One story at a time
Chico State to honor documentarian Robert Shepard for Black History Month
History is best told through the stories of the people who lived it, and if the history you lived took place in any of New York City’s neighborhoods in the 20th century, telling your story likely illuminates a lot of this country’s history.
Local photographer and jazz saxophonist Rudy Giscombe grew up in Harlem, and his story of living there during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s includes memories of a childhood friend named Robert Shepard. The journey of these two African-American men who went through grade school and high school together, who belonged to the same social club ("The GQs—Gentlemental Quality. We put on dances … with guys like Tito Puente…,” Giscombe remembers), who joined the Marines and went through boot camp at Parris Island together, and who even attended City University in New York at the same time after their military stint, is a microcosm of the black American experience and a piece of history worthy of telling and learning from as Black History Month begins.
The story of this duo would seem to have ended prematurely, though, as Giscombe left New York in 1973 and Shepard stayed in the big city.
In 2002, Giscombe went to Havana, Cuba, to take pictures at a film festival being held there, and as he explains it, “I was walking out of a hotel lobby, and there he was. I recognized him right away.”
It had been nearly three decades since their paths had diverged, but there in Cuba the Chico photographer was reunited with his childhood friend, now a renowned filmmaker in Havana showing his new film When the Spirits Dance Mambo (Cuando los espíritus bailan mambo).
The film, co-produced and directed by Shepard, is exactly the kind of subject that makes for a good Black History Month program, as it examines how the sacred beliefs and traditions of west Africans have played an enormous role in the formation of Cuban society as well as contributed significantly to the cultural make up of New York City. Like much of African-American history, it’s the kind of story that is just beginning to be added to the world’s historical canon, and the new African-American storytellers—the historians, the writers and in this case the filmmakers—are creating a chapter in black history that deserves to be read in its own light.
The bulk of Shepard’s work has been behind the camera as director of photography on dozens of noteworthy projects, including the Emmy-award-winning PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till and several documentaries and specials for HBO (Hookers at the Point, Pimps Up Ho’s Down, John Leguizamo’s Freak), for PBS/ABC Nightline (Eyes on the Prize, Roots, Blind Tom) and A&E (Sean “Puffy” Combs).
As he’s amassed a resume of over 200 production credits, the majority of which examine the multiple facets of the black experience, Shepard has also won a few awards—2003 IMPACT Rep Theater Dreamkeeper Award, 2000 Black Panther Film Festival award for Courage, Vision and Commitment and an Emmy nomination for cinematography for 1985’s Beyond the Altar.
For its part, Chico State will focus its Black History Month activities next week on the filmmaker. Shepard will speak on his work after University Film Series screenings of …Mambo and The Murder of Emmett Till on Tuesday. The following day, after speaking on “Filming Across the Racial Divide” during the university’s “Conversation on Diversity,” Shepard will be honored by Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl with a presentation of the key to the city.
“The quality of [his work] is just amazing,” said Giscombe about being suddenly introduced to Shepard’s years of filmmaking.
“When you grow up with people, you remember them like they were as kids," he explained when asked about the history Shepard has created since they last lived near each other, adding, "It’s pretty trippy."