A professor of film at New York University since 1970, documentary filmmaker George Stoney has always been an activist. Before pioneering the use of video as a tool for social justice, he used film; before film he relied on print journalism, radio and shoe leather.
His first paying job, at age 11, was peddling magazines door to door. Sinclair Lewis’s muckraking tales inspired dreams of becoming a novelist, and after a high-school teacher introduced him to Thomas Wolfe, Stoney “had fantasies of writing Thomas-Wolfe-like things about the individuals I met on my paper route. At the time, you collected weekly, and you very often met them at their doorstep.”
Between graduating from the University of North Carolina and getting drafted in 1942, Stoney was Southeast Press officer for the Farm Security Administration. He wrote news and radio stories about the program, drove FSA photographers around, and showed Pare Lorentz’s film “The River” about flood control along the Mississippi — an early example of the documentary as social propaganda. “I was by that time of course a dyed-in-the-wool New Dealer, and I believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing,” says the filmmaker.
The vast majority of Farm Security Administration clients were poor tenants and sharecroppers, to whom the government began loaning money — “but in order to borrow, you had to have a farm plan and figure how the hell you were going to pay that money back,” Stoney recounts. One of the reasons the young journalist believed in the program was that “I saw how getting involved changed people’s minds. Many of our employees were the second-string graduates of agricultural colleges. They were almost all sons of owners or would-be owners, and they were often quite contemptuous of people who had to be on the government dole, particularly if they were black. But after a couple of years, these farm agents were often much more wiling to give them extra grants, because they began to see what a struggle it was to make a living on the farm.”
Other government efforts focused on helping landowners and larger tenants farm more efficiently. Stoney recalls riding around north Georgia’s country roads with an agent who pointed out one farm after another where tractors had pushed sharecroppers off the land. These same sharecroppers formed the customer base for the country store run by the farm agent’s father. In the clip below, Stoney recaps the agent’s struggle to come to terms with changing times and conflicting mores.