Lawrence B. Brooks: Filming Social Change
November 09, 2015

—By Carrie M. Brown

Larry Brooks on site filming of the story of Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panthers
Larry Brooks on site filming of the story of Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panthers

In the main studio of Evanston Community Media Center Larry Brooks’ breaks through the darkness and approaches the podium. Silence falls within the filled room following the showing of his 1967 film The Integration of the Foster School.

He proceeds to explain to those in attendance his motivations behind the film’s creation. Though shaky on many of the particulars, it is clear Brooks’ early passion for film remains very much alive today.

Brooks recalls the difficulty he had breaking into the filmmaking industry over the years. “You know, I remember a guy telling me once that they just didn’t hire blacks to do these kinds of jobs,” Brooks says.

It all began in 1959 when he was denied entrance to a photography class at Evanston Township High School.

“It was because of the racism of the times,” Brooks, a lifelong Evanstonian says.

“I was really fascinated with wanting to tell stories

Not to be deterred he enrolled the following year, the only Black student in the class. But Brooks’ passion for film goes back to his early childhood when his mother took him and his brother to regular movie outings.

“I just remember being more into the visuals than the storytelling,” Brooks says. “Movies kind of like fascinated me. I thought, ‘Well this is something I’d like to do.’”

His interest in film soon turned into an interest in photography and Brooks began pursuing a career as a photojournalist. High school graduation found Brooks’ eager to break out of Evanston.

“I wanted to get out of Evanston,” Brooks says. “I mean it was a place where everyone knew what everyone else was doing and I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing.”

After graduating from high school he worked odd jobs, saving up money to buy camera equipment. It was the height of the Civil Rights movement and Brooks and his camera were there to capture it all. It wasn’t long before his work caught the eye of editors at Johnson Publishing and his photos appeared in Jet Magazine.

Brooks enrolled at Columbia College and received a draft deferment. It was there that he began to learn the fundamentals of media communications.

“I was fascinated with the visual medium—photography, television and film,” Brooks says. “I was really fascinated with wanting to tell stories.”

Brooks says that at the time Columbia was a fledgling school that occupied four floors of a building in Chicago. He studied alongside some of media’s biggest players, including Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune fame and Bob Sirott whom Larry used as the commentator for his student film on Foster School. It was at Columbia, like many times before in his life, that Brooks found himself to be one of few blacks. Brooks said that while he grew up in Evanston he feels he grew up “mentally and spiritually” in Chicago, and especially during his years spent at Columbia. And it was also there that he produced the now highly regarded documentary on the desegregation of Foster School in Evanston for a class assignment.

“It was an interesting thing they were doing with reverse bussing,” Brooks said. “Because I always thought of the Foster School as being black.”

Article from District 65 newsletter, “School Outlook” in 1968
Article from District 65 newsletter, “School Outlook” in 1968

The 16mm black and white film is set at the beginning of the 1967 school year as several white students board a bus to desegregate School District 65. Hailed as an important historical document, Brooks says he was simply a student making a film he thought was important.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” He said. “I mean, I took two years to put 20 minutes together.” After completing the film, he was ready to make his career move.

“But then there came a major road block,” Brooks declares. “And that was the US Army!”

Brooks was drafted into the Army in the early 1960’s. During his tour, he served as a television production specialist. He worked producing Army training tapes at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. After his time in the service, he looked for work.

Larry Brooks, Stage Manager at Channel Two News, c1972, as Stage Manager, on set with then Texas Governor John Connelly. The Governor was in the limousine with J.F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1963
Larry Brooks, Stage Manager at Channel Two News, c1972, as Stage Manager, on set with then Texas Governor John Connelly. The Governor was in the limousine with J.F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1963

Brooks’ college film helped land him a job at ABC Television in Chicago after graduation. He worked both as a stage manager and in the film department.

“It’s like any other job that you get at a station,” Brooks says. “You get a job and you’re welcome, then you are not welcome.”

It was the 1970s and Brooks went on to work at all the major networks in Chicago [CBS, NBC, WLS and FOX] building up his skill set as a stage manager and assistant director. Meanwhile, he created his own production company, BrokComm [formerly Brooks Communications] where he produced corporate videos for companies like Motorola and SBC. But Brooks’ break into the corporate video world was not an easy one. Contracts were hard to come by.

“You know, when you are black you don’t get very many projects.” Brooks said.

In the 1980s Brooks began work with the Ebony Showcase, a show featuring famous Black entertainers. During that time he worked with greats like Luther Vandross and Gladys Knight.

With his extensive network experience Brooks says, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could direct.”

His years of experience afforded him many industry contacts. It was one of those contacts that tapped Brooks to run the video and photography department for the city of Chicago in 1982 where he remained until 1989.

“It’s amazing to think I did all this stuff,” muses Brooks.

Much of the work he did as a freelancer. “It’s just the nature of the business. You freelance a lot,” he says.

One such stint he spent as a field producer and cameraman for a New York based company, Worldwide Television News, that represented foreign media from Italy, Russia, Australia and the UK.

Larry Brooks, 2004.
Larry Brooks, 2004.

At age 60 Brooks shows no signs of slowing down. He still holds fast to his dream of owning a television series. In 1997 he came close with Journeys with Jazz, a series he produced in conjunction with a cruise promoter specializing in jazz cruises. The weeklong cruise featured largely American jazz musicians. In the future Brooks hopes to do more work with the Journeys with Jazz series. In the meantime he offers this advice to aspiring filmmakers:

“Tell a good story,” he says. “If you have a good idea, pursue it.” Inspiration, says Brooks is all around us.

Now, he is in the process of planning a follow-up documentary. He wants to locate the children he featured in his original documentary and find out how the integration affected the direction of their lives.

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of the original Shorefront Journal, Vol 6, No 2. “The Integration of Foster School” was reissued in partnership with Shorefront and aired on cable access, Evanston Community Media Center throughout the month of February and March 2005. Larry Brooks passed in 2006. His work as filmmaker and photographer is housed at the Shorefront Legacy Center.

Photo credits: First three, courtesy Larry Brooks. Last, ©Evanston Photographic Studio in the Shorefront photographic archives.

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