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Lynch, Shola

Lynch, Shola

1969—

Documentary filmmaker

Shola Lynch never expected to become an award-winning filmmaker. However, her talent and training as a world class athlete and her passionate interest in the historical underpinnings of the world she lived in turned out to be just the right combination of factors to produce a dedicated artist, devoted to preserving African-American culture and achievement.

Lynch's youthful career as a mid-distance runner taught her how to set and achieve goals, but, even more important, it taught her how to resist becoming discouraged and giving up when those goals did not come easily. This persistence and ability to focus on taking small steps to reach a distant objective have served her well in planning her film projects. As a student of history and historical resource management, Lynch learned the organizational and research skills that would enable her to rediscover and preserve the neglected history of African Americans.

Nurtured by Loving Family

Shola Ayn Lynch was born on March 20, 1969, in the city of Buffalo in upstate New York. She was the older of the two daughters of Hollis R. Lynch, a professor of African history, and Sharon Fisher Lynch, a nurse who later earned her master's degree in business administration and worked on Wall Street. Hollis Lynch was a native of the Caribbean island of Tobago who attended college at the University of British Columbia in Canada. There he met, and later married, a young Canadian woman named Sharon Fisher. He finished his education in London, and, with his wife, moved to the United States to take a teaching job in Buffalo.

When young Shola was six months old, her family left Buffalo and moved to New York City, where her father taught in the history department at Columbia University. The Lynches were both an international and an interracial couple and their home on Manhattan's west side became a warm and lively gathering place where friends of all races met and socialized. In this atmosphere of respect for individuality and diversity, Shola Lynch and her sister Nnenna played together happily and had little experience of the racism and prejudice in the society outside their home. They were further protected from racial stereotypes and other negative images by the fact that their mother did not allow her children to watch television, but instead encouraged them to take up other activities.

Though she did not watch much television, young Shola became a performer on a television program when she was only two years old. Accompanying her mother on shopping trips in the neighborhood, the energetic toddler often ran ahead, making friends with neighbors on her block. One of these neighbors told Sharon Lynch about a local educational television show for children that needed youngsters to interact in some scenes. Shola's mother agreed to try it out, and for the next four years, Shola appeared on the award-winning show Sesame Street, getting her first on-camera experience and enjoying having Big Bird, Bert, and Ernie as playmates.

Discovered She Had Fleet Feet

Her pre-school television "career" ended when she entered Hunter Elementary School. Lynch loved school and participated in many after school activities, such as dance, swimming, and gymnastics. She was in sixth grade when the father of one of her friends observed her running in a school athletic event and suggested to her parents that she should develop her skills and try running track. He helped her find a coach and a group of runners to train with, and Lynch soon fell in love with running. Her fluid, relaxed stride was especially suited to mid-distance runs, like the 800-meter and 1500-meter races. Already used to winning her elementary school races, she not only continued to win in larger meets, but quickly began breaking records.

When she was 13, less than two years after she began to train seriously in track, Lynch participated in the ninth annual Colgate Women's Games. In the preliminary rounds, she ran the 1500-meter race in 4 minutes and 38.1 seconds, breaking the girl's national record for her age group. In the semi-finals at the same meet, she surpassed her own record, running the long race in only 4 minutes 36.7 seconds. Her impressive races continued, and, in 1983 and 1986, she was the National Junior champion in the 800-meter race. In 1985 and 86, she won the Fifth Avenue Mile High School Race, and in 1987, she became both New York City cross-country champion and the New York State champion in both 800 and 1500 meters. She became a prep all-American and set many speed records that have remained in place for decades.

Lynch set her sights on a place on the U.S. Olympic track team, first in 1984, then 1988, then 1992. She never achieved that goal, but she learned courage, discipline, and vision from her career as a runner. She also learned how to lose with grace and continue working even when she did not reach her desired goal. She would find these skills especially useful when planning a long-term project like making a documentary film.

In 1987, Lynch graduated from Hunter College High School. Because of her distinguished athletic career, many colleges offered her scholarships. She decided on the University of Texas, because she believed it was the best choice to further her goal of becoming an Olympic athlete. Her parents were not enthusiastic about their daughter's choice to attend a southern college, but they supported her independence, and Lynch entered an honors academic program at UT.

She continued to excel in track at UT, captaining her team for two years and becoming an All-American in the 800 meters in 1992 and a six-time southwest conference champion. In 2005, she was named to the university's Women's Athletics Hall of Fame. Along with her athletic achievements and her course of study, Texas offered another kind of learning experience for the young New Yorker. Away from the safe haven of her sheltered home and familiar friendly neighborhood, Lynch was confronted for the first time with the harsh realities of racism and classism.

At a Glance …

Born Shola Ayn Lynch on March 20, 1969, in Buffalo, NY; married Vincent Morgan September 1, 2006. Education: University of Texas, BA, plan II honors program, 1992; University of California Riverside, MA, history, 1995.

Career:

Florentine Films, Frank Lloyd Wright, associate producer, 1998; Florentine Films, Jazz, associate producer, 2001; HBO Sports, Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, director of research, 2001; Roja Productions, Matters of Race: EveryOther, co-producer, 2003; Realside Productions, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, producer and director, 2004; Realside Productions, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, director, 2006; CNN, Anderson Cooper: 360 Degrees, "Incarcerated in America," producer, 2007.

Memberships:

Black Documentary Collective; New York Women in Film; Women Make Movies.

Awards:

University of Texas Alumni Association, Outstanding Young Texas Ex, 2005; University of Texas Women's Athletics Hall of Honor, inductee, 2005; University of Georgia, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, George Foster Peabody Award, for Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed, 2006; Tribeca Film Festival, honorable mention for Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, 2006.

Addresses:

Web—Chisholm '72, www.chisholm72.net.

Focused on History

Raised in her parent's secure and diverse home, she had innocently believed that institutional racism and prejudice were things of a past era and that the civil rights movement had ended them. Once she realized that was not true, she began to develop a compelling interest in the history behind race, class, prejudice, and oppression.

After graduating from the honors program at UT, Lynch went to graduate school at the University of California at Riverside, studying history and history resource management. She hoped to become a curator, the person in charge of organizing exhibits in a museum, gallery, or library. For her master's thesis, she curated an exhibit at the UCR Museum of Photography. Titled "How Far Have We Come?" the exhibit presented a wide range of media images of African Americans, showing how racial stereotyping has affected those images through history.

Armed with her new master's degree in history, Lynch returned to New York City, hoping to find a job as an assistant curator. Unfortunately, there was little public money for the arts, and museum jobs were hard to find. While applying unsuccessfully for a position at the Contemporary African Art Gallery, Lynch happened to meet a film producer who worked for well-known filmmaker Ken Burns. She handed him her resumé and soon found herself working as a researcher for a documentary about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the Public Broadcasting System.

Found Film Documentaries Good at Preserving History

After the film Frank Lloyd Wright was finished, Lynch worked on another Burns production for PBS, Jazz, a ten-part documentary about the American music genre. She found she enjoyed working on documentary films. She could use her skills as an historical researcher to explore the past while using the foresight and focus she developed as a distance runner to plan and execute her projects step by step.

Following her work on Jazz, Lynch drew on her knowledge of amateur athletics to work as senior researcher on the HBO Sports film Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, a documentary about the underdog team that won a gold medal. She returned to PBS to help produce a segment for the Matters of Race series. The short film, EveryOther, touched a personal chord in Lynch's life, as it highlighted the unique identities of mixed-race people in the racially polarized culture of the United States.

Working in the production end of filmmaking led Lynch to consider the kind of films she herself might like to make. One day, she heard an announcer on National Public Radio mention that it was Shirley Chisholm's birthday. Lynch knew very little about Chisholm, except that she had been the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She began to research the former New York Congresswoman's life and discovered that Chisholm had run for president in 1972. Fascinated with this bit of black women's history and determined to preserve it, she began to plan a documentary.

The resulting film, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed is a portrait of Chisholm as a courageous African-American woman and a principled politician. True to her roots as an historian, Lynch placed Chisholm in the context of the social movements that shaped her time and influence the future. Chisholm '72, the first film Lynch directed, won the George Foster Peabody Award, an honor given by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication for excellence in broadcasting.

Lynch has continued to plan, research, and produce documentary films, reaching into the past as for Free Angela and All the Political Prisoners (2006), the story of the arrest and trial of radical professor and black activist Angela Davis during the 1970s, and exploring the present, as in the 2007 CNN segment, "Incarcerated in America." She has continued to be motivated by her desire to understand and preserve the history of those who might otherwise be forgotten. Towards this end, she works creatively and methodically, like a runner with a relaxed stride and a fierce eye on her goal.

Sources

Periodicals

Essence, February 2006, p. 126-8.

Jet, April 11, 1983, p. 48.

New York Amsterdam News, May 19-May 25, 2005, p. 5.

New York Times, March 5, 1983, p. L.21; March 5, 1984, p. C.5; March 6, 1984, p. A.21.

Precinct Reporter (San Bernardino, California), November 24, 1994, p. C3.

Sports Illustrated, February 6, 1984, p. 111.

On-line

"Chisholm's Legacy: Shola Lynch," The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics, and Culture,www.thebrooklynrail.org/express/feb05/sholalynch.html (March 15, 2007).

Chisholm '72,www.chisholm72.net/about.html (March 15, 2007).

"Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees," CNN.com,http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0702/19/acd.02.html (March 15, 2007).

"Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed: An Interview with Shola Lynch," Blackfilm.com,www.blackfilm.com/20040917/features/sholalynch.shtml (March 15, 2007).

"Shola Lynch," Texassports.com, www.texassports.com/index.php?s=&url_channel_id=58&change_well_id=17&member_id=872 (March 15, 2007).

"Shola Lynch Chooses Texas," New York Times,http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DEEDC1038F935A35757C0A961948260 (March 15, 2007).

"UC Riverside Graduate Directs Documentary on Shirley Chisholm," University of California Riverside Newsroom, www.newsroom.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/display.cgi?id=984&type=email (March 15, 2007).

Other

Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Shola Lynch on March 20, 2007.

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