FILM: Soul Sisters | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

FILM: Soul Sisters

The following featured films are screening at the Crossroads Film Festival April 3-6. Call 948-3531 for tickets; see their Web site for schedule.

The first time Joan and Robert Sadoff came to Mississippi to talk to people about the Civil Rights Movement, they had no intention of making a documentary. The Sadoffs were compelled to go to the South in 1992 after seeing, in a documentary about the 1960s, real footage of a busload of Freedom Riders trapped in a barricaded bus that had been inflamed by an angry white mob in a Birmingham bus station. These horrifying images moved Joan and Robert Sadoff to find out for themselves what changes were going on in the South and what still needed to be done. During their information-gathering trip, they got lost while looking for the Mount Zion Church in Philadelphia, Miss. It was a fortuitous misdirection. When they approached a local woman for assistance, she said, "If you've got a tape recorder, we've got stories." They started recording.

Eventually, the Sadoffs decided to do something meaningful with all of the material they gathered. Their first documentary, "Philadelphia, Mississippi: Untold Stories," was produced in 1994. "Everybody talked, and everybody had a story," Joan Sadoff says, by phone from Philadelphia, Penn. It was much easier to get a core group together to interview for their second project, which focused on black Mississippi women who fought for black freedom. "Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders," which will compete in the Crossroads Film Festival for best documentary on April 5, tells the empowering stories of courageous women—black and white—who defied the state's white status quo in the 1960s: the first black female mayor in the state (Unita Blackwell), the sharecropper who tried to start a progressive, multiracial political party (Fannie Lou Hamer), the first black woman to graduate from Ole Miss law school (Constance Slaughter Harvey), the first white woman to sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter (Joan Trumpauer Mulholland), then in downtown Jackson.

The name of the film evolved from the women's modesty. As the Sadoffs interviewed the women, Joan recalls that several said, "Oh, you don't want to interview me, you want to interview her." Then, one of the women, Professor L.C. Dorsey, said, "I was standing on my sister's shoulders." Thus, Joan Sadoff (a former clinical social worker) and her husband Dr. Robert Sadoff (a practicing forensic psychiatrist) had their title.

The film is much more than its name, however. "Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders," which already received a Special Jury Prize at the Savannah Film and Video Festival last November, is a powerful and moving film about ordinary women armed with sheer determination and little, or no, monetary or political resources. These women were "sick and tired of being sick and tired," as Delta farmer Fannie Lou Hamer suddenly found herself back in the early 1960s. They risked their jobs, their lives and the safety of their families to change Mississippi and America for the better.

The participation of women in the Civil Rights Movement played a vital role in its success, yet throughout mainstream history most of their voices were left unheard, even as men like Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Moses and Medgar Evers became legendary. In this film, the women tell their own stories in their own voices. They explain why they stayed in Mississippi, even as others fled past the borders of Jim Crow segregation. Women like Victoria Gray Adams stayed to make a difference. "I decided that if I could live differently in other parts of the country I should be able to live that way in Mississippi also," Adams said.

The film shows how women used their positions as organizers in churches as a conduit to civil rights activities. Churches where they worshipped, which played a central role in the African-American community, were also used to meet, organize and inform. "The women convinced the men to open up the church," Charlie Cobb, an activist and SNCC student leader, remembers.

After Fannie Lou Hamer, along with several other women, was arrested and beaten in a Winona jail because she went to register to vote, Hamer warned her friends of letting their anger take over. "Hate will destroy you," she told them. Instead, they put aside their fear and anger to participate—even more determinedly—in boycotts and sit-ins while remaining active for the cause. And eventually, Hamer, Annie Devine and Victoria Gray Adams took their determination all the way to the U.S. House of Representatives to challenge America and to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Devine's voice resonates in the film: "I said, 'America, you need to think about your soul.'"

Mae Bertha Carter, a sharecropper and mother of 13 children, decided she wanted her kids to get a good education so they would not have to continue a sharecropping legacy. The film shows a "first-day-of-school" photo of her children dressed up and eager, holding their books ready for their classes in their new, about-to-be-integrated school. This image illustrates well the fear Carter must have felt in her stomach every time her children got on the bus to brave an environment filled with landmines of hate. She would not be deterred by the fact that she was the first woman to attempt desegregation in Drew. Her determination and courage allowed her children the best education that was offered. In the film, she says proudly that each of them graduated from Drew High School, and seven went on to graduate from the University of Mississippi—an impossibility when she was young.

"Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders" uses interviews from a varied group of both black and white women of Mississippi involved in the movement, to interlace their experiences in their own words. The filmmakers also use stock footage and photographs to effectively bring the stories to life. "These women have such a strong force of character and conviction," says Laura J. Lipson, the director, writer and co-producer of the film. "[They] are amazing. I got such a strength from them. You could see by their strong determination they were not going to let anyone stop them."

Tired of Giving In

Rosa Parks, the only famous female icon from the civil-rights era, will make an "appearance" at the Crossroads Film Festival in the documentary "Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks" produced by Robert Hudson and directed by Bobby Houston. This highly stylized film shows vividly and powerfully how one woman changed the course of American history by her decision to take a stand and remain in her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Snappy scene cuts and music by John Lee Hooker make this film an accessible and thorough piece in which to view the events surrounding Rosa Parks. It also explodes the myth that Parks was a little old lady who got tired one day. She was a vibrant and active member of the Civil Rights Movement before she committed her personal act of civil disobedience. "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in," she says in the film.
The filmmakers of "Mighty Times" use vintage footage and some very real-looking reenactments that flow seamlessly together to create a vivid and in-depth look into the movement and Parks. Perhaps the best scenes come from oral testimony of individuals—as well as family members of the individuals—who were involved in the events. Their use of young people (nieces, cousins and grandchildren) to tell the stories gives the piece an urgent and timely relevance. It's one thing to watch actors re-enact these events; it's another more powerful visual to see young relatives of the people involved telling the stories with passion and pride.
—Jennifer Moffett

Stiggers-Rigged Satire
"You want to know where black humor came from? It started on the slave ships. Cat was rowing and dude says, 'What you laughin' about?'
[The first cat replied]
'Yesterday I was a king.' "
— Richard Pryor, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences"

Satire is an important form of art and could arguably be called the ultimate political tool. African Americans have been utilizing this tool for centuries beginning with the fables and folklore of Africa and continuing to one of the greatest examples, Ishmael Reed's critically acclaimed novel "Mumbo Jumbo."

Those of you who have not enjoyed the work of a local satirical genius in either his spoken-word performances or late night on public-access TV will get your chance at the Crossroads Film Festival. Ken Stiggers, a recent "Jacksonian" in the JFP, will have a big-screen debut of his cult hit "Negro Rigged Jeopardy" that sporadically airs on Channel 18. The animated short is a daringly funny look at African-American history miming as the popular game show with contestants Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the Cream of Wheat guy trying to answer questions about black history. Begun as part of a series of shows that Stiggers created called "Black Comedy," the spoof is loosely based on a radio program in Atlanta called the "I'm Not Black World Report." Stiggers worked in Atlanta before moving to Jackson to run the City Of Jackson's Public Education Government network studio (public access).
The recent transplant, formerly of Pittsburgh and a Penn State graduate, Stiggers creates work that is a joy to hear, watch or read—and takes satire, especially of race relations and history in the U.S.—hilariously close to the edge. Don't miss it.
— J. Bingo Holman

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