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57 minutes, 2009,  
A Vital Pictures Production, Producers: Llewellyn Smith, Vincent Brown and Christine Herbes-Sommers, A co-production of Vital Pictures and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Executive Producer for ITVS Sally Jo Fifer.

Organization of American Historians Erik Barnouw Award Honorable Mention Recipient

Winner, 2009 John O'Connor Film Award of the American Historical Association

Winner, Best Documentary, Hollywood Black Film Festival

Is there a politics of knowledge? Who controls what knowledge is produced and how it will be used? Is there "objective" scholarship and, if so, how does it become politicized? These questions are examined through this groundbreaking film on the life and career of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), the pioneering American anthropologist of African Studies and one of the most controversial intellectuals of the 20th century. How did this son of Jewish immigrants come to play such a decisive role in the shaping of modern African American and African identities? Herskovits emerges as an iconic figure in on-going debates in the social sciences over the ethics of representation and the right of a people to represent themselves.

This quick-paced, carefully researched documentary traces Herskovits' development as a scholar to the shared African American and Jewish experiences of exile, exclusion and political oppression. Faced with resurgent racism and persistent discrimination in the early 20th century, black and Jewish intellectuals grappled with a common question: could they retain their distinct ethnic identities and still participate as equals in American life? Prominent scholars like Princeton philosopher, K. Anthony Appiah, and Columbia University historian, Mae Ngai, explore this paradox not only in historical and contemporary terms, but through their own experiences as people of color.

Lee D. Baker, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University, locates Herskovits at the heart of a transformation in anthropology which continues to this day. 19th Century anthropology grew out of European colonialism and too often provided a pseudo-scientific justification for its subjugation of non-Western people. Physical anthropologists drew specious correlations between anatomical features and supposed behavioral traits of the various "races."

By the time Herskovits arrived at Columbia University, the Jewish anthropologist, Franz Boas, was revolutionizing the discipline. Boaz used impeccable research to demonstrate that different didn't mean inferior. Herskovits became a vigorous advocate for "cultural relativism," the idea that cultures should be understood from the inside, on their own terms, not the anthropologist's. This provided strong academic backing for the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the day and laid the groundwork for today's critical cultural theory.

In the late 1920's, Herskovits turned his attention to Africa at a time when other white scholars insisted there was nothing to learn there. During field work in Benin, Surinam and Trinidad, he shot thousands of feet of film (some shown in this documentary) revealing undeniable similarities between African and New World planting techniques, dance, music, even everyday gestures. Harvard historian and co-producer, Vincent Brown, explains how this proof of cultural retention across the African Diaspora refuted the common wisdom that all ties to Africa had been lost in the traumatic rupture of the Middle Passage. Johnnetta Cole, President Emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges, current Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and an early student of Herskovits, recalls how empowered she felt by Herskovits' "discoveries," even though black scholars had been writing about these same ideas for decades.

But a number of African American intellectuals like sociologist E. Franklin Frazier openly attacked Herskovits' contentions. They worried if black Americans were seen as distinctively "different" it could provide a further rationale for the segregationist policies they were fighting. For example, if, black, female-headed households were a continuation of African matriarchal tradition, as Herskovits contended, not the result of persistent discrimination and poverty, the struggle for progressive social reforms might be undermined.

North Carolina Central University historian, Jerry Gershenhorn, author of Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, explains that Herskovits, despite his left-wing sympathies, insisted scholarship should be "objective" and apolitical. He even secretly sabotaged W.E.B. DuBois' life-long project, the Encyclopedia Africana, on the grounds that it would be propagandistic. The film reveals, however, that American anthropology was often entangled with political power. During the Cold War, wealthy foundations and government agencies funded the development of "area studies" to support "anti-insurgency" and neo-colonial "nation-building" strategies in the Third World.

In 1948, Herskovits established the African Studies Center at Northwestern, the first at an American university. And he became openly political, campaigning to head the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs. But he was denied a security clearance on the grounds of membership in 17 "communist front organizations" as defined by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

By the end of his life, Herskovits' own research had become a tool for social movements he could not have anticipated-and might not have welcomed. His daughter, historian Jean Herskovits Corry, recalls how his seminal work, The Myth of the Negro Past, was embraced by the Black Panther Party and Black Nationalist students of the '60s. Ironically, Herskovits may not have understood the scope of his own influence. When he asked the great Martinican poet and philosopher, Aimé Césaire, the meaning of negritude, the world-wide political-literary movement known as the "Great Black Cry," Césaire replied:"You yourself are one of the fathers of negritude. Read The Myth of The Negro Past!"

The film raises unsettling questions, asking who has the authority to define a culture, especially if people from that culture are denied the opportunity to engage in the scholarly discourse of defining themselves. Vincent Brown provocatively sums up Herskovits as "the Elvis of anthropology," a man who appropriated African culture, but simultaneously mainstreamed its study into the American academe and popular consciousness.

Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness will challenge students to think of "knowledge" as a socio-political construct, shaped by the implicit values and underlying power dynamics of the society in which it is produced. It calls on each viewer to ask "Who controls my cultural identity?" As a result, the film promises to become a core text in Introductory Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology of Knowledge, African Studies, African American Studies, and Race Relations classes.

Chapter Listing
1. Herskovits, Anthropology & Identity
2. Jews & Blacks - Similar Experiences?
3. Anthropology as a Study of Race
4. What are you?
5. Rediscovering Africa
6. Africanisms in the Americas
7. Politics and the Production of Knowledge
8. The Myth of the Negro Past
9. Conflicts with Black Scholars
10. The Decolonization of Africa
11. Reinterpretations and Black Power
12. Who Gets to Define a People's Identity?

Watch a behind the scenes ITVS clip of HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS

Read a review of the documentary on the Anthropology Review Database.

Llewellyn Smith is a writer and documentary film producer/director through his Boston-based independent film company, Vital Pictures. PBS' 2008 series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? was Vital Pictures' first production. Other titles by the producer: Unnatural Causes, Race - The Power of an Illusion.

Vincent Brown is the Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University teaching courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery. He is the award-winning author of The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, which received the Merle Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and the Louis Gottschalk Prize in 2009.

Producer Christine Herbes-Sommers, vice president of Vital Pictures, Inc., has worked on the acclaimed PBS series RACE: The Power of an Illusion, The Advisory for Big Picture Schools, and Joan Robinson: One Woman's Story. Herbes-Sommers has won a duPont Columbia Award, several Cine Golden Eagles, and an Emmy nomination. Other titles by the producer: Unnatural Causes, Race - The Power of an Illusion.
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"Very enlightening. The breadth of commentary on cultural identity and assimilation, hierarchy in academia and the politics of knowledge is remarkable. An excellent film."
Stuart Hall
"Herskovits At the Heart of Blackness portrays a critical turning point in American education, the restoration of history and cultural achievement to persons of African descent in the New World. Warmly recommended."
Robert Farris Thompson, author of Tango: The Art History of Love
"Paradox abounds in considering the place of Melville J. Herskovits in American intellectual and political history. An important documentary that should be required viewing for students of American intellectual history"
James Pritchett, Director, African Studies Center, Michigan State University
"A well crafted and thoroughly engaging documentary that asks important questions without forcing easy answers. Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness follows Melville Herskovits’ historically significant efforts to connect African Americans with Africa, and interrogates the relationship between anthropological observer and subject."
Alan Goodman, Hampshire College. former President, American Anthropological Association
"A bold and brilliant film, a fascinating rumination on a remarkable life. Presents a powerful and persuasive critique of the limits of good intentions…and alerts all viewers to the responsibilities and obligations required of us because of the vexed relationships that link knowledge and power."
George Lipsitz, author of FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARK and Professor of Black Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara
"This film will most likely forever change the way Africans and non-Africans view the mother continent's history and its social/cultural relevance to global civilizations."
Gershom Williams, Department of Social Science, Mesa Community College
It Is an excellent vehicle for documenting the work of a central figure in African American studies and for illustrating that knowledge is a social construct, shaped by the values and power of those who produce it.
Royce A. Singleton, Teaching Sociology


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