Illustration by Klaus Kremmerz
The Wizard Behind the Camera
Filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain brings Oz writer and many others to life
L. Frank Baum. We know his books. We know the famous movie. But what do we know about the writer himself? For most people, the answer is, not much. So when American Experience reached out to filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain, Ed.M.’95, and asked her to create a documentary about Baum, author of the beloved Wonderful World of Oz book series, she and her husband, Randall MacLowry, jumped at the chance.
“I had 14 Oz books on my bookshelf as a kid and schlepped them around whenever I moved,” Strain says. The couple was also excited to work on a topic that was about pop culture. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy going at first. Baum’s wife, Maud, had burned most of his personal papers after his death in 1919, making research into how Baum thought and felt difficult. Then, while Strain and MacLowry were filming, COVID hit. With only 5 of the 12 interviews done at that point, the team had to finish the rest remotely on Zoom, which was less than ideal. Strain says access to archives that weren’t already digitized was also difficult.
“It was a huge challenge to get through that,” she says.
But they did, and a year later, in April of this year, American Oz: The True Wizard Behind the Curtain, debuted on PBS’ long-running series, American Experience.
Despite the challenges, Strain says she learned something about Baum that surprised her, something that probably surprises most viewers: He was ahead of his time.
“Baum was very forward thinking, especially in terms of women’s rights and women’s place in society,” she says. He was influenced, in part, by his mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He was also an impractical dreamer who followed his passions and the “next big thing,” even when those passions nearly ruined him. Through the years, before finding success with his writing, he worked as a traveling salesman, a newspaper publisher, a fancy poultry breeder, a store owner, and a touring actor.
American Oz isn’t Strain’s first documentary. She first started working on films in the mid-1980s after watching Eyes on the Prize and being floored by the six-part documentary focused on the American Civil Rights movement. She also wasn’t completely happy with her career in direct marketing and advertising. “I realized I needed to learn how to make films like that,” she says of Eyes. She started at the bottom, answering phones and conducting research for small production companies, then eventually started pitching her own story ideas and writing copy. For a few months, she even worked as a “kid wrangler” for Zoom at PBS. At one point, while a student at the Ed School, she thought she’d go into children’s television.
She stuck with documentaries and won her first Peabody Award in 1999 for her work (episodes three and four) on the six-part docuseries, I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, produced by Blackside, which had produced Eyes on the Prize more than a decade earlier. She won a second Peabody in 2018 for Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, which ran on American Masters. The documentary, a passion project about the late playwright best known for writing A Raisin in the Sun, was a labor of love, Strain says. She had discovered Hansberry when she was 17, after seeing the play based on Hansberry’s life, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, at a community theater. Surprisingly, although she had already won one Peabody when she started working on the Hansberry film, and was making a name for herself in the documentary world, Strain found it hard to raise money, especially for an archival project, which is expensive. It ultimately took her 14 years from idea to completion.
“It was a challenge at times to keep going,” she says, “but Lorraine’s sister, her friends, her cousin, and so many others gave me their time. They had faith in me. I felt I owed it to them. That’s what kept me going.”
These days, in addition to continuing to produce documentaries like American Oz through Film Posse, the production company that she and MacLowry cofounded, Strain balances her art with teaching about film. After half a dozen years at Northeastern University, she moved from Boston to Connecticut, where she is now a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, teaching documentary storytelling, production, and history, as well as associate director of the College of Film and the Moving Image and co-director of the Wesleyan Documentary Project. Film Posse is also working on a new film for NOVA about how scientists are using archeology and genetics to add to the historical record of the slave trade and slaves.
Teaching is something that has taken her by surprise, she says.
“I never imagined in a million years that I’d be a tenure track professor,” she says. “I’m wearing a lot of hats. But it’s an exciting time to be making documentaries and I’m grateful for the opportunity to literally teach students and share knowledge, and to learn with the students.”
And on top of that, she says, “teaching is helping me become a better filmmaker.”