John Carter, Pioneering African-American Film Editor, Dies at 95

John Carter - Publicity - P 2018
Courtesy of The Carter Family

His résumé includes 'The Heartbreak Kid,' 'Friday,' 'Lean on Me' and the Oscar-nominated MLK documentary 'Montgomery to Memphis.'

John Carter, the pioneering African-American film editor who worked on The Heartbreak Kid, Paper Lion and Barbershop and shaped powerful documentaries about Martin Luther King Jr. and Solomon Northup, has died. He was 95.

Carter died Aug. 13 at his home in White Plains, New York, his daughter Carolyn told The Hollywood Reporter.

The first African-American to join the American Cinema Editors society, Carter co-edited the George Plimpton football tale Paper Lion (1968); Lean on Me (1989), starring Morgan Freeman as real-life high school principal Joe Clark; The Karate Kid Part III (1989), one of three features he did with director John G. Avildsen; and Men of Honor (2000), about African-American Navy diver Carl Brashear.

His editing skills also were on display in the Marlon Brando and George C. Scott mystery The Formula (1980); in The Heartbreak Kid (1973) and Mikey and Nicky (1976), both directed by Elaine May; and in the Ice Cube comedies Friday (1995) and Barbershop (2002).

"John Carter was a beautiful spirit, and it could be felt and seen through his work," director Bill Duke, who partnered with him on Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, The Cemetery Club, Deep Cover and TV's The Killing Floor, told THR. "His craft and spirit influenced my films in a very positive way."

Following the assassination of King on April 4, 1968, producer Ely Landau approached Sidney Lumet (he had produced the director's Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Pawnbroker) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) to begin work on chronicling the life of the slain civil rights leader. (It would be Lumet's only foray into the documentary genre and just the second film that Carter would edit.)

The three-hour King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis exhaustively documents MLK's life from the 1955 bus boycott in Alabama to his assassination, and features appearances by Paul Newman, Brando, Burt Lancaster and James Earl Jones reciting verse for the camera. The "I Have a Dream" speech is shown in its entirety.

The documentary, which Carter and co-editor Lora Hays cut by hand, begins with an emotional introduction by Harry Belafonte, a close friend of King: "And be thankful that the Lord let such a man touch our lives, even if it were for only a little while."

Montgomery to Memphis screened as a "one-time only" nationwide event in 1,000 theaters on March 24, 1970, received an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature and in 1999 was enshrined into the National Film Registry.

Years before 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for best picture, Northup's 1853 memoir was adapted by renowned African-American photojournalist and director Gordon Parks for the 1984 PBS telefilm Solomon Northup's Odyssey.

The Shaft helmer had come out of retirement and hired Carter to edit the film, which the National Endowment for the Humanities said "helped push one of the darkest periods from America's past into the public consciousness."

In 1982, Carter had edited another PBS production (co-produced by WPBT), A House Divided: Denmark Vesey's Rebellion. That focused on the true story of a carpenter and former slave (played by Yaphet Kotto) who planned to seize the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and stage a rebellion.

Carter's final work for PBS was 1985's Charlotte Forten's Mission: Experiment in Freedom, starring Melba Moore. Forten was an African-American abolitionist and educator who taught former slaves in South Carolina.

Carter was born in Newark, New Jersey, on Sept. 22, 1922. After a stint in the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant trained at the New York Institute of Photography, he took an apprenticeship with the Signal Corps Pictorial Center.

Carter was hired by CBS in 1956 and became the first African-American editor for network television in New York. He gained experience in CBS' documentary unit before creating his own production company, John Carter Associates.

In 1972, he received a BAFTA nomination for editing Taking Off, Milos Forman's first American film.

Carter also collaborated with Tyler Perry on Madea's Family Reunion (2006), Martin Lawrence's A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996), Alec Baldwin's Shortcut to Happiness (2003) and German director Bernhard Sinkel's four-part miniseries Hemingway. And he was one of three editors on the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang (1992).

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Carole; daughters Victoria and Carolyn; and son John. A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at Grace Episcopal Church in White Plains.

Mike Barnes contributed to this report.