Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

Jewish anthropologist Melville Herskovits's writings challenged prevailing notions of race and culture.

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
February 2, 2010
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
Diversity Development Fund
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2009 Hollywood Black Film Festival-First Place - Documentary Category
  • Llewellyn Smith

    Llewellyn Smith

    Llewellyn Smith is co-founder and project director at Blue Spark Collaborative and has created a number of award-winning films with his producing partner Christine Herbes-Sommers at Vital Pictures. He is the producer and director of Bound by Blood -- The Elaine Massacre Then & Now. Smith was co-executive producer for the PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? Show more (2008) — a look at the surprising impact social and economic conditions have in determining health and longevity. He also served as director-producer for the Vital Pictures documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness (2010) a look at the consequences of race identity politics.

    In 2012, Smith directed and produced Vital Pictures’ Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street, which follows community organizing and community building effort over a two-year period in a remarkable low-income Boston neighborhood where he grew up. Other films or series contributions include Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery (1997), Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003), Forgotten Genius (2007), and American Denial (for Vital Pictures, 2013). Show less


    Christine Herbes-Sommers

    Christine Herbes-Sommers is President of Vital Pictures, Inc. and has produced over 100 hours of documentary, dramatic, and educational programming for PBS since 1976. Her film Joan Robinson: One Woman’s Story won the duPont Columbia Award in 1981, and her work over the years has garnered many other awards. At Vital Pictures she partnered with Llew Smith Show more and California Newsreel to develop and produce the award-winning, four-part series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? and was executive producer for the ITVS documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. She is currently producer for Raising of America and is spearheading the Coming of Age in an Aging America project. She and Llew Smith were also producers for the groundbreaking series Race: The Power of an Illusion in 2001. Prior to Vital Pictures, Christine was a staff producer at WGBH/Boston. She has a BA in Political Science from Knox College and a MA from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. Show less

    Other ITVS Films
    American Denial
    Associate Producer

    Vincent Brown

    Vincent Brown is the Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University. He is an award-winning author and media maker with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice. Professor Brown teaches courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery, and is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery Show more (Harvard University Press, 2008), which received the Merle Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and the Louis Gottschalk Prize in 2009. Show less

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    The Film

    Using photo-montage recreations, interviews, animation, original field footage, and recordings, Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness examines the forgotten legacy of Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American anthropologist who broke new ground in the definition and analysis of African-American culture. In the film, intellectuals and historians discuss the vast impact and heated debate Herskovits continues to inspire around our modern perception of race and cultural identity.

    Herskovits was the first prominent white intellectual to declare that black culture in America was “not pathological,” but rather inherently African, and that it had to be viewed within that context. In positing this, he established himself among the anthropological vanguard in applying the principles of cultural relativism to ethnic cultures within the United States.

    Herskovits’s academic work advanced the cause of ethnic equality in the United States, while also setting off a whirlwind of debate about race and identity. Some black leaders worried that Herskovits’s work might be a kind of intellectual colonialism, and that if African-Americans allowed a white man to define and record their identity, it would lead to further exploitation. Could, or should, a white man have the last word on the origins of a culture to which he didn’t even belong?

    The filmmakers present Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness as an invitation to a deeper civic discussion about who has the right to define someone else’s identity, and what it means when the people being defined are excluded from the conversation.