HISTORY MAKER: KEN WYATT
Wyatt tells the stories others won’t
The following story was originally published by ECU News Services in 2021.
Ken Wyatt, associate professor of film and video production at East Carolina University, has projects under his belt on topics ranging from serial bomber Eric Rudolph, the use of the N-word, and Blacks serving in the Confederate Army to award-winning soul food scholar Adrian Miller.
He has not shied away from tackling difficult subjects, and the results have earned him numerous awards, including the Broadcast Education Association’s 2020 Best of Fest award, and screenings at prestigious film festivals. He tries to set an example for his students, he said, of what is possible.
“I’ve shown my work in Cannes,” he said. “And it’s really nice when you just look out your window, and there’s the Eiffel Tower, and it’s because of my film and ECU. That is amazing! And I tell my students about stuff like that, not to brag, [but to show them that] these are things that can happen to you.”
Wyatt said he is interested in telling the stories that others can’t or won’t, and that has often included the subject of race. As a Black professor, he said there is an obligation to show his students — of any background — that they too can succeed. When he first came to ECU, he said, another Black professor, Dr. Don Ensley, took him under his wing and offered him help, but also challenged him to set an example.
“He said, ‘You’re not doing it for you. You’re doing it so other people can see it can be done,’” Wyatt said.
He doesn’t just set an example. He also gives his students the tools to succeed with their craft, taking what he’s learned and the opportunities he’s had and passing them on to the next generation.
“In film, a lot of us are just people who have messages, and we put them in bottles that we send out and hope that we’re understood,” he said. No matter a person’s background or beliefs, “it really comes down to learning the craft and learning the art.”
In his own films and in those he teaches, Wyatt challenges his audience and his students. In filming “Pray for Eric,” he set out to western North Carolina and interviewed locals in the area where Rudolph, who was responsible for a series of bombings, including at abortion clinics, was able to evade capture for years. Wyatt knocked on doors and talked to people who sympathized with Rudolph, even if they didn’t fully agree with what he’d done.
It was a little crazy, he admits, but as a documentarian he’s curious about what makes people tick.
“I learned a lot about my neighbors, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
In “Colored Confederates – Myth or Matter of Fact,” he investigated the role of Blacks in the Civil War, and how the presence of Blacks in the Confederate Army was later spun into a justification of the South’s position. And in “Nigger or Not,” he talks to comedians, musicians and others about the use of the word, its history and its meaning in different contexts.
“I’m having fun, and I love doing what I do,” Wyatt said. “It just tends to be on racial topics because nobody else is making those films. … That’s why I’ve got to do those films sometimes, and also it’s a little therapy. Art is therapy, and I’m just doing what hits me.”
In the end, he said, it’s for the students. When there’s too much going on and not enough time, they’re the priority.
“I don’t believe in shorting the students, because I was given this gift,” he said. “I have this great career doing what I love to do and expressing myself, and ECU has given me the freedom to do that. And I owe it to [the students] to show them how to get this, too. That’s really what keeps me going.”