Lillian’s Devotees: Some Words from Her Admirers…

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Lillian Benson, left, with fellow editor Jean Tsien.

compiled by Laura Almo
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—•—Lillian Benson saved our film, Conscience and the Constitution. We had a strong story — about the largest organized resistance to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans — but the script read more like a book, with a rough cut to match. ITVS gave us finishing funds, and told us to go hire a real film editor. Lillian and co-producer Shannon Gee holed up with the material and came back with a new cut that to my eyes turned the film inside out. “Where did you get that shot?” I exclaimed. “It was in your footage,” Lillian said. “And that one?” “In your footage.” By following the visuals, she built a new through line that holds one’s attention for the full hour, leaving spaces for me to insert narration. Lillian made the editing process one of great joy and discovery. She is a true collaborator, and I am forever in her debt.

Frank Abe
Colleague; Writer, Producer, Director
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Lillian Benson is one of the most gifted, resourceful and dedicated editors with whom I have had the privilege to work. From Eyes on the Prize II to The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, her talent has enriched every project. Congratulations, my sister, on this well deserved honor. Much love and respect.

Debbie Allen
Friend/Colleague; Actress, Director, Producer
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One of the first times I met Lillian was when we were both on a panel of documentary editors. Every time Lillian spoke, I hung on every word she said. She is a luminous editor, and I delighted in hearing how thoughtful, profound and frankly honest she was in describing the work that we all do and love. When it was my turn to answer a question, the first thing I replied was, “What Lillian said!” But then, of course, her eloquence inspired me to speak from the heart, just as her grace and brilliance continue to inspire me — and so many others. Brava, Lillian!

Kate Amend, ACE
Colleague; Editor
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There isn’t enough space on paper to describe the impact Lillian Benson has had on me as a mentor. She coined herself my “artistic” mother after being mistaken for my real mother at a film festival — and she is just that. Working as her assistant editor on a documentary, I remember having to cut a scene comprised of war stock footage. Our edit rooms shared a wall and both of our doors were open. I started cutting the scene, which made my room sound like a war zone, and I kept thinking to myself, “I don’t know where to begin…” Moments later, Ms. Benson enters and says, “I think you should try cutting that with the sound turned off,” and then leaves. In my mind, I translated that into “I’m being too loud,” so I turned the volume down. Alas, I was wrong. She re-entered and repeated herself. That’s when I realized it wasn’t the sound; she was

teaching me. Once I turned the audio off, something clicked and I started putting the scene together. Is she a soothsayer? I cannot say, but I can say that editing that scene with the sound up wasn’t working for me.

Ms. Benson has a knack for seeing what you need before you even realize you need it. I think somewhere in that lies her greatness; her ability to see those things could quite possibly come from her countless edits. Among her many known accolades, she may have one of which she is unaware: her “artistic” selflessness, which is helping to raise and inspire the next generation of editors.

Saleem Aziz
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Editor
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Lillian Benson is one of the best editors I know. After nearly 30 years in the business, she stands out as someone whose creativity, work ethic and diplomacy are of the highest caliber.

Mark Baldwin
Colleague; Editor

 

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What I remember most about working with Lillian is her infectious smile and sense of humor. Yes, she’s organized to a T and great with story and so forth — all the traits that the best editors possess. But it’s the things you can’t measure that are most important to me. It’s the fun we have together. Whether it was in her office or mine, the company was always pleasant and made the tedious work a joy and something to look forward to. I only regret having the opportunity to work with her just once so far — she edited my short, The Lift — but not for lack of trying. Stay tuned…

A big Congrats, my friend! You’re a true pioneer, LB. This honor is well-deserved and incredibly overdue.

Lyndon Barrois
Colleague; Animation director
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I am so pleased that Lillian Benson is receiving the honor she so deserves for her work as an editor. She is such a great storyteller as well as a wonderful collaborator. She knows how to make the most of footage, or the lack thereof — think imagery that has been destroyed, recycled or just shreds when you try to play the three-quarter-inch news footage back again…

Having worked with Lillian during the Eyes on the Prize II series, I am so pleased that she is being so honored. Thank you for recognizing her dedication, her hard work and her creative brilliance.

Alison Bassett
Colleague; Producer
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Lillian Benson is the rare editor who brings both experience and an open mind to a project. Fellowship and Service is an appropriately named award for her because it is what she brings to her life and what is reflected in her process and work. When she agreed to “take the chair” for my documentary film, Beyond the Steps: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Lillian brought her thoughtful creativity to the project. And in the process, I gained a friend.

Even though it was my first major production, she never made me feel like the neophyte that I was. She listened to even my most harebrained ideas and improved them. Even better, she had ideas when I ran out of them.

Flash forward 10 years and I jumped at the opportunity to work with her again. However brief that experience, it was then that I realized the joy of working with a mindful and generous artist like Lillian. Not only is it what you learn about the creative process, but what you learn about yourself in the process. Thank you, Lillian — and congratulations!

Phil Bertelsen
Friend/Colleague; Producer, Director
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Lillian Benson is one of the first people I met in the American Cinema Editors. She was on the Membership Committee way back when I came to interview to become a member. She has a perfect storm of great qualities: professionalism, dedication to her craft, dignity, humor and a sincere desire to give back to the editing community. Her work always impresses me. She edits films and TV shows that are often thoughtful and complex, which is not surprising. Directors and producers probably find her a go-to editor for that material, because she brings so much — creatively and intellectually — to the table.

I’ve been on the Board of ACE with Lillian for eight years. I consider her a role model. She finds time to pursue her career, but also manages to participate in numerous committees, all requiring her time, attention and often her attendance. Somehow she seems to juggle everything.

She stands for the betterment of all editors and especially wants to see the rise of young editors of color. She’s a mentor and an advisor, and I’ve seen her speak to young people with a combination of empathy and toughness. She is nurturing, but doesn’t accept anything but an honest best effort from those just starting out and I can’t think of a better way to teach future editors. She doesn’t pull punches, but she’s always there and ready to assist and support. Aside from everything else, she’s absolutely one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met.

Anita Brandt-Burgoyne, ACE
Colleague; Editor
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I met Lillian 26 years ago when she hired me as her assistant editor on the documentary The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry. It was my first job as a freelancer and I was quite nervous. Lillian was already well known for her incredible work on Eyes on the Prize II. Once I began working with her, it quickly became apparent how fortunate I was to have met this special person. Not only was she nurturing and encouraging, but Lillian also gave me some of the best advice about the editing profession. I remember her saying to me, “Even after years of working as an editor, I am still learning the craft. It takes time and curiosity about the world to become a great editor.” Over the span of her career, her exemplary work on numerous projects is a testimony to someone who has mastered her craft.

Throughout the years, Lillian’s strong belief in the concept of “passing it on” has continued to impact my career, as well as many other editors’. We have watched, with admiration and pride, her fearless resolve to break down barriers in pursuit of her goals. As those walls have fallen, she has been a force in expanding opportunities not just for herself, but for a diverse group of people. Today, I am honored to be a member of ACE, thanks to Lillian’s push for me to apply. She is an extraordinary editor and her mentorship and friendship has been a gift in my life.

Sandra Christie, ACE
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Editor

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Lillian approaches her work with a very high level of professionalism. When doing documentaries, she cares deeply about telling the true story and does all that she can to ensure that. She has taught and mentored young people for as long as I have known her. She believes in helping her assistants as well as first-time directors on her own time, taking great satisfaction in seeing them advance in their careers. I often tease her that she is engaged in the “Lillian Benson Charitable Trust.” The industry is lucky to have such a dedicated member.

Betty Ciccarelli
Friend/Colleague; Editor
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Lillian Benson was an amazing in-depth editing teacher who inspired me to become an editor. She taught all the bells-and-whistles technical stuff, but the real gift she gave me was the artistry of storytelling — the timing, the choice of shot selection, how to show points of view. At the same time she was teaching, she was also editing Eyes on the Prize II for PBS, and we traveled to Boston to see her work on the show. I was a film major with a focus in editing and went on to cut three films and a video project to complete my editing specialty major within the film department at New York’s School of Visual Arts. The summer I graduated, Lillian hired me as a second assistant on the PBS documentary The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, narrated by Morgan Freeman. She was a major influence and mentor in my life.

Candace Corelli
Colleague/Mentee/Former Student; Director
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Lillian and I have crossed paths for decades, she working in post-production and me in camera. Over the years, she has been an inspirational friend and mentor, very grounded in faith and also loving movies, theatre and dance. I’ve confided in Lillian and received constructive criticism and much professional support from her. In 2012, we had the pleasure of working as a team on her documentary, Amen: The Life and Music of Jester Hairston. We also worked together on Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race. For that, the many hours of interviews and footage made for a huge task. Lillian’s a master of the art of documentary editing with a long history and many credits.

The Editors Guild had a 3D editing exercise for its members several years ago, and Lillian invited me to the Guild facilities. I played director and we cut the short piece. I enjoyed watching her magic as she cut two frames, slipping and snipping different takes, yet keeping it all in sync. It was an enjoyable experience for both of us. I’m thrilled she’s been having a wonderful time editing dramatic pieces in recent years. Congratulations, Lillian. Brava!

Michelle Crenshaw
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Camera Operator

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In daily life and in the film and media industry, it is not every day that you meet someone with the generosity of spirit that embodies and is the very essence of Ms. Lillian Benson. Though she is no pushover, Lillian is kind and generous to all who cross her path. I am grateful for the longevity of her career as a pioneer and a trailblazer. I always appreciate her empathy and talent in the editing room, with me as a director, and to know exactly what I want — sometimes even before I know what it is!

Lillian is both worldly and complex; she grounds and contextualizes your work because she has the gift that all the best editors have: She listens. Her criticism is gentle and probing; she can push, but she doesn’t pull. She succeeds as an editor because she is very professional, compassionate and respectful of the work and the collaborative team that is an integral part of the media industry. She has been a mentor and a friend to many filmmakers, but especially to Black women filmmakers in both the narrative and documentary worlds. Lillian is the rare person who can handle documentary and narrative subject matter with ease. She truly personifies the goal of the union to make things good not just for herself, but for all people.

On a personal note, Lillian is also the godmother to my two daughters, Maazi and Desta. And as one of the many people Lillian has helped over the years, I am honored to be a part of the many voices who celebrate her for this prestigious Fellowship and Service Award. I wish her many more years of happy editing experiences!

Zeinabu irene Davis
Friend/Colleague; Director, Producer, Professor, Department of Communications, University of California San Diego

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I first met Lillian to discuss working on the documentary I was directing, John Lewis: Get in the Way. Before I even opened my mouth, she said, “I love John Lewis! I’ll do whatever I can to get this film made.” It’s rare in our industry to find that kind of immediate and all-out commitment. We had mutual friends, but Lillian didn’t know me, or my work and, beyond a rough trailer, she hadn’t seen any of the footage we’d shot. It was simply a fact. “John Lewis? I’ll do it.”

Like so many documentaries, this one took a very long time to complete, but from day one Lillian jumped in with enthusiasm and faith in the project. Over and over, I was impressed by her shot selections, her rearrangement of sequences, her critical integration of archival footage and, of course, her exquisitely timed pacing. With revisions, she took the best of our advisors’ notes and, over time, coaxed especially problematic scenes to life. We talked for hours about how the film might reflect the essential John Lewis: his courage, his unwavering convictions about non-violence, his love and generosity of spirit, and his commitment to purposeful action. The scenes themselves convey this, but Lillian skillfully immersed these traits into the very fabric of the film.

I am delighted that the Editors Guild chose Lillian to receive this prestigious award, and I add my praise to the many who have found in her an exceptional creative partner.

Kathleen Dowdey
Friend/Colleague; Director, Producer
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I first met Lillian Benson when she was working for Henry Hampton at Blackside in Boston, editing Paul Stekler and Jacqueline Shearer’s tragic elegy about the last year of Dr. King’s life, Eyes on the Prize II. I was just floored by how she managed to pack so much emotional power into a squeaky-clean, fact-checked, scholar-vetted historical documentary. I had never seen anyone pull that off, and immediately understood why Hampton depended heavily on her for clear thinking and professionalism.

When it came time for me to produce exactly that breed of documentary about automobile magnate Henry Ford for Blackside two years later, my first call was to Lillian, and it was off to the races: Lillian, me and the richest old autocrat in Depression-era America. After A Job at Ford’s, she carved time out of her busy schedule to edit two sample scenes for Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle — my loony meditation on free will, destiny and union labor — but then had to go on to half a dozen other films that were backed up in her queue. Ten years later, when I finally raised finishing funds, the new editing team and I never did find a way to top Lillian’s first cut of the “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Going through the archive at WGBH, I found an old videotape of Henry Hampton talking about the tense times at Blackside during production of Eyes II. He said that the overwhelming image he carried away from his experience was “the sight of editor Lillian Benson crying at the Steenbeck as she worked on the back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.” On schedule and on budget, I might add. That’s Lillian — a national treasure.

Jon Else
Friend/Colleague/Mentor; Director, Producer, Professor, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California Berkeley

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We had the pleasure of working with Lillian at the 2016 Sundance Edit and Story Lab. Our time together may have been brief but Lillian left a mark on all of us at the Lab.

There is no one like Lillian. Yes, she has an intimidating body of work and can move easily into and out of the fiction and non-fiction TV and independent film worlds. That is unique enough. What makes her a singular creative voice is her ability to absorb and connect a film to the larger world — to personal and cultural history, to emotion, to family — while somehow managing to transcend those constructs.

That’s who Lillian is: brilliant, incisive and plain-spoken. She’s here to work. Yet, she’s also one of the most sensitive artists with whom we’ve worked. She brings her whole being to the work; she’s eager to connect, share her knowledge and challenge people around her to be better. She made time to sit with younger editors and really listened to them, meeting each one where they were and elevating them. She engages with her whole heart and asks you to do the same. She is looking with laser focus to find the best parts of you, the best parts of a film, the sweet things that make us human. She inspired all of us to look more closely, think and feel more deeply. And that was just a week.

I’m jealous of the artists and colleagues in the field who’ve had the chance to know and work with her for over 30 years. How lucky we all are that she is committed to the craft of editing.

Kristin Feeley
Colleague; Director, Labs and Artist Support, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

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Lillian Benson’s extraordinary work as a documentary film editor can be found on many of the National Black Programming Consortium-funded programs, most recently Maya Angelou and Still I Rise. It’s the reason why whenever a project proposal comes to NBPC that has Lillian’s name attached to it, we know the story’s development is in excellent hands. We congratulate Lillian on being honored with the Editors Guild’s Fellowship and Service Award.

Leslie Fields-Cruz
Colleague; Executive Director, National Black Programming Consortium

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Great talent is hard to find. Even more rare is to actually work with an icon such as Lillian Benson. When someone of her stature becomes available, you jump at the chance to work with her and witness her talent. We at Wolf Films have been honored by her tremendous contribution to our show.

Arthur Forney
Colleague; Executive producer, Wolf Films
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From the time I first met Lillian Benson, it took 20 years to actually work with her. Why? She is particular about the projects she chooses to edit, and is always booked. Her body of work, her talent and the numerous accolades bestowed upon her over the years are a true testament as to why Lillian is always in such high demand.

Persistence paid off, as the stars finally aligned in 2011 when I was producing The Lift, a 1920s film shot on 35mm film, brilliantly written and directed by Lyndon Barrois. The film required an editor who could craft each shot of the film without giving away the big reveal — that our main character was America’s number one gangster, Al Capone.

In the opening scene, Capone is standing in the middle of a deserted, dirt road. Our female lead is preoccupied and stops her Packard within inches of Capone. I was on set when we shot the scene using a stunt double, which was very convincing. However, when I saw Lillian’s cut of the sequence for the first time, I nearly jumped out of my seat in horror that Al Capone was about to become road kill! The scene set the tone for our movie, which won numerous awards, including Best Film at the Madrid International Film Festival.

An amazing editor, Lillian is generously passing her talents on to the next generation of editors by teaching at the University of Southern California.

Over the years, many colleagues have asked me for recommendations for both documentary and narrative film editors. My answer is always the same: “Lillian Benson…if you can get her. She’s simply the best!”

Romell Foster-Owens
Friend/Colleague; Producer, Director

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Lillian saved me! She was the editor of my first documentary, which explored difficult and emotional subject material around slavery and racism in my family. With grace and calm, she gently forced me to take charge of the film, which had had several demanding and uncooperative voices on the production team, and follow my instincts. In the end, she directed final scenes of the film and reconstructed my wandering script into a story. She created our beautiful film called Shared History that was delivered to PBS on schedule.

Lillian has an uncanny ability to see a story in a mountain of disparate footage and tell it through her masterful editing. It was a joy working with her. Congratulations, Lillian, for this much-deserved recognition.

Felicia Furman
Colleague; Producer, Director

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I first met Lillian when she was called in to consult on a documentary I was working on at the Seattle PBS affiliate. As a newly minted associate producer on my first national project, I was, at that point, more involved in the development, pre-production and production side of the content-creation process. Before her involvement, the editing side had been less accessible to me. Working with Lillian changed all that. Her approach and willingness to engage with me opened up a new way of thinking — to build story not just by script and instinct, but also by bringing in thoughtfulness and history, to find undercurrents and different lenses that make the work richer and deeper.

Lillian’s sharp mind, wide vision, mastery of craft and self-confidence gave me a solid assurance that any project she touched would thoroughly examine the story we were trying to tell, and also include wider ideas that expanded the narratives in ways producers, directors and viewers might not notice on first pass. Lillian has taught me a lot — not just about editing, but about how to see a story through multiple dimensions.

When I think of Lillian, I think of someone who leads with her heart, head and hands. Her talent is unique and generous, and I am so thankful that she has shared it with us.

Shannon Gee
Colleague; Producer, Director
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Although it has been like 100 years since I worked with Lillian on a documentary, Old Testament Heroines at FilmRoos (RIP), I can clearly hear her laugh and see her sitting in the editing bay with her generous smile. Smart, supportive, engaged, talented, kind — a few of the words that could describe Lillian. Oh, and a great editor!

Roberta Grossman
Colleague; Producer, Director
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I met Lillian at my first job out of college. I was a production assistant full of passion for film, but with no clue about how to navigate the business. As I recall, I wasn’t savvy enough to seek Lillian out for advice, but she saw me, saw my desire, and invited me to lunch. Her advice and counsel that day was the beginning of a 20-year friendship. When no one else could see my potential, she encouraged me. Today, as a producer, I still seek her advice. There are not many people who will give of themselves so selflessly but Lillian is not “many people.” She lives in integrity, she speaks her truth and she has a talent few can replicate. She is a special person, a special mentor and I am lucky to know her.

Andretta Hamilton
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Producer
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Lillian E. Benson has had a long career editing influential and socially conscious films, and has been long active in working to increase minority participation in the filmmaking process. In addition, she has been an active member of the Board of Directors for the American Cinema Editors as Secretary and Co-Chair of the Diversity Mentorship Program. I am honored to have even a small part in presenting her with this richly deserved award.

Alan Heim, ACE
Colleague; Editor, President, Motion Picture Editors Guild; Vice President, American Cinema Editors
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I’ve known Lillian Benson for over 15 years. We were introduced by a fellow ACE member. It didn’t take long for me to realize what a special person she is.

Years before Lillian became co-founder of the ACE Diversity Mentorship Program, she mentored her crews, sometimes bringing in assistants with little experience — men and women who might not have had the opportunity to enter the world of film editing otherwise.

She’s a volunteer, a mentor and as loyal as they come. I’m proud to consider her a friend.

Tina Hirsch, ACE
Friend/Colleague; Editor
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Have you ever met a person who was a ray of sunshine? That was my first impression of Lillian when I met her at an ACE assistant editor event. Over the years, we would see each other at all the New York EditFests and the ACE general membership meetings.

I always admired her talent for storytelling. Documentary editors have the patience to find the story in all the footage; they are essentially the writers of the narrative. It tells a lot about a person who can successfully make a career out of that. While not many documentaries are done union, Lillian appreciated being a union member because, she said, “Unions help raise the wage for all workers.”

It wasn’t until I brought one of my mentees to an ACE event that I learned that Lillian was balancing an editing career with teaching. The effect on her students — their excitement to see Lillian — is similar to how I feel about her. She is generous with her time and inspires many careers with a smile that makes you believe you can reach your dreams.

Sharon Smith Holley
Friend/Colleague; Assistant Editor
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I remember some years ago, watching an Independent Lens documentary about a group of young girls from fractured homes, with difficult backgrounds, as they tried to transform their lives through serving in the Girl Scouts. I was intrigued by its true grasp of internal moments and its sensitive portrayal of its characters — even the ones who would have been portrayed as villains in a lesser piece.

Cut to several years later and a woman named Lillian Benson approached me about teaching editing at the University of Southern California where I was, at the time, Head of the Editing Track. Looking through her credits, I came across a mention of a documentary called Troop 1500. It rang a bit of a bell, so I looked it up. Lo and behold, Lillian was one of the editors of this Independent Lens episode.

Editing, I believe, is the artful combination of images and sound to create an emotion in an audience. Really great editing fulfills that mission through an insightful look into the inner world of its characters, allowing us to empathize with them. Everything I’ve seen that Lillian edits does that. She brings understanding and empathy to all of her subjects.

And from the stories that her students at USC have told me, she brings the same qualities to her teaching: understanding, empathy and a high degree of professionalism. These are admirable qualities for an editor, for a teacher, for a board member and for a human being. Lillian has all of them in abundance!

There is no surprise that the Editors Guild saw fit to award her with this well-earned high honor. We are fortunate to have this sensitive, empathic person involved in our governance, as well as in our art.

Norman Hollyn, ACE
Friend/Colleague; Editor, Professor, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts
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Lillian Benson is talented and well respected in the film community, but it is her dedication as a mentor to young filmmakers that is legendary. Ask any young filmmakers from a diverse background how they got started in the business and they’ll say, “Lillian Benson helped me.” She makes time for anyone who needs her advice. Somehow she always seems to come up with the right words of encouragement. She does so without judgment, and tells them what they need to hear — not what they want to hear.

Last year, while I was organizing a panel of editors for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, I called Lillian and asked if she could participate. Without hesitation she said, “When and where?” She candidly shared her personal experiences of working in the industry in front of an audience of Asian Pacific filmmakers and students. They hung on every word she spoke.

Being the first African-American female editor to join ACE, she knows the importance of inclusion. As the co-chair of the highly successful ACE Diversity Mentorship Program, she has quietly made it her mission to implement this program into her cutting room.

She is modest. When she recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center for her groundbreaking film work, longevity and continued contribution to the film industry, she didn’t tell anyone until the event was over.

Lillian Benson is trustworthy, reliable, kind, compassionate and an all-around good person. I am so happy that she is receiving this award.

Maysie Hoy, ACE
Friend/Colleague; Editor, Chair of Editors Guild Diversity Committee
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I actually had heard of Lillian long before we met. Her impressive Emmy-nominated work on Eyes on the Prize II was where I first learned of her editing prowess. It was in viewing that amazing documentary that I became aware of her keen and perceptive eye for being able to cull through vast amounts of historical and arcane footage and come up with a finished film that details the selected subject matter with creativity, intelligence, sensitivity and, most of all, historical accuracy.

Since that first encounter with her work, I have become a Lillian Benson aficionado. Finally, three years ago, I got the opportunity to join with her on our recent collaboration, John Lewis: Get in the Way — the first documentary film on Congressman John Lewis and his long and illustrious career as both a young civil rights activist and later as a Representative in the US Congress. The film has been shown around the country, and each time I attend a screening, I’m reminded how masterfully Lillian honed and edited the material, and how she brings that talent to each project she undertakes.

Moreover, I am in awe of her accomplishments outside the editing room. Whether it’s the fact that she is the first African-American female member of ACE or her long list of awards and accolades for her efforts, it is not difficult to join her host of devotees. Additionally, she adds “giving back” to her admirable profile through mentorships, college and university lectureships, and professional activism benefiting young, aspiring editors. For all these reasons, and so many more, I am thrilled that the Editors Guild has chosen her to receive this very deserving award.

Chas. Floyd Johnson
Friend/Colleague; Producer
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To know about my enduring friendship with Lillian is to know the story about a hat. Back in the late ’70s, when I was on staff at a sound studio in New York City, Lillian and I met for the first time when she came to my room in search of some production library music. It was a very cold day and she was wearing a pretty wool hand-crocheted hat that I admired. “Oh,” she said, “this is my Sunday Goin’ to Meetin’ hat. My friend made it; she has a shop down on Third Street.” Never having heard that hat description before, I was immediately charmed, and we had fun together selecting music for her film.

Tragically, a few months later, The New York Times published a photo of the shop and reported how the owner had been fatally shot as she tried to defend her earnings in the cash register from a robber. I reached out to Lillian by phone to offer condolences, and we met for lunch — and have continued working (and lunching) together these many years, even after she left for LA. I’m indebted to Lillian for bringing me into Blackside where we worked on Eyes on the Prize II and other documentaries, which allowed me to become an independent music supervisor.

And the hat? Lillian gave it to me before she moved to California, and I wear it every winter — even though I don’t go to church!

Rena C. Kosersky
Friend/Colleague; Music Supervisor

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Storytelling is in Lillian Benson’s blood. In the 20 years I’ve known her, she has never wavered in the pursuit of her craft and stories to tell. Her creativity is boundless.

I met Lillian during the production of the second series of Eyes on the Prize. I was very young in my career; I’d never met a woman film editor, let alone a woman of color who was a film editor. Lillian was so generous with her time. She let me sit in the editing room while she worked, explaining why she made particular cuts and how the characters spoke to each other. It was from her that I learned how a talented editor could make significant contributions to the arc of a story. She was always sure of her choices and edits; they were made with deliberation and careful thought. It amazed me how much she thought about the characters — whether fictional or historical — and their motivations. I also learned from her the importance of using my voice, and that as a young woman of color working in media, I might have to make my voice known more often in order to be heard or noticed.

I’m so proud and profoundly fortunate to have had Lillian’s mentorship early in my career; her influence on me and other women in film had an enormous impact, still felt to this day. I’m honored to offer these words in celebration of Lillian.

Valerie Linson
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Producer
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I met Lillian in 1997, when I served as her assistant editor on Death by Hanging, a harrowing HBO documentary that was set in Hampton Roads, Virginia (the area where I grew up), though the film was edited in Jersey City. At that time, I was a film student at NYU, but she took me under her wing and was committed to making sure that I learned something while I worked with her.

Talent comes a dime a dozen in this business, but what sets Lillian apart is that not only is she talented, she is also a genuinely good person. She opened up her home to me for two months when I was in LA working on the independent film All About You. Since then, she and I have become friends and colleagues. She cut my last short film, Bird. Needless to say, I was honored to have an Emmy Award-nominated editor cut my nine-minute short with a budget that was a scintilla above shoestring. But she did it because she believed in me — and in the story.

Lillian has taught me a lot, and she has already committed to speaking to my Film Direction and Editing class at Hampton University this semester. I can’t wait to share with my students what she has been sharing with me for almost 30 years!

Because of the great respect that I have for Lillian, I actually address her as “Ms. Benson.” After all, it wouldn’t be right for me to call one of my mentors in the film business by her first name.

Booker T. Mattison
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Producer, Associate Professor of English & Film Studies, Hampton University
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Of the various projects on which Lillian and I collaborated, there is one particular memory that stands out. Lillian, ever the consummate professional, never came along on a shoot, including interviews…with one exception.

We were so fortunate to get Harry Belafonte to contribute his eloquence to a documentary about an event in which he was one of many players. Lillian didn’t — or wouldn’t — miss this one. After the interview was over and Mr. Belafonte left, she promptly announced, “Well, we went to church today.” I never took it religiously, and I don’t think that’s how she meant it. She was referring to the church of life. And Mr. Belafonte certainly can tell us a thing or two about that.

That was just so Lillian — so smart, so observant. And she could condense a huge experience into just six words. I’ll never forget it.

Maureen Muldaur
Friend/Colleague; Producer, Director
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My first meeting 20 years ago with Lillian Benson was almost exactly like our most recent one: We had a wonderful exchange of ideas, stories and experiences. When we get to talking, we often find ourselves the last to leave an event. It’s been my honor, since the very first meeting, to spend time with her. Lillian is an accomplished filmmaker, editor, teacher, confidant and, most of all, friend. She is constantly opening my eyes to experiences beyond myself and they’re far too many to list. She never forgets to think of her friends and consider our feelings; and I’m always impressed and inspired by her talent and humility. It’s safe to say that many others feel the same. I knew instantly when I met Lillian that she was a kindred spirit. Thank you so much to the Editors Guild for bestowing upon Lillian this much-deserved honor.

Jenni McCormick
Friend/Colleague; Executive Director, American Cinema Editors
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I had the privilege of working with Lillian when she was an editor on my feature documentary, One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story. She worked incredibly hard shaping the story and infusing emotion into the film. We only had one main problem: Lillian hated my main character. We had many intense discussions about this, which usually ended in laughter and a revised scene. That’s one of the things I admire about her — how she expresses her opinions in a frank yet collaborative way. This open communication enabled us to constantly move forward with the cut, improve the story and hit all of our deadlines.

Several years later I was delighted when Lillian began teaching editing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where I have been teaching editing and documentary filmmaking since 2004. Her lucky students have benefited by being exposed to her passionate teaching style and wealth of knowledge on editing. She is a true master at work. I want to congratulate Lillian on receiving the Guild’s Fellowship and Service Award. It couldn’t go to a more deserving person!

Thomas G. Miller, ACE
Colleague; Editor, Producer, Director, Associate Professor, Cinema Practice, USC School of Cinematic Arts
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Lillian is that rare combination in this business: an extremely talented filmmaker, a great collaborator and a truly nice and caring person. She never fails to take time out of her hectic schedule to be supportive of other filmmakers’ efforts. That is something that sometimes can make such a difference. It is my pleasure to have Lillian as a colleague and a friend.

Stanley Nelson
Friend/Colleague; Producer, Director, Writer
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Lillian Benson being celebrated by the Editors Guild? What a great honor for her. We go back a long way, when we were both assistant editors working in the same building on 45th Street off Sixth Avenue in New York. We were working for different editors: my mentor, Victor Kanefsky, for me, and Riva Freifeld for her. It was around 1973 or 1974, and I was surprised to see another person of color working in editing. At that time, I had not met African-American feature editor, and later director, George Bowers and others.

From our first meeting, we became not only colleagues but friends, and from that point on we would run into each other in other editing facilities as we both fought and clawed our way up the chain to become editors.

We did eventually end up working next to each other when we were both hired to work on Eyes on the Prize II. Lillian is one of those editors and human beings who have a tremendous amount of integrity and will not do anything that would impinge on that. Honest, forthright and dedicated to the craft of editing, she has always had my undying respect. So it gives me great pleasure to see Lillian being honored for all her years of service to the editing community. I am very proud of her.

Sam Pollard
Friend/Colleague; Editor, Producer
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Lillian is a force of nature. She is an extremely gifted editor who cares as much about the people whose story she’s telling as she does about the craft of editing that story. These qualities were in full view during her work on the seminal PBS civil rights series produced by Blackside, Eyes on the Prize II. She understood the complex issues of race and class involved in the stories. Most importantly, she edited them in a way that those complexities were revealed, but not to the point that they overwhelmed the storytelling.

You don’t have to know film editing to feel the power of Lillian’s work on her signature hour in the Eyes series: The Promised Land. That segment covered the wrenching but empowering story of Dr. King’s last year. Her visceral understanding of the economic justice issues and Vietnam War opposition covered in that hour is evident. Head of Blackside and executive producer of the series Henry Hampton’s high regard for Lillian’s talent was obvious, even during the early production screenings.

Beyond that, the editing of the section on Dr. King’s assassination and funeral is nothing short of brilliant. I have shown that hour numerous times over the years — as a visiting professor at Brown University, at the professional development workshops I conduct for teachers, during my residency at Connecticut College last year, and during visits to various colleges and universities. I watch as the power of those scenes affects all, regardless of age, gender or racial identification.

It’s never just a job for Lillian. She brings an uncommon passion and intelligence to her work. And for that, all of us who worked on the Eyes series will be eternally grateful.

Judy Richardson
Colleague; Producer, Educator
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I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside Lillian for many years on the ACE Board of Directors. She was elected to the Board in 2002 and has served as Secretary since 2006. Over the past 15 years, her dedication and contribution to the organization has been enormous. As well as her continued responsibilities as Secretary, she is now the co-chair of the Diversity Mentorship Program, which was formed to provide opportunity and mentorship to young professionals from diverse backgrounds who have an interest in post-production.

Besides her great commitment to her work, which has led to a very successful career in television and documentary editing, her dedication to the community and helping others has been even greater. She has never hesitated to come to the aid of people seeking help with their career paths. Lillian Benson is the very definition of what the Fellowship and Service Award is all about. Congratulations, Lillian, on this well-deserved recognition!

Stephen Rivkin, ACE
Colleague; Editor, President, American Cinema Editors
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Pioneer, trailblazer, groundbreaker…all words to exemplify Lillian’s influence on our craft. My personal regard for her and what she meant to me as a rising young editor far exceeds customary description. I believe when we choose our professional paths, we look to those who have successfully achieved our desired goals. My early days in the editing room did not present a vision of anyone who looked like me until I met Lillian. What I saw in her was a beautifully fierce, talented and honorable force of nature. Her presence reflected what was possible. Her selfless desire to advise, counsel and support me has had a profound effect on my professional trajectory, as it has for countless others.

Lillian Benson was the first African-American woman to be invited to join the American Cinema Editors, and when I was invited into ACE, she was the first to offer a warm welcome. She was the first to celebrate my achievement of being the first African American to win an ACE Eddie award. Her honesty, unshakeable moral compass and grace are inspiring.

I have watched Lillian’s relentless commitment to creating an opportunity for future editors of all colors with deep admiration. Her influence is far-reaching in our growing inclusiveness. My editing room has benefited from her mentorship of others. My life has benefited from her friendship, humor, and wisdom. I am grateful to have Lillian as my beacon.

Terilyn A. Shropshire, ACE
Colleague; Editor
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I met Lillian nearly 30 years ago, when we were both working in Boston’s South End on Blackside’s Eyes on the Prize II. That intense, life-changing experience cemented my friendship with Lillian, and inspired me to co-direct Brother Outsider, a documentary on the visionary but long-overlooked civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who dared to live as an openly gay man during the fiercely homophobic 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. When we were assembling our team, Lillian was our first choice to edit the Rustin film. She cared so much about the prospect of reclaiming Rustin from the margins of history that she offered to relocate to Berkeley in order to collaborate with us.

While logistical considerations ultimately meant that she wound up becoming a consultant to the project, her passion for social justice and her strong belief in the need to tell intersectional stories — coupled with her conviction about the importance of celebrating key figures and moments in the labor movement — proved invaluable as we sought out innovative ways to chronicle Rustin’s complex biography.

In subsequent years, Lillian has made a point of seeing everything I’ve worked on and sharing insightful and supportive comments. She is not only a fiercely loyal friend and colleague but — as Rustin used to say — someone who understands the necessity of “speaking truth to power.” I am so pleased that the Editors Guild is shining a spotlight on Lillian’s decades of service and on the bountiful gifts she has brought to every project on which she has collaborated.

Bennett Singer
Friend/Colleague; Producer, Director
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I met Lillian many years ago (1970s), when she applied for work at my editing business in New York City. She was eager to work and did what she was asked, which I liked a lot. We developed a friendship that has continued these many years and through many changes, including both of us moving to Los Angeles to continue our careers in the film Industry.

In 2000, we started a small video editing company together and again continued our friendship and working relationship. Lillian is an incredibly hard worker and loyal friend. She brings her beliefs and values into her work and adds value to every job she does. She is the most amazing networker I have ever known. She is a gifted editor and artist who never gives up her dreams through good years and bad. She continues to be a treasured friend and respected colleague.

Joseph Staton
Friend/Colleague; Retired Editor, Cinematographer
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I’ll never forget one memory from our days working on Eyes on the Prize II together, now almost 30 years ago. Lillian was editing our film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last year: his opposition to the Vietnam War, the poor people’s campaign for economic justice and King’s assassination in Memphis. When we got to Dr. King’s death, she asked producer Jacqueline Shearer, myself, and our boss, Henry Hampton, to leave her alone in the editing room for as long as it would take to put together the sequence of his funeral in Atlanta, the march to the cemetery and his burial. For two days, behind that locked editing room door, the only sound you could hear outside was her crying.

When she was done, Lillian had edited a sequence which progressed from Coretta Scott King looking at her husband in his casket, to the service and march, to the last flowers being tossed onto that casket before it was lowered into the ground — a sequence that made everyone who saw it cry.

Paul Stekler
Colleague; Producer, Director, Chair, Department of Radio-Television-Film, University of Texas at Austin
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We had the privilege of working with Lillian Benson on our first feature film, All About You, in 2000. It was a wonderful experience; her generosity of spirit was on magnanimous display every day as she held the hands of first-time filmmakers through the cutting process. She was collaborative, professional and very protective of our vision for the film right away.

There was one particular scene in the movie that was difficult to cut and wasn’t popping off the screen in the right way. We were at our wit’s end because the scene just did not work and we had pressing deadlines. After a lot of energy spent, Lillian announced she was just going to sleep on it. The next day, she had it figured out and massaged the scene by adding dialogue over the images, while never losing the emotional intensity of the moment. It still remains one of the most memorable, poignant moments in the movie. This scene only worked because of Lillian’s creative and brilliant touches.

We are thrilled that Lillian is receiving this well-deserved award. She is a force of nature who, for many years, has made her quiet mark in the editing space as a generous mentor, astute editor and a great friend to all in the industry. Congratulations, Lillian!

Christine Swanson
Colleague; Writer, Director
Michael Swanson
Colleague; Producer

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It should go without saying that Lillian Benson is a pioneer. She was the first African-American female editor to join ACE, and has had an editorial career that is beyond impressive. But to me, she is so much more than her extraordinary resume.

Lillian has shown the true spirit of what it means to give back and help others. A few years ago, Lillian and I started a new program at ACE that mentors young editors and assistant editors with a focus on women and people of color. She is a driving force in our Diversity Mentorship Program, running the lecture series for our group and always coming up with lecture topics that really make us think and learn. Her passion for bringing diversity to ACE, and the whole editing community, is infectious. At a time when she could easily rest on her laurels she chooses to give back and help others.

Not satisfied with simply being a groundbreaking pioneer, Lillian gives her time, energy and love to mentor the groundbreakers of the future. For that, I am forever inspired and grateful.

Troy Takaki, ACE
Colleague; Editor, Co-Chair, ACE Diversity Mentorship Program
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I worked with Lillian in 2006-2007 on a limited series called Craft in America. It was a three-part project for PBS. I was an executive producer with Carol Sauvion on that series and remember hiring Lillian to be the editor of the third part, entitled “Community.” The series was all about honoring the incredible skill and meaning behind the work of the country’s finest craftspeople and so required editors with great visual style but also a strong sense of storytelling. Documentaries are often made in the editing room, and Lillian waded through hours and hours of footage to help create a piece that was both beautiful and moving. The series went on to earn a Peabody Award, thanks in large part to the artistic contributions made by Lillian and many other talented people. I am so happy that she is now being honored by the Editors Guild. Congratulations, Lillian!

Kyra Thompson
Colleague; Producer, Writer, Director
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Lillian Benson is the special kind of person who makes sure that when she climbs to the mountaintop, she isn’t there alone. She will reach back and pull you up with her. And if you are unable to go the distance, she will push and drag you up there.

She is a woman who knows the importance of sisterhood, and the need for women of color in the field of editing to support, collaborate with, promote and elevate each other. Lillian has taught us that we need to set an example not just for ourselves, but for the next generation of editors coming up the ranks, who need to see the importance of hard work and conviction to achieve their dreams.

Lillian is a talented editor with the highest integrity and greatest generosity of spirit. She has an empathy and moral courage that has never wavered in her work. With her push and pull, I am a proud member of American Cinema Editors today.

Jean Tsien, ACE
Colleague; Editor
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Long ago, I learned from Lillian — and she wouldn’t put it this way — that the relationship between the filmmaker and the viewer is an S&M relationship — and the audience is the M!

I learned that the filmmaker’s job is to bring viewers into the lives of others and to punish (and reward) them for caring. If it’s a comedy, make their sides hurt with laughter; if it’s a doc, make their hearts ache with feeling.

When I was her assistant, Lillian gave me these wise and cautionary words about the business of filmmaking: “The artists are the ones who suffer because the artists are the ones who care.” Lillian Benson knows how to make an audience suffer because Lillian Benson cares. She knows how to reward us, too.

Noland Walker
Friend/Colleague/Mentee; Producer, Writer, Director
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Lillian Benson is not only an editor who can handle the front end and bring a project home, but she can come in during the middle or near the end and add the kind of corrections and additions that make an exemplary story. When I called her for Maya Angelou and Still I Rise, she recalled a personal experience of being in Maya’s home. Her sense of history and the need for depth in each frame of the story is to be admired. She understood the importance of the story and the need for creativity and truth in the edit. So, she arranged her calendar to come from Los Angeles to Chicago to help myself and co-director Bob Hercules finish the project. Her integrity in thought and editing is known in the industry. She came highly recommended and did not disappoint. She brought our composer Steven James Taylor to the project, having both an eye and an ear for the project.

In an unscripted documentary, the editor often functions as a writer. When we were almost there, Lillian functioned as an editor in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. Her attention to detail and helpful critique finessed the project so that it could flow smoothly, pause well and succeed at telling the extraordinary story. That would be my one word for Lillian: Extraordinary. If given two more words: Thank you.

Rita Coburn Whack
Colleague; Director, Producer

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It’s hard for me to imagine anyone more qualified to receive the Fellowship and Service award than Lillian Benson; she certainly embodies all of the Editors Guild’s values. For me, however, she is far more than a generous, professional, collegial spirit. She’s my foxhole buddy — “Miss Lilly” — someone I can count on to have my back when the going gets tough.

Lillian and I go way back. We teamed up for the first time on a PBS science series. Both of us were newbies. It was her first show in Los Angeles and my first crack at nature filmmaking as a producer/director steeped in history re-enactments and special effects; what a bumpy first ride. The unpredictable “nature” of nature, coupled with the rookie expectation of control, yielded embarrassing amounts of blown coverage that limited editing options. And yet, each day she showed up like a trooper, bringing a calm optimism and confidence to the editing room…a life-saving skill particularly useful after executive screenings.

Thanks to Lillian’s unflinching vision and confidence, the opening episode of Season Four of the Infinite Voyage science series, “The Keepers of Eden,” premiered not only successfully but went on to receive the Cine Golden Eagle Award. As for me, I survived the smoke and fury of that first project thanks to Lillian’s cool counsel and calm under fire. I’m sure to outsiders the struggle was never obvious. But I know otherwise, and so Lillian became “Miss Lilly” to me, as she will always be.

Lillian is a creative problem-solver, gracious team player and skillful storyteller for any director lucky enough to have her on the team.

Richard J. Wells
Colleague; Producer

About Laura Almo 13 Articles
Laura Almo is a writer and documentary filmmaker. She teaches video editing at El Camino College in Torrance, California, and is a contributing editor at Documentary magazine. Contact her at lauraalmo@mac.com

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