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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Can Hollywood Depict the Civil Rights Struggle as it Really Happened?

This Friday will witness the launch of an experiment in film-making: Tinseltown’s attempt to tell the story of the African-American freedom movement in North Carolina with a nuanced narrative and without featuring a white actor  in a starring role to draw box office.

If early reviews are any indication, the creative team for Blood Done Sign My Name has succeeded.

The movie is based on the award-winning autobiographical account of the period by historian Timothy B. Tyson, a former professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now a Senior Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In his 2004 book, Tyson described how the death of Henry Marrow in 1970 ignited a resistance movement in Oxford, North Carolina, where Tyson’s father was a minister of a large church.

In the movie, actor Nate Parker plays high school teacher Ben Chavis, a former civil rights organizer who led a march on the capitol in Raleigh, a turning point that eventually spurred a boycott of white businesses in Oxford and resulted in full integration of the city.

The film is a personal triumph for my friend and former Columbia Journalism School classmate, David S. Martin, who is a co-producer on the movie.

Martin and a college buddy obtained the film rights to the book and persisted in their belief that Tyson’s account needed to reach the silver screen. Their instincts proved prescient when financier Robert K. Steel came on board and brought in director Jeb Stuart to shoot the film in the North Carolina cities of Shelby, Monroe, and Gastonia.

One can only hope that this is the first of many Hollywood projects for Martin, who has developed his keen eye for story material as a senior producer for CNN. I predict that the smartest of the development executives at production companies and studios in Los Angeles will soon be beating down his door.

Well done, David!

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