Interview with Donnie Betts

One artist who became an icon through his diverse work and another whose grandest work became iconic are the subjects of two current documentaries that accord much deserved recognition to both the men and their creations.

“Doing a film about an artist is rather difficult,” says Donnie L. Betts, in discussing his film Music Is My Life...Politics My Mistress, a profile of multifaceted activist Oscar Brown Jr. “How do you capture the essence of what they do?”

As a poet, lyricist, songwriter, composer, playwright, performer, and political activist, Brown made his mark beginning in the late 1940s and running throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s until his death at age 78 in May 2005.

The challenge Betts faced was turning Brown’s eclectic career, which spanned more than a half-century, into a comprehensive story of his life. “I didn’t have the challenge of [telling the story of] a visual artist,” Betts admits. “I was lucky in that way.”

Betts also wanted his subject to tell his own story. “I made that decision after my first little rough cut, where I had narration, and I said, ‘That’s really cumbersome,’” he explains. “It gets in the way of Oscar. I just wanted Oscar to carry the film. I looked at it this way: Let me let him do what he did best. Let him perform. I wanted to shoot him very intimately because if you ever saw Oscar perform, people will tell you that’s his essence. He’s so powerful a performer and so in touch and in tune with his audience that you walk away feeling like you know him.”

First exposed to Brown while a college student after checking out a copy of Brown’s first album, Sin and Soul, from the campus library, Betts originally planned to frame his film around a concert of Brown singing and performing his powerful and often humorous spoken-word poetry, but the filmmaker quickly realized there was more to the story. “I’m not a real big fan of concert films,” Betts admits. “I like to find out about the artist. I want to know what makes them tick, what inspired them, what they’re doing now creatively. Once I started to delve into his archives and have more conversations with him and his contemporaries, I realized this man is so complex and so underappreciated that I’m going to make the best film possible about his life, no matter how long it takes.”

What resonated with Betts about Brown as he embarked on making the film was similar to what had originally resonated with him as an impressionable college student many years earlier. “I knew he was in that same vein of artists who spoke out against injustices,” he recalls. “That’s why I was attracted to him. In college, we listened to his songs as fuel. With this film, I wanted to let people know about his activism through his art.”

From a technical standpoint, Betts and his editor, Dave Wruck, understood that the film, shot on DVC-Pro, Beta-SP, and 24p Mini-DV before being bumped to HD, would be grounded in a distinct rhythm that grew organically out of Brown himself. “The pace of the film came from his walk,” Betts explains. “He had the coolest walk. A very fast walk. He walked on a beat.”

For Betts, Brown’s endorsement of the finished film came accompanied by his typical sense of humor following a festival screening. “At the end, he leaned over and said, ‘You really captured me. Of course, it is about my most favorite subject--me.’” With a national PBS telecast scheduled for February 2007 for Music Is My Life, as well as a DVD of the film and a CD of poetry and songs Brown recorded for Betts’ project available at, Oscar Brown Jr’s art, can be discovered by a whole new audience.

“What he wanted to do was ‘edutainment’--education and entertainment together,” Betts maintains. “That’s what he wanted his legacy to be. He said, ‘An artist has a social responsibility to the community not only to entertain but to educate.’”

Christopher R.C. Bosen is a freelance writer and filmmaker in the final stages of post-production (he hopes) on a feature-length documentary. He recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and almost-one-year-old s


MAY 1, 2001

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