Learning From George Stoney And The Inconvenient Histories He Wanted Us Never to Forget

In the fall of 1990 I walked into my first film class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The course was called Documentary Traditions and it was held in a cavernous theater on the Lower East Side. It was one of the most popular seminars on campus and was taught by George Stoney, who had long been a legend among educators, filmmakers and activists. 

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the guy. At that time he was in his 70s, an elderly white gentleman, a southerner, he seemed to come from a world, to which, I could not relate. Back then I had long hair, had just gotten back from living in India, wore mostly black and spent much of my time reading about Chicano history, so I wasn’t sure an old white dude had much say that would speak to me.  His class was structured around a series of film screenings and George would bring in documentary directors to show what ever they were working on at the time, so I figured it was an easy A. 

I remember the very first class. George introduced us to his friend, a guy named Sam Pollard who had finished part of a PBS series called Eyes on the Prize. The film was about the Detroit riots - about race, the struggle for equality and the terrible cost of freedom. I was in tears.

That evening George and Sam spoke candidly about what it means to be black and white, about cinema, and the grave responsibly that comes with the work of telling history. It is no hyperbole to say that George Stoney changed my life.

Long before I was born, back in 1952, when he was 36 years old, George directed a film that would become a landmark in American non-fiction cinema. All My Babies, was about the birth of a black

child in the south, at a time when racial divisions were (and white supremacy was) firmly rooted in American life.  It was not a film explicitly about race, but rather it was about the sacredness of human

life. And yet George dared to go where most white people would not: to spend time with an impoverished black family and to honor them.

While he was making the film he, his crew and subjects were harassed, and threatened by the police.  George stood his ground.  

You can see in the images, a deep respect for the people he   filmed. You see, George hated the thought of exploitation, or profit, or fame. His lens was always focused on revealing human dignity. For him, that in and of itself was a reward beyond measure. 

Over a career that spanned some 70 years (he taught for forty years) George stood firm in his belief that those behind the camera should always be in solidarity with those in front of it.  

I knew George mostly as was an educator and an activist who saw cinema as a tool (a weapon, a vehicle) in the long struggle toward equality and justice. I never heard George apologize or back down from that position. He was the real deal. For those of us who were his students, we can only aspire…  

As his old friend Michael Gaffney once told me:

 There are some inconvenient histories that mainstream American might want to forget because they make us feel uncomfortable. George’s efforts to represent that part of American history is what keeps his democratic ideals alive - making sure that we all understand where we come from.

George was a southerner by birth, but I’m pretty sure he had some Chicano in him as well.


John J. Valadez

PBS | LATINO AMERICANS

Latino history is American history


Check out a short piece I did about George Stoney shortly before he passed away:

www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2010/10/08/nyus-kanbar-institute-of-film-television-to-honor-george-c-stoney-professor-emeritus-and-legendary-documentary-filmmaker-nov-4.html