Last night the University of Arkansas Little Rock hosted the world premiere of Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, a documentary made by New York native Sharon La Cruise. La Cruise discovered Daisy Bates in 1997, when she was struck by her image in a photo tribute to great black women. She considered herself well-versed in civil rights rhetoric, so La Cruise was bothered by the fact that she'd never heard of Bates. She quickly became obsessed with the woman from Huttig, Arkansas, who became the president of NAACP and the figurehead of the Little Rock Nine. She wrote to the 83-year-old Bates and, following her leads, began a meticulous research process that took La Cruise all over Arkansas. She dug up film footage and photographs and included on-camera interviews with Bates' friends from Huttig and beyond, relatives of Civil Rights journalist L.C. Bates (who ultimately became Bates's husband), four of the Little Rock Nine and a sprinkling of academic talking heads.
The documentary is a moving, well-researched tribute to a complex activist, and while La Cruise obviously considers Bates a personal hero, she doesn't gloss Bates's flaws. Bates's childhood was troubled by the abandonment of her birth father and the knowledge that her birth mother was raped and murdered by white men who were never brought to justice. Her rage butted against ego and an inborn energy and charisma that propelled her into the spotlight, diva style, even as she did the gritty work of organizing, managing the media, and ducking the rocks and bullets that flew through her picture window. An accidental feminist, assertive, stubborn, attention-seeking and simultaneously righteous, many people, including the Little Rock Nine, ultimately had mixed feelings about Bates and her legacy. La Cruise respectfully probes the controversial aspects of Bates's persona and the aftermath of her celebrity — the fact that Bates had three premature strokes, likely brought on by stress and a fondness of drink, and died a destitute woman.
Bates is well-known in Little Rock, but she and many other female civil rights activists are somewhat lost to history at large. They're eclipsed by a handful of men with reputations bolstered not only by dauntless deeds but by the patriarchal era and community in which these deeds were accomplished. This documentary's very existence reminds us of that fact. It also humanizes Bates, showcasing a woman of great accomplishment but also a woman we recognize — we find her in ourselves, our mothers, our sisters and friends. And a genuine flawed hero is infinitely more interesting than an airbrushed myth.
The film gained a layer of immediacy and intimacy for those present at the premiere. In the follow-up Q & A session, a woman mentioned her surprise upon spotting her uncles in the 1970s footage of Bates directing construction crews in Mitchellville, Arkansas. Bates moved to the black sharecropping community in 1966 and initiated projects such as paving roads and installing indoor plumbing. The older Bates received little fanfare for her contributions in Mitchellville, and she seemed more comfortable with a behind the scenes approach than her earlier behavior had indicated.
Another woman identified herself as Bates's god-daughter. With the fervor of a gospel preacher, she took the mic and thundered, "L.C. gave Daisy to me! When he was on his deathbed, he said to me, 'you take care of your mother.' And there were enablers in Daisy's life, and I told those people, 'don't you drive her to the liquor store.' And I just want everyone to know, Daisy never starved on my watch!" Ultimately the moderator had to cut her off, but the outburst offered the audience further, less sanitized insight into Bates's life.
The crowd was a mix of ages and ethnicities. When a white University of Arkansas student asked how Daisy would have reacted to "black extremists, such as the black panthers," tension shot through the audience.
"Stay calm y'all, stay calm," an elderly black woman stage-whispered to her agitated companions. Someone on the panel turned to La Cruise and muttered "undergraduates."
But La Cruise and Dr. John Kirk, UALR's chair of history, diffused the situation, saying that Daisy hosted Gandhi's grandson and chided violent activists. "But," Kirk said, "she also had a gun. And when threatened, she shot it."
If you missed the premiere, don't miss the PBS showing. Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock will air on Thursday, February 2, 2012, so keep an eye on local listings.