Decades later, Lynne Jackson, a professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, led an effort to turn the grainy black-and-white images into a cohesive portrait of 1970 Americana. The resulting documentary, Race or Reason: The Bellport Dilemma, will be screened this weekend at MoMA as part of a film tribute to Jackson's mentor, legendary documentarian George C. Stoney.
"This project is really about encouraging dialogue," said Jackson, a longtime Brooklyn resident. "It’s sort of like a conflict resolution example."
The project began, perhaps unwittingly, in 1970 when Long Island resident Betty Puleston gave black, white, and Latino students at Bellport High School cameras and invited them into her home to record a running conversation about race.
Jackson said the students, energized by the civil rights movement of the 1960's, were upset the school had no black teachers or Africana Studies classes. The camera sessions led to formal requests from the students for changes at the school, said Jackson, and Bellport High eventually responded by hiring an African-American teacher and adding Africana studies to the curriculum.
After the recording sessions were finished, Puleston saved the reels of film through the years. A friend of Jackson's, she was encouraged by her and George Stoney to make something of the material. In the late 1980's, Jackson and Puleston gathered the former Bellport High filmmaking students for a reunion. The women taped the get together, where the students discussed the changes in racial attitudes since the 70's, and, combining this with the old footage, began work on what would become their critically acclaimed documentary Race to Reason.
The film was first screened at the American Museum of Natural History in 2002 to rave reviews and has been distributed independently since 2003. Jackson said the election of the country's first African-American president makes the present moment an especially good time to revisit the history of race relations over the past 40 years.
"It is a film that shows how change is made," said Jackson. "In large part, that's what got Obama elected: people in the community coming together and organizing."
Current students of Bellport High School have been invited to the February 27th MoMA screening, said Jackson. Alongside the school alumni who made the movie, they'll watch a long and important history still in the making.