Digging into the Rock: Kevin Epps' Alcatraz documentary "Black Rock" rolls out at the Red Vic Movie House this week. (Photo courtesy Red Vic)

Epps Unearths Buried Alcatraz History

Michael Fox February 23, 2009

On a damp, rainy night last week, Kevin Epps took 250 supporters, sponsors and friends on a cruise back in time. Although in many ways this trip to Alcatraz resembled the excursion taken by thousands of tourists over the years, there was one crucial difference: The San Francisco filmmaker was premiering his latest documentary, The Black Rock, and the focus was on the African American prisoners and guards who lived on the island from 1934-63, when it was a federal penitentiary. The screening was framed by a tour (we forgot that Park Rangers working the Alcatraz gig are themselves performers as well as historians) and a panel discussion that focused on the uneven number of black makes incarcerated since 1980. In his new film, Epps (who debuted with a splash in 2003 with Straight Outta Hunters Point) brings to light a largely forgotten sliver of fascinating, infuriating history and imbues it with both indignation and sadness. The Black Rock plays Friday, February 27, through Thursday, March 5, at the Red Vic Movie House in the Haight. We got the lowdown from Epps via email.

SF360: What was the impetus for the film? Was it a specific Alcatraz story, or the broader issue of current black incarceration?

Epps: No. The ideas came from a series of overlapping thoughts. I was looking out at Alcatraz while riding across the Bay Bridge coming into The City. I’ve always had a fascination with Alcatraz—the stories and movies are romantic, the movies about Alcatraz romanticize the pain and human suffering. I’ve seen virtually every film or documentary about Alcatraz. It’s a very intriguing place. I was in an activist state of mind as well, thinking about the disproportionate number of blacks in prison, a lot of my peers. I was also seeing these overlapping thoughts in a visual, frame-by-frame state of mind, and there was the impetus. Were there blacks in Alcatraz, and if so what is their story. I was once again fascinated, and I began the six-year journey.

SF360: In what ways did you discover that the black experience at the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz was different than the white experience?

Epps: It was during the 1930s-1960s when human rights, civil rights, racism, prejudice were as American as apple pie and the struggles and challenges were eightfold. But these gangsters, incorrigible black prisoners, [sent] to the worst of the worst institution still faced degradation, second-class citizenship, but were resilient in pursuit of fairness. Like Robert Lipscomb, convicted and sentenced [in 1929] to 25 years for having 17 counterfeit 20-dollar bills, turned prison activist challenging the institution and policies like Brown vs. Board of Education from the inside. He suffered dearly for it. He was confined to the Hole—dark cells—24 hours a day.

SF360: Why did you decide to focus on three inmates—‘Bumpy’ Johnston, Lipscomb and William Martin—rather than other black prisoners? What does each represent to you?

Epps: They were all three unique individuals, their stories fascinating much like Alcatraz itself. Robert Lipscomb, counterfeiter, prison activist, endured a lot of human suffering while at Alcatraz. His personal story and diary give so much insight. William Ty Martin was a part of a very thought-out, well-planned escape with four white inmates, one being celebrity bank robber Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker of the famous Barker gang. That was interesting, especially how they worked together during the darker days of racism in America and even worse on Alcatraz. Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, a.k.a. Black Al Capone, was a gangster, numbers operator, racketeer, bootlegger, eventually sent to Alcatraz where he was a quieting influence, and was involved in the famous escape that became legend involving Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin, It was portrayed in the movie Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood. ‘Bumpy’ Johnson able to keep the 300 black prisoners in Alcatraz quiet while they chipped the segregated cellblock’s concrete, allowing them to dig and hammer through.

SF360: Frankly, I expected only to see black interviewees—guards, ex-prisoners, historians, etc. Perhaps that was never your intent, or perhaps you had no choice but to include some non-African Americans given how few former prisoners and guards are still alive.

Epps: Initially I was trying to interview any and all Alcatraz black prisoners, guards, personnel, staff, etc., and then anyone who had first-hand experience, knowledge or experience with Alcatraz during that time. All, if not most, of the people from that time have passed away, so I did the next best original thing—the voices [and] stories of anyone who could speak from experience of having worked, lived or experienced Alcatraz from 1934-63.

SF360: This is the first film you’ve made that deals with the stories of people who are no longer alive. What are the advantages and disadvantages of making a historical documentary, compared to a contemporary story?

Epps: It was very challenging, I had to do so much research, and uncovering a new perspective was impetus in itself. It was very interesting, very personal, uncomfortable, it’s like reading someone’s most intimate thoughts, from a time long gone, for the very first time. Working with historical societies for accuracy and reference, I had to really immerse myself into the mind, body and souls of these people and get to know them very personally. Contemporary stories are relevant, information is current, the characters speak lyrics, they are alive. [With] the historical documentary, I had to bring their story to life with the incredible sources that I’ve had to work from. But their story is equally as important; it’s contemporary.

SF360: Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

Epps: I was moved by the aesthetics of the black-and-white moving image. It captured Alcatraz in a very different, authentic, sensual way.

SF360: You end the film with a call to action in the form of a web site address. What actions would you like to provoke? What impact would you like the film to have?

Epps: I hope that we as a society take a look at the human suffering and financial burdens that come from prisons, and the alarming numbers of people in prison today, especially black males.

SF360: On a trivial note: What’s your favorite piece of gear?

Epps: Right now I am playing with the Panasonic P-2 HD, so digital, yet so cinematic.

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