“It’s a hush thing, a keep-quiet thing.” Larry Blakeney, son of a mill worker.

“Use this cob and save your job.” Mattie Rainwater Whatley, Newnan, Georgia. Mill workers satirized one owner’s attempts to minimize costs, including an effort to economize on the use of toilet paper.

A fundamentalist preacher denounces the strike in Concord, North Carolina.

Dan Beacham, mill superintendent in Honea Path, South Carolina, 1934, ordered deputized workers to open fire on a group of their striking co-workers.

Joseph Lineberger, retired mill owner, Gaston County, North Carolina

Albert Hinson, Ranlo, North Carolina, a leader of the “flying squadrons” that went from mill to mill to coordinate the strike.

Kathy Lamb, a union worker from Honea Path, South Carolina, led the campaign to erect a memorial to the seven local workers who had been killed during the strike.

George Stoney, a pioneer in community based filmmaking, interviews E.O. Friday, Gastonia, North Carolina.

Joe Jacobs, a retired lawyer and organizer for the United Textile Workers Union.

Assessing impact:
activists and social movements

As activist organizations continually struggle to create a public space for a wider discussion of social issues, they often use documentary films to do so. Once a film is produced, organizers and other supportive groups and individuals can show it to create a social space within which citizens can encounter, discuss, and decide to act on similar issues. In his analysis of how media become a resource for social movements, Sidney Tarrow suggests two possible political uses for film—helping new movements gain initial attention or helping “established movements maintain support by bolstering the feeling of status of their members and communicating their activities to their supporters.”7 John Gaventa saw the production process itself as important for activist groups, stimulating greater communication among individuals and organizations and refining the expression of grievances.8 Finally, as the finished film reaches activist groups, it can lead to members’ education and reinvigoration.

For example, one labor activist found that The Uprising of ’34 changed the way she approached organizing. First, she began to make the film the centerpiece of her organizing efforts, which led her to understand how powerful film could be, particularly when narrated by the voices of working-class people similar the ones she was trying to reach. She now sees film as having an important role in creating public spaces for the discussion of controversial issues. Other activists have found that this film uniquely inspires them as it provides them a sense of connection with past activists engaged in the same struggles they are now.

The film also has become part of a region-wide educational process for labor activists in the Southeast. After the film’s inclusive production process allowed many activists to learn for the first time about the events of 1934, they in turn became interested in educating others in the labor movement. Union leaders, including those in SEIU and UNITE, have used the film to give their union members a better sense of the Southeast’s long history of labor activism. Unions have also attempted to use the film to change community attitudes about organized labor’s legitimacy by demonstrating the historical presence and violent suppression of unions in the region. According to Charles Taylor, South Carolina coordinator for CAFE, the film has given labor organizers

the missing piece–something that would explain why there was so much antipathy toward unions, why there were all these rumors about something that happened back in the Thirties. … It gives people a heritage they can be proud of, a heritage they can organize around today.9

As the film has provoked labor activists and historians to undertake further research into events in their own localities, this has led to greater awareness of other strikes and labor activities in the 1930s and after.

Another intriguing effect of the film’s production process and coalition screening model of distribution has been extensive networking among a wide range of activists and organizers. During production, labor historians, union activists, and community members were brought together to explore local history. Often these people had never worked together before and did not even know each other or the organizations that they represented. For the film’s distribution, representatives from activist and community groups came together to discuss the film in public settings. Later organizers and activists could share stories about using the film, and in some cases they formed linkages that carried over into other projects. In 1996, Stoney and Helfand formalized this kind of networking by arranging a conference to examine the film’s impact, bringing together a wide range of activists and educators associated with its production and distribution.

Assessing impact:
decision makers and elites

Assessing the film’s impact has also led me to consider the extent to which documentary film might affect decision-makers and elites. In this instance, the small town of Honea Path, South Carolina, offers a microcosm in which to examine the film’s effects. Honea Path had seen the most violent confrontation during the 1934 strike in which seven local workers were killed by townspeople deputized to guard the mill from striking protesters. There had been no public discussion of these events for sixty years, but now the film displayed the events and explained their larger context—for all to see.

The film’s production and distribution process led directly to two clear effects in Honea Path. One was a unanimous decision by the Honea Path City Council to authorize construction of a monument for the seven people killed in the strike. That effort to build a monument began with Kathy Lamb, a union worker and a delegate to an Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union convention in 1992.10 Her roommate went to a workshop called The Uprising of ’34 and brought back news that the speakers had mentioned the killing of seven workers in Honea Path, Lamb’s hometown. Lamb investigated further and found to her surprise that her father had witnessed the events and that her grandfather had testified at the coroner’s inquest. She contacted Stoney and Helfand and ultimately became an important participant in the production of the film. During the filming of one of the segments, she mentioned the idea of building a monument to the dead workers. Later with the support of CAFE and other labor supporters, she received authorization from the Honea Path City Council, located a site in a public park, raised the necessary funds, and organized the dedication of the monument on May 29, 1995.

The other direct effect that the film had in Honea Path was that Frank Beacham, grandson of the 1934 mill superintendent, offered a public apology for the mill’s actions during the strike. Beacham, a journalist living in New York, had not known about the events of the strike until a friend saw the film and told him. When he discovered that his grandfather was the superintendent during the strike, he researched the events and concluded,

My grandfather apparently gave the order to a handful of his favored workers to open fire on a group of their striking co-workers who wanted to organize a union at the mill.11

At the dedication of the public monument, Beacham acknowledged and offered an apology for his grandfather’s role in the events of 1934.

The film’s impact on the textile manufacturing elite is not clear, but publicity about the film’s production may have been responsible for the manufacturers association’s decision to produce a film portraying their own version of regional labor movement history. However, as Stoney suggests, the content of The Uprising of ’34 changed what all subsequent films must include about events during this time—the work “stretchouts,” strikes, and race, class, and gender relations.

Film screenings have also made linkages between established institutions and working-class citizens. The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, used the film to reach out to working-class citizens to begin an ongoing connection with a part of the community that normally does not attend museum events. The film also opened up avenues for activist groups to work with museums and other “mainstream” community cultural institutions and individuals. For example, many people in Greenville, South Carolina, were amazed to see the major cultural center in that city host a film on labor history.

Finally, we should note mainstream media’s reaction to the film. The film’s extensive involvement of people in the production process and in distribution with local screenings and television broadcasts provided a “news hook” for reporters to write about labor history. Initial coverage by some regional newspapers served to legitimate the story, so that it was picked up by other papers that have been historically more resistant to presenting labor history, such as the Greenville (NC) News. Stoney and Helfand purposely engaged reporters from the very beginning of the production process, in part because they hoped that early publicity would bring forth more interviewees for the film. They also assumed that if the press covered the process of making the film, reporters would have more of a stake in covering screenings later on.

More interesting than the press coverage of the film itself, however, is the question of whether or not the film might stimulate a more general change in press coverage of labor history. In the process of covering a story about the film, at a newspaper like the Greenville News, reporters sought out as sources individuals whom they had rarely talked to before— local labor organizers, current and retired mill workers, and labor historians. Because so many people appeared in the film, it essentially “dumped sources into laps of reporters.” The general respect accorded the film’s historical accuracy meant that these people could not be simply dismissed as vehicles for pro-union propaganda.12 Some observers have suggested (and a systematic content analysis might reveal) that these contacts with the press, once made, changed the paper’s subsequent coverage of labor unions and labor issues in which stories might more likely include the perspectives of labor organizers and workers themselves.

Assessing impact: citizens

Finally, we come to what is often the only focus for social scientists when discussing a film’s social impact: the film’s effect on citizens—ordinary, mainstream, working-class or middle-class citizens. In fact, a full assessment of that kind for this film would require much more information than is available. No one has conducted surveys of audience members for The Uprising of ’34 using pre-tests and post-tests assessing their knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. So I can offer only some informed speculations.

Once again Honea Path offers a microcosm to consider. What is most striking is how the film’s production and distribution stimulated public discussion of long-suppressed historical events. When a local radio talk show program took up the topic, almost all of the callers expressed gratitude that the events surrounding the strike were finally being discussed. The same radio station broadcast the ceremony dedicating the civic memorial. What these radio programs suggest is that the film’s impact on ordinary citizens goes beyond the immediate effects of viewership to encompass people’s participating in discussions stimulated by the film, whether they had seen the film or not.

What was the impact of the film and the public discussion it elicited on the citizens of Honea Path? Did they learn more about the events of 1934? Presumably they did. Starting from little private and no public acknowledgment of the strike, the town’s citizens heard extensive discussions of the historical events. Did this initiate a “healing process” for the families of the striking workers? Certainly some of the families were pleased and relieved that these events were finally publicly explained and acknowledged. For example, the events surrounding the dedication of the monument, inscribed with the names of those killed in 1934, served to highlight in a very personal way the losses experienced by local families. Did people gain more knowledge about labor history in the Southeast? As the film put the events of Honea Path in the context of the broad labor movement in the 1930s, it provided contemporary discussions about unions with a clearer historical reference point. Did attitudes toward unions change? Perhaps some, but apparently not much. Attitudinal change happens over a longer term and does not usually come about as the product of a single dramatic intervention.

These same questions, of course, might be asked of other citizens. What about citizens in Idaho, who watched Southern labor history on PBS while sitting alone in their living rooms? What about high school students who saw this film at 8:30 a.m. in their tenth grade social studies class? Do they gain greater awareness? Are they mobilized? In a few cases, exposure to the film stimulated individual citizens to research how their own community was affected by the 1934 strike, which in turn led to awareness of other strikes and labor union activity in the 1930s and later.

There may be more generalized effects. Films may facilitate a process of transformation. A film is an intervention, and changes in understanding are produced that may have continuing effects. For example, the public screening of the film in Orangeburg, South Carolina, organized by a coalition of community organizations had the immediate effect of creating a public forum in which white and African-American citizens discussed racial issues--a notable event in a community that seldom has such discussions. Significantly organizers also credited this event, both the discussion itself and the networking among organizations that produced it, with an increase in community interest in civil rights discussions.


I have suggested that the wide-ranging effects of the production and distribution of The Uprising of ’34 make it the “perfect” example to use as a basis for analyzing the impact of documentary film. And what can be concluded? At one extreme, I have found no examples at all of audience members “taking to the streets” after watching the film. At the other extreme, I have encountered numerous assertions about how the film “changed people’s perceptions” and “increased awareness” of Southeast labor history. Most important, however, I have found that to explore a film’s full range of impact requires analyzing the entire filmmaking process, its larger political context, and discourse communities outside the mainstream. In large part because of the coalition model of filmmaking advocated by its producers, The Uprising of ’34 has had substantial impact on participants, activist groups, decision makers, and citizens.

Most documentary filmmakers are concerned about the impact of their work; activists and educators seem increasingly aware of the potential impact of documentary film; and resources for media outreach have expanded considerably. What is missing is an understanding of how to create the most effective models for coalition-based media production and distribution. Filmmakers need to know more about how to engage with activist groups interested in the topics of their films and how to use community educators and organizers as resources. Community educators and organizers need to know more about how to create a context for screenings that will most effectively raise political issues. This analysis of The Uprising of ‘34 represents an initial attempt to summarize the range of impact set in motion by one model of coalition filmmaking. Additional research, examining other coalition models and employing the broadest possible framework to analyze impact, will continue to enhance our understanding of the most effective avenues for using documentary film to produce social change.13

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