Austin filmmaker gives life to singer's story
Singer wants her story to help educate people about effects of racism.
Barbara Smith Conrad never shed a tear when, as a young University of Texas student in 1957, she became the central figure of a highly publicized chapter of civil rights history.
But she recently had a private screening of "When I Rise," a documentary about her life made by Austin filmmaker Mat Hames that premieres Sunday at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. And the tears started flowing.
The movie charts Conrad's compelling story — a gifted young singer from East Texas when she landed at UT, among the first African American students to be admitted to Texas' flagship university. Almost immediately she was cast to star in a production of the opera "Dido and Aenas." But when word got out that Conrad would sing opposite a white male classmate, a backlash from segregationists as well as members of the Texas Legislature ensued. Under pressure from two state representatives — Rep. Joe Chapman of Sulphur Springs and Rep. Jerry Sadler of Anderson County — then-UT President Logan Wilson ordered Conrad removed from the opera. Campus protests erupted, and the incident attracted national headlines. Conrad endured numerous threats and harassments. At one point, she was spit on by a white student as she crossed the UT campus.
"I never cried all those years," she says of her decision to stay and complete her music degree at UT, even though pop superstar Harry Belafonte offered to pay for her education if she wanted to transfer to another university. "It was a matter of pride."
Then she watched Hames' re-telling of the incident, of her years as a successful international opera singer and of the celebrations last year when the Texas Legislature honored Conrad with a resolution.
This time, she didn't hold back. "I cried for a good 15 minutes," Conrad said, speaking by phone from her home in New York. "It was quite cathartic. It really felt OK to let go like that."
The film also captures much of Conrad's current relationship with UT, particularly with the Butler School of Music, where she returns often to teach master classes, and the Briscoe Center for American History, where her papers are archived and where she consults with the center's American Spirituals Initiative project.
Briscoe Center executive director Don Carleton is the movie's executive producer and spearheaded the efforts to raise the estimated $500,000 needed to finance the film.
"I'd been looking for a way to make a documentary about Barbara's story for a while," said Carleton. "Part of the Briscoe Center's mission is to create ways to educate the public in history, and a film is a great way to get that history out to a much larger audience."
In 2007, Carleton asked Hames to film a master class that Conrad was teaching at UT, an effort to kick-start the process of making — and finding funding for — a full-length film. Carleton and Hames had crossed paths before on "Last Best Hope," Hames' award-winning documentary about the Belgian Resistance during World War II, which used materials housed at the Briscoe Center.
Hames found Conrad's story compelling.
"There's a lot about Texas during the civil rights movement that's often not discussed," says Hames, who grew up in Arlington and studied film at the University of North Texas. "I wanted to talk about (that period) of Texas' history — and UT's history — because no other film really confronts it. And if you don't talk about (the history), it really isn't resolved."
Still, Hames had some initial trepidation about how a white man such as he could tell the story of an African American woman. "How could I not?" he asked. "I knew it would be a challenge."
Shortly after capturing that first footage of the master class, Hames traveled to the small East Texas town of Center Point, where Conrad grew up and where the opera singer was being celebrated during the town's annual reunion in 2007. The filmmaker brought his wife and two young children, hoping that having the family with him would give Conrad an immediate sense of who he was and where he was coming from.
"He has an honesty," the singer said. "And he's compassionate. I trusted him right away."
And she trusted that this was a good time, too, to finally share her story. During "the incident," as Conrad calls it, she gave one media interview, then assiduously avoided the press for the rest of her time at UT.
"I never wanted to sensationalize any of it," Conrad said. "I just wanted to do what I had been dreaming of, and that was study music and learn to be a classical singer."
After graduation, Conrad moved to New York with the encouragement and support of Belafonte. (Hames found footage of Conrad in the chorus of a televised Belafonte special.) Longtime New York City Opera conductor Julius Rudel — who is interviewed in the film — took a particular interest in Conrad's career, offering her several roles. Conrad also sang with the Metropolitan Opera and numerous European companies.
Hames found footage and other visuals by plumbing archives in New York, writing to opera houses around Europe where Conrad had performed and contacting people who figured large in the singer's life. He interviewed Belafonte when the famed pop star made a 2008 visit to Austin.
After an American-Statesman story ran last year about Conrad's celebration by the Texas Legislature, Hames was contacted by Harley Clark, who was the student-elected UT head cheerleader from the time of the controversy and who is credited with introducing the Hook'em Horns hand signal. Unbeknownst to Conrad at the time, Clark, who had never met her, personally petitioned UT president Wilson not to have the young singer removed from her role in the opera. Clark, now a retired state district judge who lives in Wimberley, is interviewed in "When I Rise."
At the beginning of his research, Hames came upon a thick file of letters sent to the UT president in 1957 as news of Conrad's dismissal broke. What struck the filmmaker was the support of Conrad by UT alumni, opera fans and other people across the country. Toward the end of "When I Rise," in a particularly poignant moment, Conrad reads aloud from some of the letters, the first time in more than 50 years that she intimately re-visits the event that put her name in national headlines.
"High on my list is that this film enlighten people. This cancer (of racism) has not been eradicated as of yet, and we keep making the same mistakes over and over again," she said. "Why keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Why can't we move past this place where everything is determined by race?
"Why can't it be about getting to know each other better? Maybe we can reach out to each other more. The awkwardness comes from not having enough rehearsal time with each other. Folks are just folks."
‘When I Rise'
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, with Barbara Conrad in attendance. Also, 11:30 a.m. Wednesday
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.