There are some projects that you just know are going to be special right from the outset.
“Holding History: The Collections of Charles L. Blockson” was not necessarily one of them — but director Cheraine Stanford always believed that it would be.
First, there were just a few minor obstacles to consider.
“When you think about what this project is, it could be really boring,” Stanford said.
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It’s not, though, which is in large part a testimony to the warmth and humanity that Stanford and writer Cole Cullen managed to inject into a 16-minute mini-documentary about a scholar who spent the better part of a lifetime amassing one of the largest collections of African-American history in the world.
I’m not usually invested in those things, but in this one it felt really important.
The documentary aired on WPSU in 2015 and was honored with a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award in the human interest program/special category division on Sept. 24 in Philadelphia.
“I’m not usually invested in those things but in this one it felt really important,” Stanford said.
Perhaps that’s because it’s been a long time coming.
Stanford first became acquainted with Charles Blockson in 2011, when she was helping WPSU put together an interactive black history timeline called the African-American Chronicles.
The footage from that project would be integral in launching her own, setting the stage and the tone from the opening moments of “Holding History.”
In the clip, an aged Blockson recounts a boyhood memory rooted in his early education, when he asked a teacher if African-Americans had any history of their own.
Her response, that black people were put here to serve white people, didn’t satisfy, and Blockson spent the rest of his formative years — up to and including his time as a Penn State football player — scavenging book stores across the country.
That’s where he found his proof. Manuscripts, photographs, sheet music — all of it proof that he had proceeded a long lineage of great and terrible history. Many of those items are now among the inventory of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.
Local viewers looking to save a little money on gas can settle for catching that collection in the frames of “Holding History” — but that’s about as close as the documentary ever came to getting lost in the library.
“We didn’t ever want it to feel like a museum piece,” Stanford said.
Strip all of that away and what you have on paper is a logline that boils down to a simple tale about a man and his books, the likes of which didn’t exactly set the halls of WPSU on fire.
Cullen admits that even he had his doubts.
“I couldn’t see it in my head either,” Cullen said.
Once production ended, Stanford generated the first script, including all of the material she felt was important to Blockson’s story.
When people saw it, they got it.
There were snippets of interviews and footage of the Temple collection in use, but it was all still in the process of being assembled. Stanford never wavered in her conviction that they were telling a story that was worthwhile.
“I knew we had something special. I knew it was important. I knew it would be impactful,” Stanford said.
From the editing room, Cullen was able to maintain a critical distance from the doc’s subject, helping to wrangle the final film into a lean 16-minute runtime that still satisfied Stanford’s original vision.
The big ideas that had been so difficult to do justice on paper, popped on screen.
“When people saw it, they got it,” Cullen said.
Apparently so did the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Standford is grateful for the Emmy attention, but more so that she finally brought Blockson and his collection to center stage
“His story could have been lost if we didn’t do this — and I really kept thinking about that,” Stanford said.
“You Can’t Say That,” another WPSU program, received a Mid-Atlantic Emmy in the Education/Schools category. Read about that program in the second installment of our two-part series later this week.
“You Can’t Say That,” another WPSU program, received a Mid-Atlantic Emmy in the Education/Schools category. Check back for more on that program in the second installment of our two-part series later this week.