I recall watching Whitney Houston’s funeral on CNN and cringing as anchor Don Lemon described and contextualized every aspect of her homegoing service. The icon’s funeral was familiar for many black Americans. Outside of the celebrity presence, it didn’t differ much from other funerals I’ve attended at Baptist churches. But Houston’s homegoing was a unique experience for the general American public as evidenced by Lemon’s commentary.
Filmmaker Christine Turner dissected African-American funeral traditions in her debut feature documentary “Homegoings.” The film “explores the African-American funeral home, a 150 year-old institution that is now vanishing” according to a press release. It is “told through the eyes of a Harlem funeral director, Isaiah Owens, and the families he serves.”
Turner was inspired to create the film after the death of two close relatives with different cultural traditions.
“When I was 13, both of my grandmothers passed away within two weeks of one another,” she said. “My mom’s mother, who was Chinese-American, happened to be Methodist and was cremated, which was very atypical for traditional Chinese funerals. My father’s mother, who was African-American and Catholic, had an open-casket funeral—the first I had ever attended, leaving an indelible impression on me.”
Turner has been working on “Homegoings” since late 2011, when she received $150,000 from the Tribeca Documentary Fund to complete production. The film made its debut in February at the 2013 Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art. It was well-received and selected for the MoMA Selects: POV, a series described by Shadow & Act as “homage to PBS’ longest-running showcase for independent documentary film, with a special selection of films from the series’ past 25 years.”
“Homegoings” will reach national audiences when it kicks off the 26 season of the award-winning POV series.
The press release describes the film as an “up-close look at the rarely seen world of undertaking in the black community, where funeral rites draw on a rich palette of tradition, history and celebration.”
Combining cinéma vérité with intimate interviews and archival photographs, the film paints a portrait of the dearly departed, their grieving families and a man who sends loved ones “home.” Homegoings is a moving portrait of a man and a people—and of the faith, hope and history that sustain them in the face of death.
Turner hopes her film will open dialogue about the impact of death.
“Whatever our beliefs, death is something we all must face, and yet it is so often a taboo subject,” she said. “With ‘Homegoings,’ I wanted to open a conversation on death in a way that captured grief and sadness, but also the humor and the sense of relief that I sometimes observed from behind the camera.”
“Homegoings” will debut on PBS Monday, June 24, 2013 10/9c.
Will you be watching “Homegoings?”