The Black Eagle of Harlem: An Interview with Billy Tooma


Today on the blog, editor Kelly Morgan talks to Billy Tooma, writer and producer of the 2017 documentary, The Black Eagle of Harlem. The film examines the life of Hubert Julian, an immigrant aviator living in Harlem during the 1920s.

Who is Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem, and how did you first hear about his story?

Julian was born in Trinidad in 1897. After World War I he left the Caribbean for Canada, where he flew for the first time (a joyride with flying ace Billy Bishop). By the early 1920s he was in Harlem, parachuting out of airplanes. That is a very quick answer, but it captures the type of person Julian was; he could not sit still for very long and seemed to constantly ask himself, “What’s next?”

The first time I ever heard the name “Hubert Julian” was in June 2009. I was in the home of Philip Chamberlin, conducting an interview for my first documentary, Clarence Chamberlin: Fly First & Fight Afterward. As Phil started winding down his stories on his father, he suddenly perked up and told me he wanted to make sure to mention the Black Eagle. He told me a very brief tale of his father flying Julian around the skies over Harlem as the latter would perform his death-defying stunts. The problem was that nobody else mentioned this man. At the time this anecdote did not have a place in the greater story, so it did not make it into the final cut (my recent recut/remastered edition now includes it). It took me five years before Julian made it back into my life. I was looking for a new subject to tackle and suddenly there were three different individuals sending me messages about this man and I had never ended up doing anything on him. Serendipity was calling.

What is it about Julian that inspired you to produce this documentary? How do you feel his story resonates today?

During the very beginning of my research process, I discovered that Julian really liked to lie. I will not even try to say “embellish.” He told one outright lie after another, especially about the first twenty years of his life. Why? I can only conclude that he was trying to craft his own version of the “American Dream.” Who can blame him, right? But that was a huge obstacle to overcome. It was also a fantastic motivator. One major example of Julian’s fearless attitude of stretching the truth was when he first set out to make a name for himself in 1920s Harlem. After falling under the sway of the charismatic Marcus Garvey, Julian went out to a tailor, had a fake military uniform made, and rechristened himself Lieutenant Hubert Julian, veteran of the Canadian Air Force during World War I. It took a while before anyone knew this was all a load of malarkey. All in all, I made this documentary because I wanted to be the one to finally tell the most honest version of Julian’s story.

Hubert Julian challenged and shattered countless racially-based stereotypes. At a time when segregation was rampant throughout the country, here was a man of color making headlines across the nation. He was not afraid to speak his mind nor was he afraid of the repercussions for doing so. While many people, even of his own race, would accuse him of being a flamboyant charlatan, Julian took it all in stride and spent nearly fifty years in the public spotlight.

What were some challenges you overcame in producing this documentary that may not have been present if you were writing this as a book? How does the preparation process differ for writing audiovisual piece versus a book? How did you overcome these challenges?

Biography is a beautiful genre, but the media we biographers choose to work in all come with their own challenges. Julian’s story, if I had written a book on him, could very well be three-hundred to four-hundred pages; there is just that much information. But I made a documentary, and even though it is three and a half hours long, I had to make a lot of decisions in regards to what went in, what got said, and whose voices were heard. Then there is the task of determining what an audience is going to see when they watch the finished product. Archival materials, original artwork, and talking heads—everything had to fit just the right way or else the film would look unpolished and sloppy. Music is a factor as well. Audio quality presents its own hiccups if not handled properly. Because this was my third documentary, I knew how to overcome a lot of the issues most filmmakers have to deal with, but I also continued to learn more along the way.

I understand you have another documentary on George Washington’s Farewell Address that you’ve just completed. What is it about documentary as a medium that draws you to them, and how do you select your subject matter? How did reactions to The Black Eagle of Harlem inform your techniques and approach for your subsequent work?

George Washington: The Farewell Address is unique in that we are looking at a slice of the first president’s life through the valediction he had published in the final year of his administration. Some have even started calling it a biography of a document, which I think is pretty cool.

I love biography in all of its forms. I adhere to the school of thought espoused by Nigel Hamilton in that biography can be a book, a film, a song, a poem, a painting—basically anything that relates the life story of someone or something. I love watching documentaries. I am pretty sure my father had me watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War when it first premiered even though I was far too young to fully understand it was all about.

The subjects of my completed documentaries are Clarence Chamberlin, poetry of witness, Hubert Julian, and George Washington’s Farewell Address. My next two documentaries, currently in production, are on Washington Irving and Ken Forsse (the man who invented the World of Teddy Ruxpin). There is a lot going on there, I know, but look at the thread which ties them all together: these are subjects generally forgotten or marginalized by history. Chamberlin was world famous in his lifetime just as Hubert Julian was, but before I came across their stories, they were basically minor footnotes. Poetry of witness, a term coined by Carolyn Forché, is an incredible study of those who have lived through, and not necessarily survived, extremities such as war, torture, exile, and repression by the state, yet their memories, preserved in poems, are vital to understanding how humanity survives such gruesome events. Washington’s Farewell Address was once of the most important documents from the early years of our republic, yet it has been nearly tossed to the ash heap of history (I say “nearly” because Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has brought it into pop culture and CNN’s John Avlon just published a book on it—and thank goodness for them!) Washington Irving was a lawyer, diplomat, and biographer, but we remember him these days as the man who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (which is a great work of literature, but he did write a plethora of fiction which is not being talked about the way it should be). Ken Forsse created the first animated talking toy (Teddy Ruxpin), but unlike Walt Disney (who gave us Mickey Mouse) and Jim Henson (who gave us Kermit the Frog), nobody knows anything about him. I want to tell the stories of those who are not getting the attention they have earned and deserved.

Where can people see The Black Eagle of Harlem and read more about his experiences?

All of my documentaries are uploaded, for free, to YouTube so that anyone and everyone can watch them. Call me crazy, but I would rather be a part of the conversation than try and sell these films only to then have to beg people to buy them. DVDs are available on Amazon for those who, like me, still like owning a physical copy.

Billy Tooma is an Assistant Professor of English at Essex County College. He founded Icon Independent Films in 2006 and began making documentaries in 2009.