Robert Byrd encountered an arsenal of guns when he entered a neo-Nazi’s home to shoot a documentary about hate. Then his subject said something surprising: He appreciated Byrd’s films for being respectful.
“In a way, it was a complimentary thing,” Byrd recalled later. “Because it was true: I aspire to respect everyone and to reveal their humanity. Because that’s what we all share.”
Byrd, of Minneapolis, tackled some of society’s toughest and most controversial topics as an intrepid documentary filmmaker — from racism and torture to the lives of marginalized groups. Later he would propel others to tell their own tough stories, overseeing filmmaking grants at the Jerome Foundation.
Byrd died of pancreatic cancer on March 23 in Wilton Manors, Fla., where he was being cared for by his sister, Donna Hayes. He was 66.
Byrd got his filmmaking start at Continental Cablevision and later rose to prominence as a producer for KTCA — now Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) — in the late 1980s and 1990s. His work profiled diverse communities around the state as well as subjects such as the childhood of a boy severely disfigured by a fire. Some of the films were broadcast nationally.
“Robert was really concerned with the fair treatment of others,” said his sister Donna. “He had a passion for anybody that was the underdog … or somebody that was suffering at the hands of our society.”
“There really was a need for a humanizing and a different kind of media optics on diverse communities,” said Daniel Bergin, now a TPT senior producer, who worked on the series as a production assistant. “While there still is a lot of issues in media, there was a lot more misrepresentation, a lot more … real poor reporting and narrative.”
Most of Byrd’s work was behind the camera, but occasionally he was front and center such as moderating an hour-long discussion about race relations on TPT in 1992.
“He was an intent listener. He was very curious,” Bergin said. “He would ‘go there’ with conversations. He was fearless in that regard.”
Born in Pensacola, Fla., Byrd spent much of his early childhood in Europe due to his father’s job in the Air Force.
He attended the University of Chicago and ultimately landed in Minnesota, where he became an associate director at the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union before joining Cablevision in 1985.
Byrd later supported other filmmakers with grants in his role as program director at the Jerome Foundation, an organization that promotes artists in Minnesota and New York City, which he joined in 1997. The grants aided hundreds of artists and a number of films later nominated for Academy Awards, including a 2005 winner about children of prostitutes in Kolkata.
“Robert exhibited a great sense of empathy, especially when it came to supporting artists,” said Cindy Gehrig, who retired several years ago as Jerome’s president. “He was opinionated, passionate about his interests, willing to take risks, and not at all afraid of controversial subjects.”
Byrd was on the board of the Twin Cities Film Festival, which has renamed its best-documentary award after him.
Outside of filmmaking, Byrd was a passionate cook and art collector.
In addition to his sister Donna, he is survived by his mother, Louella Byrd of Los Angeles, and another sister, Karen Shumate of Sugar Land, Texas. Services will be held in Minnesota at a later date.