Journalist and filmmaker Sharon La Cruise has taken a seven-year journey to tell the story of Daisy Bates, the activist and former Arkansas NAACP head who helped organize the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The advocate for a group of students historically called the Little Rock Nine, Daisy Bates was glamorous, outspoken, divisive and at times mysterious — a woman viewers get to know in La Cruise’s intimate portrait, Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock. Bates was an central part of organizing one of the most memorable events of the Civil Rights Movement, yet as a woman her name is largely forgotten in black history. TheGrio spoke with La Cruise about what she learned about this critical omission through making Daisy Bates, which recently premiered as part of PBS’ Emmy-winning series Independent Lens. The tale of Daisy Bates is an important one for all those interested in advancing the social perspectives of black women, while filling in the gaps left in our political memory.
theGrio: What sparked Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock?
Sharon La Cruise: I saw a photo exhibit based on [Brian Lanker's 1989 book] I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America and took home the companion guide. I saw Daisy Bates’ photo in the book with Little Rock Central High behind her. I wondered why I never heard of this woman. I wrote to her, and that began my journey to eventually telling her story.
WATCH: DAISY BATES TRAILER FROM INDEPENDENT LENS
With both being documentaries by black female directors on the subject of black female leaders, your film Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock will undoubtedly draw some comparisons to Shola Lynch’s film Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed. What would you say is the main difference between the two films?
The approaches to storytelling were very different. Shola Lynch did not appear in Chisholm ’72, and did not have a narrator. She told the story in sound bites, and [to do that] you have to have a million interviews to piece together. That’s a tough thing to do for a historical documentary [like mine]. Shirley Chisholm was still alive [to be interviewed] whereas I had to find out what I could [as Daisy Bastes had long since passed away when I began the film]. By about the ’70s, there wasn’t that much archive material of Daisy Bates speaking for herself, since she had had a series of strokes. There are a lot of limitations to documenting someone who has passed away.
At the same time, it’s quite liberating to do a subject who has passed away. Daisy Bates had a lot of secrets. She would not have been happy for people to know she lived with her husband before they were married, and before he had divorced his first wife, or the fact that she campaigned to have her name put on the NAACP Spingarn medal. Human beings only want you to talk about their best side. There are very few people who will allow you to do a totally honest portrait. Daisy Bates didn’t have siblings; she didn’t have a nuclear family. That was one less burden on me. I was able to focus on the story and not worry about people’s expectations of me.
Speaking of people’s expectations, the film details Bates’ financial difficulties at the end of her life, including how in her later years she would take home leftover food from the events held in her honor. Did anyone have a problem with the film’s mention of that?
The version of the film for TV was more vague than the DVD, which talks [in more detail] about her financial troubles at the end of her life. But Daisy kept up appearances; even at those parties, Daisy always made sure the taking of the food was done indirectly; she would have someone else do it for her.
I went to [Daisy's extended family] the Gastons Family Reunion and showed the film, and some people were like, “No, don’t say that!” I was asked by their family genealogist, “Could you take that out?” But in the end she said “Oh, leave it in.” We already have too many books and films about people that elevate them to the level of sainthood to the point where people don’t feel they can achieve those same things. We need to see that they are human.
I worked on [the documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun], a film about [writer] Zora Neale Hurston who in her later years was working as a maid in Florida. She was buried in an unmarked grave, which Alice Walker later [had a monument placed at]. Neither Zora or Daisy had children, and were left at the mercy of extended relatives, friends and supporters. Daisy had put up her house to revive the Arkansas State Press [a highly influential newspaper for the civil rights movement, founded by her late husband L.C. Bates]; that’s when the real poverty set in. Unfortunately, it’s not that unusual that activist and creative people end up that way.
Please talk about Daisy’s mother’s rape and murder, and its impact on her.
It’s really fascinating, this whole notion of black women being raped in the South by white men. What we have is a history of black men being lynched for raping white women, or [the accusation of such]. Yet there was a whole society where black women weren’t safe. A black woman could be free game for any white man who looked at her. The men who raped and killed Daisy’s mother were never punished. Daisy had been a happier kid, but after she find out about what happened to her mother, her personality became much darker, angrier, more confrontational. She had all this pent up rage.