Red-brick apartment complexes and urban lofts are encroaching upon Houston's historic Fourth Ward district, destroying house by shotgun house. Freedmen's Town, the neighborhood founded by freed slaves in the 1860s, is now one of the few affordable residential areas close to downtown, but it may not exist much longer. Of course, community activists had this same fear back in 1978, when James Blue filmed the documentary Who Killed the Fourth Ward?
"Blue made those films because it bothered him so much," says Sarah Gish, spokesperson for the Southwest Alternate Media Project. For Blue, who founded SWAMP in 1977, filmmaking and activism went hand in hand.
At the Rice Media Center in the early '70s, Blue and his students made documentaries about the city, including a film about the deplorable conditions at the Harris County jail, which aired on the alternative media TV show The Territory, co-created by Blue and still in existence today.
Blue sought to change not only social conditions in Houston but also the way people thought about film. "He wanted to democratize the medium of film," says Mary Lampe, executive director of SWAMP. "He put cameras in the hands of people who were not professional filmmakers but had something to say about their communities."
Poet Lorenzo Thomas, a SWAMP board member and University of Houston professor, says that Blue's films on civil rights and community activism "demonstrated that film media was not something that other people do somewhere else, but a media that was accessible to us, something for us to use to tell our stories."
To celebrate its 25th anniversary this weekend, SWAMP is hosting a James Blue retrospective focusing on his local films, including Who Killed the Fourth Ward? and Invisible City, about how Houston's poor really lived, along dirt roads and without basic plumbing. The event will include a community panel on Houston housing issues, hosted by artist and activist Rick Lowe.
While much of Blue's work focused on Houston, he also made movies in places as far away as Africa. Olive Trees of Justice, a look at the human side of the war between France and Algeria, became the first American film to win the critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962. Later, he received an Oscar nomination for A Few Notes on Our Food Problem(1968), about food shortages all over the world. But activism, not awards, was always the key to understanding Blue's work.
"What's valuable about Blue," says Christine Felton, who's making her own documentary about the housing crisis in Houston, "is the history of Houston that he's preserved. We've destroyed so much visible evidence of what happened to the community."
The battle rages on over the Fourth Ward. As the developers move in, Houston's poor continue to be displaced. If Blue were still alive, he might choose to make a sequel.