University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Voices from the past

Frank Manchel
Professor Emeritus Frank Manchel dug deeply into interviews he conducted decades ago to create his latest volume exploring the African-American experience in film. Photograph by Sally McCay.


Voices from the past

by Thomas Weaver

With a cheap tape recorder and a cheaper set of cassette tapes tucked in his suitcase, Frank Manchel flew to Los Angeles in 1972. Now a professor emeritus, then a young professor, Manchel was on a mission. But, by his own estimate, this was a hazily defined mission. A pioneer in the academic study and teaching of film, Manchel knew this much—he wanted to expand his knowledge in another direction, to learn more about the African-American experience in the movie business from some of the individuals, both black and white, who lived it directly in Hollywood.

In addition to professional knowledge, Manchel sought personal growth. Beyond film, he wanted to better understand the complex issues of race and American society that were particularly incendiary in the sixties and seventies. As his plane touched down at LA International, the white, Jewish academic from Vermont, a stranger in a strange land, had a proverbial ace up his sleeve—the phone number of actor Jason Robards, Jr., who had agreed to help him make connections and appointments. (Robards’ son, Jason Robards III, UVM Class of 1971, was a film student and projectionist in one of Manchel’s UVM classes.)

With the Robards entrée and other paths that would open, Manchel sat down on this trip, and subsequent others to New York and Los Angeles, and talked with people in the industry such as Jim Brown, Ruby Dee, James Whitmore, Lillian Gish, and Ivan Dixon, among many others. The transcripts of the freewheeling interviews feel familiar to anyone who has talked with Manchel and experienced his passion and encyclopedic knowledge of film. The rapport led to honest, unguarded exchanges in many cases. Consider this bit of dialogue with Ivan Dixon, likely familiar to most in his role as Kinch on the television program “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Ivan Dixon: Eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That’s a low-budget film in Hollywood terms. Not a low-budget film in Hollywood black terms. Because all the so-called “nigger” films they’re making these days are coming out for less than a half a million dollars.

Frank Manchel: Sweetback, and Shaft, and all of those?

Ivan Dixon: Sure. All of these things have been done for nothing.

Frank Manchel: And they’re making money…all of them.

Ivan Dixon: That’s the whole idea, to exploit the black actor, to get the guy who plays the lead part for six hundred dollars a week. Which to him it seems like big money because he’s just been working a regular factory job, or maybe modeling, doing some modeling pictures and what not. He doesn’t understand anything about what film salaries are about…

Revealing and provocative as the interviews with Dixon and others were, it would be more than three decades before they made their way from spoken words on a tape to published print. For Frank Manchel, life intervened—academic/political battles for the right to simply teach film; other book projects; raising two sons with his wife, Sheila; years as associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences; and some twenty years living with cancer. There just was always something more pressing than figuring out what to do with those cassettes gathering dust.

Manchel credits the initial nudge to bring the interviews to light to UVM history professor Denise Youngblood, a scholar of Soviet film. Says Youngblood, “I don’t like to see great primary sources languish. What Frank had in the interviews was truly important and very illuminating.” While the nudge of a colleague is one thing, the push of a spouse is another. Manchel asked his wife if, in light of the challenge he faced with cancer, whether he should take on the large project. A man who venerates his wife, refers to her as “The Great Sheila” in conversation with a friend, recalls her exact words: “Suck it up.”

And so it was that Manchel got down to work. Every Step a Struggle: Interviews with Seven Who Shaped the African-American Image in Movies was published in 2007. And, in November, Manchel followed with his sequel, Exits and Entrances: Interviews with Seven Who Reshaped African-American Images in Movies (New Academia Publishing).

Youngblood, a sounding board as Manchel worked through drafts, likens the finished products to prying open a time capsule, the verbatim interviews strongly evoking the milieu of a very different time and place as surely as platform shoes and lava lamps. “Frank’s introductions and the epilogue are themselves worth the cost of the book,” she adds. 

Manchel feels the two volumes represent the best work of his career. Who knows if they are the capstone? Manchel still watches two or three films daily, is eager to talk about what’s screening in town, and regularly delivers guest talks in UVM Film and Television Studies classes. He also keeps in touch with some of the film luminaries he strongly influenced and inspired in his UVM classes. Interestingly, three of them went on to be involved with films that are a significant part of contemporary film’s exploration of the African-American experience. Producer Jon Kilik has long collaborated with director Spike Lee on films such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X; David Franzoni wrote the screenplay for Amistad; and Robert Richardson was cinematographer for Django Unchained.

Ever the teacher, Manchel hopes that his latest books and the story behind them can offer today’s students, or anyone, a lesson in not fearing what one doesn’t know. “I was a white kid, Jewish, I knew nothing about the black revolution going on, but I wanted to learn,” he says. “My questions were sometimes awkward because I was trying to tell the truth. You can learn a great deal from ignorance if you have the courage to take risks. I put myself out there and it never occurred to me there was anything wrong with that. I was going to meet Jim Brown or I was going to meet James Earl Jones, and I wasn’t going to ask them the questions that everybody asked them. I was going to ask them the questions I wanted to ask them.”

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