If the name Laurens Grant sounds familiar, it could be for many reasons.
She is an alumna of Homewood-Flossmoor High School. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Governors State University in 2012, and addressed 500 graduates and their family members.
Most recently, she is the acclaimed producer of the film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which is showing in theaters across the country.
The film has met with critical praise and drawn packed houses in dozens of cities, from New York and San Francisco to Birmingham, Alabama, and Burlington, Vermont, and around the world as well: Bermuda, Amsterdam, London, Vienna, Dublin.
Grant, who grew up in Homewood, is an accomplished — and award-winning — documentary filmmaker. Still, the success of “The Black Panthers” took her by surprise.
“We had no public relations budget,” she said. “We just got the word out on social media.”
But the subject, a look at a revolutionary cultural and political awakening for black people in America in the 1960s and 1970s, could not have been more topical by the time the film was released this summer.
“It took seven to eight years to raise the funds, and another three to four years to complete it,” Grant said. “It was a historic documentary, and we were hoping it would resonate with people, with young people.”
It did, coming on the heels of numerous stories of brutality against blacks that emerged during the film’s post-production session.
“We would be in the editing room all day, editing this archival footage of police beating people, then come out and find on Twitter this new footage of police beating people,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Some of the history is undeniably painful, but Grant said that working on it brought her into contact with amazing people.
“We had done other documentaries about people who didn’t fight back during the Civil Rights movement, but now we got to hear what was it like to actually be the intimidator—and yet to feed the kids and to do so many other things they had to do. What was it like to be that committed that you’d believe in it to the death? It was almost utopian to meet people who were so brave.”
The stories Grant has told as a filmmaker are not easy to tell. Her credits include the Emmy-winning “Slavery and the Making of America: Seeds of Destruction.” She was coordinating producer for PBS’s “The Murder of Emmett Till,” which was honored with a Sundance Jury Award, Primetime Emmy and a Peabody Award for Best Documentary. The U.S. Department of Justice re-opened the Emmett Till murder case in part due to the film’s previously unpublished eyewitness accounts and research.
Grant produced “Freedom Riders,” the PBS documentary about the 1961 freedom rides, the nation’s first multiracial and multi-religious civil rights movement to desegregate the South. And she was director and producer of “Jesse Owens,” the PBS documentary about the African-American Olympian.
Grant also co-produced “Latin Music USA,” a four-hour series that examines the social and political roots of Latin music in the U.S. And an independent project focuses on African musician Rokia Traore and her work to empower women through her music.
Before diving into documentary work, Grant worked as a foreign correspondent, heading up the Reuters bureau in Panama. She has written about Latin America for Newsweek, the Miami Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The San Francisco Examiner. Following her graduation from Northwestern University, she got her start as a reporter at Star Newspapers in the South Suburbs. Her father, Nate Grant, was a filmmaker; her mother, Joyce Grant, taught in Flossmoor School District 161.
Grant’s next project will examine mass incarceration of black Americans. While the topic, like most of her work, deals with the hard and important topic of race in America, she brings both considerable talent and heart to each project.
“What I really like,” she said, “is to meet people and tell their stories.”
“The Black Panthers” is scheduled to open at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Dec. 4.