bourne.jpgBy DENNIS HEVESI St.Clair Bourne, a documentary filmmaker who recorded American black culture, produced portraits of eminent African-Americans and, in one stark film, drew a parallel between the civil rights movement and the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 64 and lived in Brooklyn. The cause was a pulmonary embolism, said Judith Bourne, his sister and only immediate family member.

In a 36-year career in which he made more than 40 films, either producing or directing or doing both, Mr. Bourne’s works were seen on public television, commercial networks and at film festivals around the country. Among his subjects were the singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson; the poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes; the photojournalist and filmmaker Gordon Parks; and the poet and activist Amiri Baraka.

In 1989, Mr. Bourne produced and directed “Making ‘Do the Right Thing,’” a theatrical release about the Spike Lee film shot in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In his review in The New York Times, the film critic Vincent Canby wrote, “It says something about the effectiveness of Mr. Bourne’s documentary that watching a murder scene as it is being shot is almost as harrowing as watching the scene in the finished film.”

“Paul Robeson: Here I Stand,” Mr. Bourne’s two-part series in 1999 for “American Masters” on PBS, showed that despite the public perception of its subject as a victimized, worn figure, he was clear and steadfast in his old age, asserting that progress toward racial equality was worth everything he had faced.

It was a conviction shared by Mr. Bourne. Ayuko Babu, director of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, held annually in Los Angeles and Atlanta, said yesterday that Mr. Bourne had been shaped by the civil rights movement. “Because the African slave trade spread all over the planet,” Mr. Babu said, “for us to understand ourselves, we had to have an artist like St.Clair look at all our tragedy, all our beauty, and show that back to ourselves. By doing that, he gave other cultures a way of better understanding us.”

Mr. Bourne’s sister said Mr. Bourne had been particularly proud of his 1996 documentary, “John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk,” about the son of an Alabama sharecropper, born in 1915, who became an author, poet, historian, professor and a leader of the Pan-Africanist movement.

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  • R.I.P. St.Clair Bourne.

    You never know what you had till it’s gone.

  • DeLois

    My heart is aching. St. Clair loved his people, and he wore his heart on his sleeve insofar as that was concerned. He also was about excellence; he not only inspired it, but required and expected it in others, and he led by example. There is nothing more attractive than a man who knows where he belongs and claims his space. That was St. An intellect, a wit and a bright spirit, I met St. Clair when my brother, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, did an early film with him, and I went into the editing room with St. to look at the rough cut. From that moment, I was on his “list.” He lived just blocks away from me in Manhattan and St. used to throw a big ol’ pot luck New Year’s day all-day party at his large pre-war apartment on 105th Street, and I would cook for it. I actually looked forward to cooking for it – usually curried chicken and peas and rice or beef stroganoff and noodles – but more so, I looked forward to the eclectic mix of personalities that he attracted and befriended, many who traveled from out of state just to attend. It is said that a man is known by the company he keeps, and it seemed to me that St. was always surrounded by, and associated with the smartest, the best and the brightest, much as he was. A cultural and social revolutionary, the very idea that he would document the lives of Black people when few others saw that as a timeworthy pursuit, or even possible, reflected his own independent spirit and way of thinking. He has left a legacy, and we are all the richer for it. Go well St., and thank you – for everything.