Danny Lyon SNCC.jpg

Film: Danny Lyon's SNCC, Screening & Director Talk

Danny Lyon in conversation with Lewis Watts
Saturday, 6/12/2021
2:00 - 3:30
Virtual Library

United States

SFPL presents a film screening of SNCC, by Danny Lyon, photographer. The screening is followed by a conversation with Danny Lyon and Lewis Watts, photographer.

Danny Lyon's SNCC (2020), brings together hundreds of never-before-seen black-and-white photographs made by Lyon during the years that he was employed as the staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. Beginning in 1962 in Cairo, Illinois when Lyon, then a University of Chicago student, met John Lewis, Freedom Rider, the film traces the story of their friendship alongside the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the United States. The images are layered with archival audio recordings of speeches by and conversations with Lewis, Julian Bond, and Dotty Zellner, among others, as well as freedom songs that were recorded by Alan Ribback in churches and meetings in Atlanta in the 1960s and recently rediscovered by Lyon.


Danny Lyon is a photo-journalist, writer and filmmaker. His website is bleakbeauty.com. Among his many books are The Bikeriders, Conversations with the Dead and Knave of Hearts. His latest non-fiction book is Like A Thief’s Dream, PowerHouse Books. Daniel Joseph Lyon was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 16, 1942. Roosevelt was President. World War Two was on going in Europe, Africa and Asia. Segregation was the law of the land in 13 southern states. Native Americans were not allowed to purchase alcohol in New Mexico. Most Blacks could not or did not vote in the deep south. Lyon attended NYC public schools in Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, Queens, and in 1959 bought his first camera, an Exa SLR in Munich, Germany during a summer trip, then entered the University of Chicago, where he eventually majored in philosophy and ancient history. In 1963 he became The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) first photographer. Lyon’s photographs are in Museums and collections throughout the world. His most recent one man show was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Lyon is represented by Gavin Brown Enterprises and the Etherton Gallery in Tucson, AZ.

Lewis Watts is a photographer, archivist and professor emeritus of art at UC Santa Cruz with a longstanding interest in the cultural landscape of the African Diaspora in the Bay Area and internationally. He is the co-author of Harlem of the West The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era.


Directors Statement

SNCC is a compellation film. It is a non-fiction account of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and its successful efforts to break the back of Jim Crow. In 1962 I was hired by James Forman, the executive director of SNCC, to make a photographic record of their struggle. I was a white boy given a ring side seat to a Black uprising, one of the truly great progressive moments in American History. Now, almost sixty years later, I continue to fulfill my obligation to James Forman. I began by filming John Lewis and Julian Bond, both of whom had remained close friends over the years. Many of the photographs I had made in the early 1960’s had become icons and were well known. Then I realized there were over 3000 pictures which had never been used or seen and were unknown. As a filmmaker I am a realist. I believe in the power of the camera and recorded sound and wanted to make the movement as real as possible, to recreate the passion and courage of the generation that had changed history. I had all my negatives scanned. In 1963 I was John Lewis’s roommate in Atlanta, and when he gave his speech on Wens Aug 28th, at the March on Washington I slept on the floor of his small hotel room. We were very close. I knew that Alan Ribback, had travelled from Chicago to Atlanta to make recordings of the movement because I was often in the churches when Ribback took out his Nagra and hung his Sennheiser mikes. Rinzler died years ago but I was able to locate his audio archive of seven inch reels of analogue tape. I had also made my own audio interviews of Lewis, Bond and Dottie Zellner in the late 1980’s.

Using all this material, all real, most done at the time of the events themselves, I spent months at the computer putting the film together. SNCC does not just tell you the “story” of the historical events as they unfolded, but with the music that rang through the churches, churches often surrounded by mobs and police, draws you into the spirit of the movement. While I was filming John was stricken with a fatal disease. Knowing I would never see him again I went to stay in with him in his home in the Capitol. I didn’t go there to film him, but I did, and in the remarkable closing scene, two friends, who have loved each other for over fifty years, interact as we always had. Me holding a camera, and John Lewis as our inspiration. The film ends with a scroll of those that gave their lives to the movement.


Danny Lyon - Website | Instagram

Lewis Watts - Website | Instagram


Watch party and film discussions. 

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This program is sponsored by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

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