networks, and they told me, “We have stringers who will be sending something in, but . . . it‘s not for a broad audience, we don‘t have the money...” But I started to research.

Then I got a call from the local 1199 [union]. They were looking for a filmmaker because they wanted to make a film about the strike. Someone had recommended me, and so, would I be interested? Yeah! I had already done so much research, and I knew what was available in the libraries. I was so overjoyed to do it. I would have done it for nothing, but this was the first time that I had a proper budget. They gave me money, time, everything that I needed to make this film. It was like the perfect storm. I looked at these women like they were my sisters because I‘d had the same experience of gender, race, and politics that they were having. When national and international attention was focused on these women, it was my story. There was no way that I was not going to make that film.

Were you ever tempted by the Hollywood scene?

The best time we had in Hollywood is when they made the blaxploitation films, and what were those films about? I had a chance, during that period, to make a film for a producer that said he had a contract with Universal. I was so happy. I said, “Oh, yes, I will do it!” So, we started with the writers, and we were meeting. It was a beautiful little story about teenage love between cultures. It was like a Black West Side Story. It was going along swimmingly, until the story changed. They started putting in criminals, prostitutes, and I said, “Goodbye.” And I never worked for a Hollywood film.

When gatekeepers second-guess audiences and what people want to see, it becomes very difficult, doesn‘t it?

Yes, because they‘re afraid that they wouldn‘t be able to sell it or make money, so they have to put these other elements in. The sad thing was, can‘t you make a film about just people who are human beings and how they interact? There are differences in cultures, and it would have been a lovely little film. But—money! The people who were putting in the money were like, “Hmm... we have to have entertainment.”

That‘s the bottom line sometimes.

It is! •

Ashley Clark is a writer and film programmer from London, based in New York. He writes about film and culture for the Guardian, VICE, Film Comment, and Sight & Sound, among other publications, and is a regular guest critic on the BBC‘s Film show. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee‘s “Bamboozled” (The Critical Press, 2015). 

I Am Somebody (1970)