Editor’s note: Tom Luddy, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival, died last week at age 79. Here, filmmaker Alan Elliott, who directed the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace, remembers his kind spirit and moral compass. He also pays tribute to one of Luddy’s signature projects: a collaboration with Agnès Varda on an influential 1968 film about the Black Panthers.
Tom Luddy, the benevolent wizard/curator of the Telluride Film Festival, who, in the post-’60s glow of generational change in the film world, created safe space to get high (at altitude) for his people: film lovers.
Tom was non-denominational about “film lovers.” As eager to talk film with a total stranger in line at one of the smaller theaters at the festival as he was with Werner Herzog or Martin Scorsese, the socialistic mores of Telluride were a reflection of Tom. Pre-Covid, at a completely packed Saturday night screening at the Werner Herzog theater, in walked Werner Herzog. He looked around, but there were no seats. And no one was getting up. This was, for me, the living metaphor for Telluride: Werner Herzog was no more or less important than anyone else in the theater. (Feeling the irony, and weighing the reality, I gave Werner my seat.)
I was introduced to Tom by Joe Boyd. Joe had told me of the magic of the film festival and Tom’s deep knowledge of music and film. I had no idea of the blessings of being blessed by Tom, and I soon found out.
A short time later, in a screening room at Loyola Marymount, Tom and Julie Huntsinger, the executive director of Telluride, sat two rows in front of me as I showed them Amazing Grace. When the film ended, I could see that both Tom and Julie were crying. Tom asked, “Alan, can you give us a minute please?”
Less than a minute later, Tom and Julie asked if I would hold the film for a premiere at Telluride? (Yes.) That would begin a too well-documented four years until the film could be shown at Telluride … a ride that culminated with Tom and Julie hosting the first premiere in San Francisco. For me, Tom and Julie’s help was the loose ball rebound that allowed for the film to score the winning basket. Tom knew his power, so when he used it, it was effortless and without a mark.
For Tom’s birthday a few years ago, Amazing Grace had finally come out, still wearing the duct tape it took to put it together, still being championed by the confidence imbued by my association with Tom.
At the party, Tom introduced me to a hero, Francis Coppola. As I gushed about having a Napoleon poster in my room as a kid, a crowd of muckety-mucks gathered. (P.S.- Tom’s involvement in the revival of Napoleon gave him special empathy for Amazing Grace.) And Tom knew of the problems I faced in present day.
As I puppy-eyed Coppola, Tom sensed the moment. Although Amazing Grace had been out a few weeks, I had not been paid the advance by the film company.
Tom waited until a quorum — or, more accurately, a tribunal — of distributors and creatives and friends of Tom’s had assembled. Unprompted, Coppola asked, “How was the distribution company?” (Or was he unprompted?) Tom quickly followed up, “Yes, tell us.”
“Well, they haven’t paid us yet.”
Within a few days — if not the next day — we got our first money. I’m convinced we wouldn’t have gotten paid without Tom (and Francis).
I had made my movie by mortgaging my house, I had no distribution, I was being sued and threatened and there really couldn’t be more obstacles and yet, Tom (and Julie too) made room for me and the film. They helped secure insurance for Amazing Grace, easily the most important part of any movie making experience if one wants to actually have that movie seen. Tom (and Julie) helped will the film into the world.
Other than Tom helping me to stave off more insolvency, my friendship with Tom had little to do with anything transactional.
For me, what I most admired was Tom’s importance as a moral compass. Tom’s voice remains as the media business has become a desert for morality towards society, with seemingly the last remnants still being the remains of Tom’s work with Agnès Varda on the films about the Black Panthers… 55 years ago.
As Film Threat recounted:
“On four separate Sundays, she (Varda) borrowed a 16mm camera from UC-Berkeley student protesters and collaborated with Luddy on a short documentary about the revolutionary Black Panther Party that would later be known as both Black Panthers and Huey.
What the French New Wave auteur documented in Oakland has become the source material for Hollywood. Marvel’s Black Panther franchise, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and the Daveed Diggs production Blindspotting (and since: Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and Wakanda…) all incorporate at least a nod to The Black Panther Party, a political movement that offered free meals to children, protection from the police, and leftist revolution for and by the black community. It has taken 50 years for the BPP to find this kind of Hollywood limelight, but the pioneering Varda, at that time already six years past her first Palme d’Or nomination, was there in the moment to disseminate the message far and wide.
This film, which streams for free on archive.org, serves as a blueprint for resistance from the forebears of the fight that continues today. Varda describes the education gleaned from Marxist revolutions, the armed BPP forces tailing cop cars to protect black citizens from police brutality, and the role of white radicals in the struggle. She explains the implication of the Black Panther, which never attacks but ferociously defends itself. She details the murder of Bobby Hutton, the first member of the Black Panther Party who was murdered at the age of 18. We learn about the significance of the afro hairstyle from Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen Cleaver. The 10-Point Program, the manifesto of the BPP, is spelled out by BPP Captain Bill Brent.
Like all great documentarians, Varda (and Luddy) was in the right place at the right time. The paramount Free Huey rally on Newton’s birthday? It’s in the film. The schoolyard lineup? In the film. Inside the jail cell with Mr. Newton? Go watch them film!”
As the years have provided and often purposefully weighed down the movement for freedom by burdening those involved with the struggle with divisive appellations like “allies,” to be clear, Tom Luddy was never an ally. Tom was a comrade.
Tom would be perturbed with being given too much credit in anything that could ever be interpreted in a white-savior kind of way. However, consider Tom’s insistence on bringing in Varda to film the Panthers. The indelible images of the Panthers would not be as visceral and enduring were it not for these comrades and collaborators.
Tom was on the ground marching, not spending any time searching for credit, Tom was looking for solutions. His solutions was to use film and sound to show, not tell.
One of the last times I saw Tom, he asked me on the closing night of the festival to come watch Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune with him.
While the movie stars had left town in private jets from the perilous Telluride airport, Tom’s friends and family were alone together in the dark with Tom for the last showing of the festival. Afterwards, I gave Tom a hug and told him how much I loved seeing the film — with him.
When Tom saw you, you felt seen. And heard.