One of the most interesting bits of trivia I learned last year about the history of race relations in North Carolina is that, in 1947, famed civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was arrested in now-so-liberal Chapel Hill for sitting next to a white man on a city bus. That tidbit came courtesy of Brother Outsider, a film on Rustin that played on the festival circuit last year, including the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Now, another of 2003's civil rights-themed films is getting a fresh screening, and it, too, is a powerful and informative document of a starkly different North Carolina that existed not that long ago.
The hour-long film is February One, and it celebrates the day in 1960 when four African-American college students sat down for a forbidden lunch at a Greensboro Woolworth's. Produced by Durham filmmakers Rebecca Cerese and Steven Channing, February One will help kick off Black History Month when it's screened this Sunday at Durham's Carolina Theatre at 3 p.m.
As Cerese noted in a telephone interview, it's difficult to overestimate the dangers that North Carolina A&T students Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond--who would soon be known as the Greensboro Four--faced when they went down to Woolworth's. "They had Emmett Till on their minds," Cerese says. Fortunately, the cops were restrained, and indeed, there was no violence during the ensuing five-month stand-off. "This was a case where non-violence worked," Cerese says, "which drew me to the story. People don't think you can make non-violence exciting, but I disagree.
"It might have been a bloodless battle, but it was a battle nonetheless," she adds.
Cerese and her producing partners, who included Cynthia Hill in addition to Channing, also made a potentially risky decision by including some footage reenacted with actors. "There were only two photographs of that first day, and without the enacted footage the film would have failed." Cerese notes that not only have there been no complaints about it, but many viewers like the dramatized footage best.
The film premiered at last April's Full Frame fest, playing to a packed house in Fletcher Hall. Since then, February One has played in numerous festivals around the country. According to producer Channing, a PBS scout spotted the film at a New York screening last September. "I got a call from a rep who loved the film and wanted to consider it for national broadcast," he says, adding that he expects a decision from PBS in March. "In the meantime, we wanted to keep the film in the public eye."
For years, North Carolina State University was a venue for the Southern Circuit, which was a network of southern campuses that would screen films produced by regional filmmakers. However, when the funding for it disappeared last year, an undergraduate film student named Jenn Dorn was approached by faculty members Joe Gomez and Neal Hutcheson to organize a replacement film program. Citing conflicts, Gomez and Hutcheson bowed out, but new faculty members Marsha and Devin Orgeron stepped in as advisors. Now, a revived bi-monthly program called Independent Film Series (IFS) will formally get under way next Wednesday, Feb. 4.
Now in charge of a film series, Dorn decided to change the approach. "I wanted to redefine it, to make it more open to filmmakers who are not necessarily successful or well-known," she said in a telephone interview last week. Resisting any impulse to impose rules, Dorn's planned bi-monthly series will have "a more open format. It won't necessarily be film [as opposed to video], and they don't have to be features."
For its premiere screening, Dorn has programmed Chesterfield, a 1997 film by David Reid Iverson and Catherine Constantinou, who co-wrote and directed. Last week, I watched (an unfortunately buggy) DVD of the film, and though I had to skip through a few physically unwatchable scenes, I'm happy to report that Dorn has performed a well-considered service to local filmgoers by resurrecting this smart, beautifully photographed tale.
At the outset, the most impressive thing about Chesterfield is its moody, black and white cinematography. In an era when we expect shoestring budget films to be shot in muddy video--to look like crap, in other words--Chesterfield serves as an elegant riposte. With its jazzy score and a clever filming strategy that makes efficient use of confined space and dark shadows, the directors and their cinematographer Jay Spain have produced a gorgeously photographed low-budget film, impressive in the manner of George Washington, the debut from David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls and the forthcoming A Confederacy of Dunces) and Following by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia).
One of the most daunting tasks before any low-budget filmmaker is how to somehow generate the illusion of high production values in order to clear the high bar of audience suspension of disbelief. With comedies like, say, Kevin Smith's Clerks, a witty script can save the day (and the cheapness of the production can become part of the joke). But Chesterfield is no cavalcade of adolescent sex jokes. Much more ambitiously, it's a straight-faced and often quite well-written film noir.
The film opens in a smoky jazz club, with a live band and twirling couples. It doesn't seem to be any club in this area; rather, it's an effective evocation of a certain movie era, when the men wore fedoras and drank liquor from flasks, and the women were tough-talking dames with ambiguous agendas. We meet Johnny, a failing writer and quite successful hit man for a Greek mobster, his partner Thekie (played by co-director Constantinou) and the beautiful, tragic and mysterious Eleni, who is the boss's daughter, Johnny's lover and perhaps something more.
The plot concerns numerology, sex, revenge, a bunch of cash and cryptic clues inscribed on the back of people's teeth. It's an ambitious plot, made even more so by the filmmakers' decision to set the story in the present, while employing the tropes of classic noirs like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past. (Consequently, there are some weirdly anachronistic moments such as the one in which sharp-suited killers peruse the "Missed Connections" section of what is apparently The Independent.) Elsewhere, the writing of Iverson and Constantinou occasionally rises to some of the most barbed exchanges ever produced by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, as when Eleni's gangster father tells her how much she's resembling her late mother. The young woman retorts, "It runs in the family, Papou". We all end up looking like someone who's dead."
In terms of film shelf-life, 1997 feels like a long time ago--when many area filmmakers were still in high school. (Festival curator Dorn is herself one of those young filmmakers, with several Super-8 and 16 mm shorts to her credit.) In the intervening years, the filmmakers have moved on to other projects. Iverson and Spain recently worked on Jay Niver's Live and Let Go, a documentary about the suicide of Niver's dying father, and Catherine Constantinou is a Durham lawyer who continues to do film work on the side.
Consequently, an obscure, undistributed film like Chesterfield can easily be forgotten, but thanks to Dorn's curatorial efforts it will find a well-deserved new audience.
David Fellerath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.