The ghosts of black pioneers are resurrected by “Jim Crow of the North,” a haunting new documentary paying tribute to those who rebelled against housing discrimination in the Twin Cities. But to director Daniel Bergin those spirits never really went away.
“It’s hard to imagine how thick their skin was,” he said, shrugging off the bitter cold as he walked through the streets of a south Minneapolis neighborhood once “redlined” by lawmakers and real estate developers, determined to keep homeowners racially segregated. “I hope I would have carried myself as well as they did.”
As noted in the film, premiering Monday on Twin Cities Public Television, some black residents, frustrated by the racial covenants that were applied throughout much of the 20th century, packed their bags and moved to more tolerant cities.
But Bergin stayed. There are just too many stories to tell.
“I’m kind of a homeboy,” said the 52-year-old father of two girls, admitting that many of his friends, including Minneapolis-raised actress Kimberly Elise, have tried luring him to the West Coast. “There may have been some regrets at one point, but unless I was getting some kind of three-picture deal with Steven Spielberg, I can’t think of a better job.”
Officially, the job is TPT senior producer. Unofficially, he’s Minnesota’s hippest history teacher, at least for students more apt to watch the small screen than bury their noses in a book.
“He’s the only person I’ve met who’s known since the age of 10 that he’s wanted to make films about the Twin Cities and ended up doing that,” said Brendan Henehan, TPT’s managing director of history and public affairs. “Ken Burns is a great historian, but he’s not really focused on a specific place. Dan is all about burrowing in and figuring out what it means to be part of this community. We can all relate to that.”
Bergin’s films were already prominent titles in the TPT library: “Lowertown: The Rise of an Urban Village” (2011) and “Out North: MNLGBTQ History” (2017). But now, thanks to the station’s ramped-up commitment to local storytelling, the filmmaker is commanding the largest classroom of his career.
“Minnesota Experience,” launched last year, is dedicated solely to airing documentaries about the way we lived. The Monday night series depends largely on archival works. But Bergin and his team have used funds from the state Legacy Amendment to finance new endeavors.
The first installment was last year’s “Flour Power,” a look at the role that milling played in the state.
“Crow,” airing five months after that kickoff film, is the second in an ambitious schedule that will also include documentaries about First Avenue and the 1960 Minnesota sports scene.
TPT has enjoyed a 20 percent rise in ratings since “Experience” replaced the mishmash of programming that used to fill Monday’s 9 p.m. slot.
“We’ve done a significant amount of work around Minnesota history, but it would get sprinkled throughout the year and you didn’t know when they were going to be on,” said Dean Orton, TPT’s chief operating officer. “We felt strongly that we needed a signature series that airs year-round to elevate the awareness of what we do.”
Everyone agreed early on that Bergin was the right person to lead the creative process.
“He’s quintessentially Minnesotan,” said Fred de Sam Lazaro, a regular contributor to the “PBS NewsHour” and director of Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas. “His compassion really shines through in his interviews and he puts people at ease. It’s the kind of kindness I’ve always admired.”
A mind for media
Bergin took his cue from his parents, both educators who raised him across the street from Powderhorn Park, encouraging him to soak up all sorts of television, from “Schoolhouse Rock” to the civil-rights documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.”
“I was always taken with the power of media,” said Bergin, who recalls making a flipbook-animation short about a doomed spaceship at age 10. “We were a poor family, so we didn’t get to the movies much, but when we did, it was magical.”
At the University of Minnesota, Bergin made the independent-film circuit with “Race Memories,” a fictional film that could have served as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
TPT was impressed enough to hire him in the early ’90s as a production assistant in community affairs. One of his earliest successes came as a producer on “Don’t Believe the Hype,” the award-winning media program for Minnesota youth.
There are credits on his résumé with more of a national prominence, most notably being production fellow on “Slavery by Another Name,” the 2012 film narrated by Laurence Fishburne and directed by Sam Pollard, who previously worked on the “Eyes on the Prize” series Bergin devoured as a kid. Bergin contributed a behind-the-scenes companion piece that ended up winning a regional Emmy.
“He expanded on it much more than I had originally asked him for,” said “Slavery” co-executive producer Catherine Allan. “He’s a really talented, dedicated guy with a wide array of interests that are always surprising me. I can’t keep track of the variety of subjects he’s covered.”
Despite his curiosity on many subjects, Bergin keeps returning to issues of race in Minnesota. Perhaps his most celebrated work to date has been 2004’s “North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers,” a noble attempt to shine the spotlight on often overlooked figures, including the state’s first black female attorney, Lena Smith, and photographer Harry Shepherd, the first African-American studio owner in Minnesota. That documentary prompted City Pages to name him an Artist of the Year.
“It kind of follows what Gordon Parks was thinking,” said Bergin, name-dropping one of his all-time heroes. “Artists have a responsibility. In the case of ‘North Star,’ that was introducing the history we didn’t learn in schools.”
True to Minnesota
Bergin returns to the subject of race with “Jim Crow,” a film that opens around 1910 when racial covenants, which basically kept minorities out of white neighborhoods, became all the rage across Minneapolis. Not only did the government allow it, but in many cases, they were cheerleaders.
With a one-hour screening time, a budget of less than $150,000 and only a few months to shoot and edit, Bergin was only able to scratch the surface. He’d probably be able to parlay the documentary into a bigger project, if only he had stronger ties to Hollywood or New York.
Bergin admits that’s a drawback to staying put in Minnesota.
“I’ve gotten turned down for grants from national funders for that very reason: regionalism,” Bergin said. “They think, ‘You’re not Harlem. You’re not the Deep South. You’re not Oakland. You can’t be as important.’ But it’s quite the opposite.”
As he spoke, he surveyed the mural celebrating black pioneers that graces the wall of the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder building.
“The NAACP has roots here. The housing covenants here created a template for the rest of the country. Whitney Young spent time here. Roy Wilkins,” he said. “That’s part of the history I’m proud to share. That’s where I see my role and TPT’s role. Why us? Why Minnesota? Does it merit a story? The answer is usually yes.”