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Byrd, Robert 1952—

Robert Byrd 1952

Documentary film producer and director

At a Glance

Embarked on Filmmaking Career

Produced Award-winning Documentaries

Probed Gay and Lesbian Life


The pressing societal ills of cultural misunderstanding and intolerance have been the subject of numerous documentaries, but producer and director Robert Byrd examines these issues in a manner that is both revealing and thought-provoking. Since the early-1980s, Byrd has made close to one dozen films, and has won nearly as many awards. The recognition has given Byrd many unique opportunities, including that of working with a British broadcasting company.

Byrd was born on March 30, 1952, in Pensacola, Florida, where his father was stationed in the U.S. Air Force. The Byrd family soon relocated to Air Force bases in Germany and later England. As a teenager, Byrd returned with his family to the United States. However, his parents divorced shortly thereafter, and Byrd was raised by his mother in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles.

In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Byrd recalled that early on he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and relished any opportunity he had to attend the movies. He did not consider it a realistic goal, however, imagining it far too glamorous a career to be possible. Instead, he set his sights on becoming a lawyer and took the advice of a counselor friend who recommended the University of Chicago over the Ivy League schools that also accepted him. Byrd thrived at the school, which is renowned for its culture of academic rigor and critical thought, and he found his study of sociology, to be a good preparation for the documentary films that he would later produce and direct.

After graduating from college in 1975, Byrd held a number of jobs unrelated to his college experience or his later career. A sister living in Omaha, Nebraska, convinced him of job opportunities there, and he worked for one year as a life insurance underwriter at Mutual of Omaha. The offer of a training managers position at International Harvester in St. Paul, Minnesota, occasioned another move, and Byrd spent one year there before going to work for a social service agency in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Seeking a break from two years of emotionally straining work, Byrd decided that instead of waiting for another opportunity to come his way, he would find one and pursue it. Ever since then every job Ive gotten has involved heavy lobbying on my part-convincing someone I can learn to do something I

At a Glance

Born Robert Oliver Daniel Byrd, III, March 30, 1952, in Pensatola, FL; son of Robert Oliver Daniel Byrd, II (a U.S, Air force pilot) and Louella (a secretary; maiden name, Richardson) Byrd; Education: University of Chicago, B.A., 1975.

Mutual of Omaha Insurance, life insurance underwriter, 1975-76; International Harvester, training manager, 1976-77; Pilot City Regional Center, intake director, 1978*79; Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, assistant director, 1979-80, associate director, 1980-82; Conti* nental Cable, Minneapolis, MN, producer, 1982-85; KTCA, Twin Cities Public Television, Minneapolis/St. Paul, producer, 1985*89, senior producer, community affairs, 1989,

Selected awards Recipient of numerous production and directorial awards, including three Cable ACE Awards for Legacy of Tears, A Red Star in Minnesota, and Questions of Racism; American Film and Video Festival Red Ribbon for A Red Star in Minnesota; Chicago International Film Festival Certificate of Merit, Page One Journalism Award, both for Questions of Racism; Chicago International Film Festival Gold Hugo, New York International Film and Television Festival Bronze Medal, and Houston Worldfest Gold Award, all for Diary Series; Houston Worldfest Certificate of Merit for Can We All Get Along?; Chicago International Film Festival Gold Plaque for Understanding Hate; Chicago International Film Festival Silver Plaque for Apart and Together; Corporation for Public Broadcasting Gold Award, Chicago International Film Festival Certificate of Merit, both for Cet Over it

Addresses: Office -Twin Cities Public Television, 1 72 E. Fourth St., St Paul, MN 55101

dont necessary have the experience in yet, he told CBB.

In 1979, Byrd secured an assistant director position at the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, a branch of the national organization that defends the freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitutions Bill of Rights. His responsibilities included managing the fundraising, member recruitment, and literature distribution efforts, as well as coordinating press activity for guest speakers. Though he had been promoted to associate director, Byrd soon began to feel the pull of creative endeavor and decided it was time to take a shot at his dream of becoming a filmmaker.

Embarked on Filmmaking Career

In 1982, Byrd convinced a local cable company executive to give him a position as a producer. He put in 16-hour days at Continental Cable, learning the craft of filmmaking. He completed his first documentary, Legacy of Tears, the same year. The film recounts the experience of the Hmong, an ethnic minority in the Southeast Asian country of Laos who were caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. Byrd summarized their story in an interview with CBB: The Hmong were primarily recruited by the [Central Intelligence Agency] CIA, to rescue downed American pilots flying secret, and basically illegal, missions against the communists in Cambodia and Laos. Eventually they were involved in direct combat against Vietnamese communists who made their way into the mountainous regions of Laos. The film won a Cable ACE Award--virtually unheard of for a local cable company production--and helped establish Byrds name as a producer and director.

This success led Minneapolis/St. Pauls PBS station to recruit Byrd in 1985 to produce community projects such as talk shows, town meetings, and documentaries. In 1987, Byrd produced and directed a documentary for KTCA entitled Torture: The Shadow of a Beast, which premiered on the Discovery channel and was broadcast on 16 major market PBS stations. The film portrayed the personal and social effects of politically-motivated torture and was selected for an exhibit called Beyond Interrogation at the Maryland Institute of Arts. A number of other award--winning documentaries followed--at least one a year through 1993--including A Red Star in Minnesota, chronicling then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachevs 1988 visit to Minnesota.

Produced Award-winning Documentaries

Byrds work pace increased in 1990, when KTCA selected him to produce in a single year a three-part series on the everyday lives of black, Asian, and Native American Minnesotans. Diary: Black Minnesotans featured people from various walks of life with differing social perspectives. John Lyght, Minnesotas only black sheriff--and one of only a handful nationwide-talks of his acceptance within his rural town and his view that disadvantaged blacks need to earn respect through honest work instead of complaining that society is holding them back. In contrast, Philip True, a Minneapolis computer engineer who gives gang-oriented and at-risk youth training in computer skills and workplace expectations, believes that American society is failing these kids. He agrees, however, that young people have to take charge of their own future, in spite of the obstacles. The series won awards at international film festivals in New York City, Chicago, and Houston, as well as Regional Emmy awards for editing and camera work.

The following year Byrd produced and cohosted Can We All Get Along?, an hour-long program featuring 27 ethnically and socially diverse people with varied educational backgrounds engaged in a dialogue about racially charged matters. Ranging in age from 16 to 70-something, the participants tackled such potent topics as institutional racism, affirmative action, slavery, and the Holocaust--the Nazi Germany-led genocide of millions of Jews during World War II. A moving experience, Asian Pages reported that this enlightening conversation delves into deep emotions, and smiles become winces as the truth is peeled back in layers and reality strikes painful chords.

Interpreting the passionate sentiments unearthed by the debate, Byrd commented inAsian Pages, It seems that what were going through in this country is a severe identity crisis because everybody wants to know who they are. Weve come up with all these terms to define ourselves. But the question is: Are those terms dividing us? ThoughCan We All Get Along? does not provide a definitive answer, it does, as Byrd further noted, initiate an exchange of views and experiences to find out more about how people feel about a problem [racial tension] thats tearing at the American fabric.

Byrd continued his look at the United States ethnic identity with Apart and Together, an examination of race relations that received a Silver Plaque award at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1993. The piece began with two separate discussions on race in the United States, one among whites only and the other among blacks. Byrd then brought the two groups together for a discussion he described as, at times explosive and at other times revealing. He told CBB that this format was the only way to get people--especially whites--to be completely honest about their views on race.

Probed Gay and Lesbian Life

After producing and directing Get Over It, an award-winning two-hour documentary on the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, Byrd followed with Generation Q, the youth segment of a four-part series on the gay and lesbian civil rights movement entitled A Question of Equality . Financed by Britains Channel Four and the Independent Television Service, 1995s Generation Q portrayed in poignant detail the lives of gay and lesbian teenagers, a number of whom attended an alternative Los Angeles high school for gay and lesbian students. Named after Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay activist who was murdered by a city councilman, the Harvey Milk School was founded to provide an accepting environment for a teen population that drops out of school at an alarmingly high rate.

In a departure from Byrds earlier documentaries, Generation Q lacked a narrator, instead focusing almost exclusively on kids telling their stories and expressing their frustrations, with an occasional comment by a teacher or parent. Byrd described this technique as part of a new, less intrusive approach to documentary filmmaking that lets the subject matter speak for itself. Nevertheless, Byrd expected much of the inevitable negative reaction to the Question of Equality series to be directed at his segment because it deals with young people. Young people speaking their minds forcefully--I think some will be threatened by that. Its different in Britain where, sexually repressed and proper as they are, you can discuss issues like this more easily, as long as you do it intelligently, he told CBB.

In fact, the British backers of Generation Q were so impressed with Byrds work that in mid-1995 they were exploring the possibility of financing a feature film directed by Byrd that would be a departure from his previous documentary work. Other projects Byrd had in progress in the mid-1990s included a documentary on a 12-year-old boy badly disfigured in a fire at the age of three. Basically the piece looks at how he navigates his way through a world that rejects and fears him, due to his appearance, Byrd said in an interview withCBB. He was also completing a half-hour talk show follow-up to the fall of 1995 national broadcast of Hoop Dreams- the popular documentary about the professional basketball aspirations of two Chicago boysin which the filmmakers talk with the young men and their families about their lives since the film was made.

Selected documentaries

Legacy of Tears, Continental Cable, 1982.

Torture: The Shadow of a Beast, 1987.

A Red Star in Minnesota, 1988.

Questions of Racism, KTCA, 1989.

Diary Series, KTCA, 1990.

Can We All Get Along? KTCA, 1991.

Understanding Hate, KTCA, 1992.

Apart and Together, KTCA, 1993.

Get Over It, KTCA, 1993.

Generation Q, Independent Television Service and Channel Four (Britain), 1995.


Asian Pages, October 14, 1992, p. 8.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 5, 1991, p. 6E; November 26, 1991, p. 6E; January 7, 1993, p. 12E; September 20, 1993, p. 10E.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a CBB interview with Byrd in June of 1995.

John F. Packel, II

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Byrd, Robert (John) 1942-

BYRD, Robert (John) 1942-


Born January 11, 1942, in Atlantic City, NJ; son of Robert and Phoebe Byrd; married; children: Robby, Jennifer. Education: Attended Trenton Junior College, 1963; Philadelphia Museum College of Art, B.F.A., 1966.


Home 409 Warwick Rd., Haddonfield, NJ 08033.


Illustrator and author. Philadelphia College of Art, Philadelphia, PA, instructor in illustrating, 1976-77; Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, instructor in illustrating, 1977. Exhibitions: Shows include Society of Illustrators, New York, NY, 1971-77; Graphis Press, Zurich, Switzerland, 1974-77; Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, 1974; Bologna Children's Book Fair, Bologna, Italy, 1975; and Rosenfeld Gallery, Philadelphia, 1982. Work held in permanent collections at Free Library of Philadelphia and Philadelphia College of Art. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1961-62.


Graphic Artists Guild, Philadelphia Children's Reading Round Table, Philadelphia College of Art Alumni Association.

Awards, Honors

Children's Book Showcase, Children's Book Council, 1975, for The Pinchpenny Mouse; Citation of Merit, Society of Illustrators, 1976.



Marcella Was Bored, Dutton (New York, NY), 1985.

(Reteller) The Bear and the Bird King, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.

(Reteller) Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale from Ireland, Dutton (New York, NY), 1999.

Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.

Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, Dutton (New York, NY), 2003.

(Reteller) The Hero and the Minotaur: The Fantastic Adventures of Theseus, Dutton (New York, NY), 2005.


Jack Stokes, adaptor, Wiley and the Hairy Man, Macrae Smith Co. (Philadelphia, PA),1970.

I. G. Edmonds, adaptor, The Possible Impossibles of Ikkyu the Wise, Macrae Smith Co. (Philadelphia, PA), 1971.

Vicki Cobb, Heat, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1973.

Robert Kraus, Poor Mister Splinterfitz!, Springfellow Books, 1973.

Ida Scheib and Carole E. Welker, The First Book of Food, revised edition, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1974.

Robert Kraus, The Pinchpenny Mouse, Windmill Books (New York, NY), 1974.

Robert Kraus, Rebecca Hatpin, Windmill Books (New York, NY), 1974.

Robert Kraus, The Gondolier of Venice, Windmill Books (New York, NY), 1976.

Robert Kraus and Bruce Kraus, The Detective of London, Windmill Books (New York, NY), 1978.

Susan Saunders, Charles Rat's Picnic, Dutton (New York, NY), 1983.

Stephanie Calmenson, selector and reteller, The Children's Aesop, Doubleday Book and Music Club (New York, NY), 1988.

Riki Levinson, reteller, The Emperor's New Clothes, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Kathleen Kain, All about How Things Are Made: With Inspector McQ, World Book (Chicago, IL), 1992, published as Inspector McQ Presents All about How Things Are Made, 1995.

Marilyn Jager Adams, The Market, Open Court, 1995.

Paula Fox, The Little Swineherd and Other Tales, Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.


New Jersey-based author and illustrator Robert Byrd created artwork for several picture books written by others before he penned his first solo effort, Marcella Was Bored, in 1985. In his humorous debut, he tells the story of a cat who, bored with her usual activities, runs away from home, only to discover that the sympathy and attention she receives from her family are what she really wants after all. A reviewer for Growing Point noted that in this telling of a familiar story, the cat stands in for the usual portrait of a dissatisfied teenager, and the humor created by the switch from human to cat shed a new light on "an all too familiar family situation." School Library Journal contributor Lorraine Douglas dubbed Byrd's illustrations "charming" and declared: "Filled with details, these gently colored scenes are filled with activity and portray Marcella as a childlike and expressive feline."

Taking time out to illustrate books by Stephanie Calmenson and Riki Levinson, Byrd returned for his next solo effort, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm tale The Bear and the Bird King. This little-known fable highlights how easily and how foolishly wars get started. School Library Journal critic Linda Boyles described Byrd's successful adaptation as "an easy narrative" with "bright watercolor washes [that] are filled with humor and movement" and "complement the text." Other reviewers found the book's intricately designed illustrations equally enjoyable, noting that the author/illustrator's detailed drawings ground the story in the eighteenth century, with birds in frock coats, top hats, and bustled costumes. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the "verve and humor that infuse" Byrd's retelling "are reflected and multiplied in wonderfully detailed artwork."

Byrd's picture books draw on stories and legends from history, as in Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, which features Byzantine-styled artwork, and his adaptation of a Celtic myth in Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife. In Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife the giant Finn and his wife Oonagh possess magical powers that they use to outsmart their enemy, the bully Cucullin, whose loss of a golden finger means the end of his power. The story, filled with historical and cultural details, attracts children because of its combination of humor and suspense. Karen Morgan, writing in Booklist, praised Byrd for his creative partnering of text and illustration, while a Kirkus reviewer dubbed the illustrations "elegant" and praised the author's inclusion of historical detail. Byrd's intricate watercolor renderings "spur interest" in the story's plot and also "convey a palpable sense of the Celtic past," according to the critic.

Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey presents what Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns praised as a "loving and reverent tribute to the saint who was perhaps the first documented ecologist," and relates the story of a lowly beast's important role in the story of the Nativity, complete with what a School Library Journal contributor described as Byrd's "wonderfully colorful, humorous pen-and-ink pictures of a multitude of animals."

Byrd continues to combine his interest in historic detail and his artistic talents in Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer. In "as thorough an exploration of Leonardo's achievements as can be wrought in picture-book format," according to a Kirkus reviewer, Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer tells the story of one of the most creative geniuses of the Renaissance world. Tracing Leonardo da Vinci's many accomplishments thematically rather than chronologically, Byrd is able to convey a vast amount of information yet not overwhelm young readers. In his book's layout, Byrd copies the style of da Vinci's famous notebooks, which included sketches of futuristic flying machines and notes about perspective along with shopping lists and other miscellaneous information. Praising the author's creation of "finely detailed tableaux, brimming with content," Horn Book contributor Peter D. Sieruta dubbed the work "a celebration" of its subject's "inquiring spirit and creative vision." Christine E. Carr, writing in School Library Journal, described the book as "a gorgeous bigraphy suitable for group sharing," while in the New York Times Book Review, Daria Donnelly maintained that Leonardo, Restless Dreamer "exudes an energy that mimics Leonardo's own restless creativity."

Byrd once told Something about the Author: "To me, illustrating means making pictures. That is all I really ever wanted to do with my ability. I always drew as a child, but oddly enough never thought of it as a profession, or what you did when you grew up....

"I could always draw, but I never took art courses in high school. After a stint in the Navy I went to Trenton Junior College for a year, trying to 'find myself' academically and otherwise. I did well in the art courses and switched to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. I wanted to be an illustrator from the very beginning of my studies there.

"Out of all my creative work, illustrating children's books gives me the greatest satisfaction. It is my 'fine art.' It keeps me going aesthetically. The books have a permanence and a quality of something meaningful. I have complete freedom working with [author] Robert Kraus and this is of the greatest importance to me."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, January 1, 1999, Karen Morgan, review of Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale from Ireland; August, 2003, Julie Cummins, review of Beautiful Dreamer, p. 1973

Growing Point, May, 1987, review of Marcella Was Bored, p. 4806.

Horn Book, November, 2000, Mary M. Burns, review of Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey p. 744; September-October, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 625.

Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1994, p. 67; December 15, 1998, review of Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife; June 15, 2003, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 857

New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2003, Daria Donnelly, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, review of The Bear and the Bird King, p. 69; September 25, 2000, Elizabeth Devereaux, review of Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, p. 69.

School Library Journal, January, 1986, Lorraine Douglas, review of Marcella Was Bored, p. 55; May, 1994, Linda Boyles, review of The Bear and the Bird King, p. 108; October, 2000, review of Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, p. 57; September, 2003, Christine E. Carr, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 227.

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