Who determines which stories get told?
Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen state legislatures across the country move to limit students’ access to stories by and about Black and Brown Americans or by and about Queer Americans. In some cases threatening fines and punishment against students or teachers that step outside of the line.
In book publishing, massive consolidation in the industry has left just a handful of gatekeepers – mostly based in New York – that determine which stories are worthy of print.
Most newsrooms across the country still don’t look like the communities they serve.
In Hollywood, while there have been major strides to diversify in recent years, the ability to greenlight projects remains in the hands of a select few.
This week on the Reckon Interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Aunjanue Ellis and Christine Swanson about their efforts to get a feature film made about Fannie Lou Hamer, an icon of the Mississippi freedom rights movement.
Aunjanue Ellis is nominated for an Academy Award this year for her performance in the 2021 biopic King Richard. She’s a two-time Emmy nominee for her work in When They See Us and Lovecraft Country. Christine Swanson is a two-time nominee for the NAACP Image Awards for her films For the Love of Ruth and The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel, which also starred Ellis.
They recently made a short film called Fannie as a proof of concept in an effort to get a full biopic made about Fannie Lou Hamer. This week, we discuss Hamer’s story and legacy, the hurdles for getting films like this made, and the relationship between art and advocacy. And, of course, we talked about Mississippi.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
And sign up for The Conversation, our weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.
Reckon: We are here to discuss your short film, “Fannie,” which is about Fannie Lou Hamer. And the film itself takes place with her famous speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention. But I want to back up a little bit and let y’all give us a full picture of who Fannie Lou Hamer really was. My understanding is the idea for this project originated with you, Aunjanue, is that right?
Aunjanue Ellis: Yeah, Christine and I met each other a couple years ago working on a project called the Clark Sisters movie. From that, we just developed a friendship and a creative alliance and then ultimately really became creative collaborators. And that seed was that film. So, you know, we are just always in each other’s thoughts and ideas and constantly exchanging them and constantly being in conversation.
And I had, a few years ago, decided that I wanted to tell the story or at least write a story about Mrs. Hamer. I just wanted to get people to be involved. I wanted it to be a Mississippi production top to bottom. Looking for a writer, looking for director, you know, all of them would be from Mississippi.
That was the dream, but I couldn’t get anybody involved. So I just said, well, I guess I have to do this myself. And so I started writing. And I’ve been, you know, churning ideas and doing research for a couple of years. And so when I met Christine, that was just a part of the soup of stuff that I was stirring. And she would tell me things, I would tell her things. And so then I guess in 2020, I wrote the screenplay. I finished it.
So last summer, I was getting really anxious. Had gotten a lot of nos. And I said, I just feel like I need to put something in the world. And she said, okay, let’s do it. So we talked about that. And Christine being who Christine is– I’m a little more of a wallflower than she is– she doesn’t just talk about it. She is about it. And she applied for this grant and we got the grant through this organization called Chromatic Black. And we got a grant for $10,000 and she came to Chicago this past fall and we shot what you see in this short film.
Reckon: Christine, tell me about the choice to use the archival footage of people there actually at the Democratic Convention, reacting to her speech spliced with Aunjanue acting in the role of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Christine Swanson: Yeah. So conceptually I pitched something very similar to what we had. But initially my idea was to juxtapose images of current voter suppression, whatever those images would have been. And it was in the performance, I felt, like I had everything set up with a green screen in the background because we were going to show those images behind Aunjanue speaking. And I don’t know if I told Aunjanue this, but in the middle of her performance, I changed my mind.
I decided to go with the straight black screen in the background and really home in on what she was giving us and just capture that. So by using the black background, it just didn’t make sense to juxtapose images behind her because now I’m not using the green screen. And instead it made sense in terms of texture and scope to use archival footage to intercut with her performance. And as you can see, there’s just this kind of strong juxtaposition of what she’s saying and what people are doing. Actual footage from that committee that she was addressing as well. It just felt more powerful to do it that way. And somehow it still feels very contemporary in many ways as well.
So it just worked out. You know, editing, you just try things. How it feels is really how it landed.
Reckon: Well, yeah, the text of the speech itself, which I believe y’all use her actual words from the convention. She has a writing credit on the script. It feels very urgent for the moment we’re in right now with ongoing voter suppression efforts and the efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act again.
And so let’s talk about that moment in her life because Mrs. Hamer is not somebody who necessarily gets her due. Her story does not get told as much broadly– I bet it gets told better in Mississippi. I grew up in Alabama, so we did not hear her story growing up. But how familiar were you with her story growing up, Aunjanue?
Ellis: I wasn’t. I wasn’t at all. Went through 12 years of school. Went to a respectable college and majored in African-American studies actually there, but did not have a day, not one day where I was taught anything about Mrs. Hamer. And it’s incredible how consequential with who she is and what she is and what she did, for me not to have any knowledge of her, it defies reason. But we know so much in this world that we live in has nothing to do with reason. So, no, I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about her. You know, we have these stories that are told through the grapevine at home in Mississippi. And I probably learned about her that way.
And it’s interesting that I come from McComb. It’s where I was raised. And I think, you know, I have been sort of sorting this stuff out. And I think one of the reasons is not just there was like suppression about Mrs. Hamer in my formalized schooling, I also feel that there was a sort of fatigue that happened. And people like my grandmother and her peers, they were just tired. They were tired. You know, there was a point in the early Sixties. Well, all throughout the Sixties actually, that McComb was actually called the bombing capital of the world because bombs went off so frequently. And my grandfather’s church was actually bombed and he was arrested for that bombing. And I just found out a couple of weeks ago through my cousin’s research that he was kidnapped one night after church by these guys. And they took him to a park somewhere and he just essentially was praying so hard that they were embarrassed and felt bad and felt convicted by his prayer. And they let him go.
So there was trauma there. And I think that, you know, my family and our community was just really tired. And the thing is that someone like Mrs Hamer, even though everything she did was, when you think about the scope of it, is incredible and awe inspiring, that we were a town of Fannie Lou Hamers.
Everybody was getting bombed. Everybody was getting beat up. Everybody was getting shot at. It was a regular thing that people lived with. I didn’t know about her, but the older I got, I started hearing more, but it came through that grapevine of freedom rights stories that are told at family functions and that kind of thing.
Swanson: Not at all. Not at all. And in fact, even as an adult, I wasn’t as familiar with her story as our traditional civil rights heroes. But it’s interesting though, as a filmmaker by profession, I’m just very much aware of how stories get made and who gets to tell stories when you look at in terms of what gets made. Because of the costs involved, typically in a movie about a civil rights hero, typically people who look like us don’t get to decide what films get greenlit. So that’s why we have so many Rosa Parks stories and so many Martin Luther King stories. Not that they are without value. Great value. But somebody is consistently green-lighting specific stories over and over and over and over again.
Speaking of people who are tired of the way things were and are, I feel like this is a time where maybe we have a chance to change the trajectory of storytelling by interjecting ourselves in the process. Now that doesn’t make it necessarily easier because I always say, like, just write me the check. I can tell the story. But I really feel that there needs to be a shift in who gets to green light stories and tell stories. And not that people who look like me should green light stories.
I’m just saying like, choices would be different, if I green-lit stories. I feel like this is a time where now we can put a spotlight on a different civil rights hero than Martin Luther King Jr. and say, hey, these people existed too. And they made great contributions to all the liberties that we’re enjoying today.
Let’s tell their stories in the way that only I can tell it, in the way that only Aunjanue can tell it. And let’s see what comes out of that. Let us participate in the telling of our history in the way that we want.
Reckon: I was thinking about that as I was preparing for this interview. It does seem like the big Hollywood theatrical release stories that get greenlit are often centered around men of the movement. What hurdles are you running into institutionally? You know, Aunjanue, you talked about you got very frustrated trying to get this film developed and couldn’t get it developed.
Ellis: I think first and foremost, yes, the story of the civil rights movement and the freedom rights movement has been very genderized and genderized very male. And have to say, even when there are women producers and women green lighters and some of them happen to be Black women, that is the direction that it tends to go in. And then when there is the story somehow or another, it’s still told through the lens of the perspective of a male. What’s different about, and I applaud Christine for doing this, is we let Mrs. Hamer speak for herself. Her words are strong enough. They’re dramatic enough. We don’t have to do anything else. What we are bumping up against is the belief that that is enough.
Reckon: Well, it’s interesting, the way you said earlier that you lived in a town full of Fannie Lou Hamers, because the way that the common narrative of the civil rights movement gets told is it’s centered around upper middle-class men like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most of the people who were foot soldiers on the ground who were getting shot at and beaten and attacked by the Klan would have been people who grew up sharecroppers, like Fannie Lou Hamer. And so I think the drama in her story… what draws you to her story, Christine? Cause you know, it’s incredible what she was able to accomplish and my understanding is, you know, some of the people who were in an SCLC weren’t necessarily comfortable with her taking center stage because of her background.
Swanson: Aunjanue Ellis drove me to this story. I was raised by two Fannie Lou Hamers. I was raised by my grandmother and my great aunt. At the time I entered their lives, they were in their mid sixties and they were from Louisville, Mississippi.
They were just like depositing into my life things that only now I can appreciate. How ironic that our ancestors have always been speaking to us and through us, and now I’m listening more so than ever. And many of them are gone so a lot of it is like memory. And I feel like the challenge to me as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, is how do I make their memory come alive in the way that I knew them. In the way that I love them. And in the way that they love me, which is very, very different than even how I raise my own children. I just wish I could maybe put it in a book or something and just say, this is how you raise a warrior. They knew this intuitively. I didn’t understand that except in hindsight. They’re very much reminiscent to me of Mrs. Hamer in terms of their resilience. It’s interesting because I don’t want to frame women like that as just resilient, strong. And they are all those things. But I also got to see them in ways where they were very, very vulnerable and very, very honest. Unafraid but very aware of the circumstances surrounding them and trying to teach me and deposit into me the tools to navigate the world that they knew. They would just be shocked to see me today, given the world that they knew. But they prepared me in many ways to use the tools that we have today to make sure that they’re not forgotten. That is what I’m called to do.
Reckon: Aunjanue, just so our listeners have a sense of who she is, as you were putting together this screenplay about her, can you tell us a little bit about her story and all that she accomplished in Mississippi?
Ellis: Well, Mrs. Hamer was the 20th of child. She was the youngest actually of 20 children. Her father was a farmer and they were actually had gotten to a point where they were doing really well. They had horses. They were self-sustaining and then there were some envious white people in their neighborhood and they came along and poisoned all their horses. So it essentially threw them back into really abject poverty.
So she was the 20th child. She was picking cotton at the age of six. And essentially doing so because of what happened with her father and her mother. They needed the money. The sharecropper who got her to pick cotton and six years old enticed her to do so, not just because of money, but he said, “I’ll give you this candy, if you pick this cotton. If you pick this row of cotton.” So her career as a sharecropper, a career out on a labor camp, started when she was six years old. And then she was a sharecropper. Married to Perry Hamer. Perry “Pap” Hamer and they were sharecroppers in the Marlow labor camp– we call them plantations, but they’re labor camps– in Ruleville, Mississippi. And she was devout in the church, living that life, and then SNCC came around and they were trying to get people to, first of all, know that they could vote. Because Mrs. Hamer did not know she could vote. She thought only white people could do that, her words.
And they came and spoke at a mass meeting and a mass rally. And the words of James Bevel convicted her and it changed her life. And it thrust her into being someone who was an activist for voting rights. She got the right to vote, became an activist for voting rights. Long story short in the process of this, she was beaten in Winona jail because she was in the act of not just getting the right to vote for herself, but teaching other people how to register. And all those things that people had to deal with just to vote like poll taxes, literacy tests. She was training people, went to a training meeting to help people with that. And on her way home, they were arrested. She was beaten literally within an inch of her life, survived that, and then went on to go to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 with SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, all these folks.
And they went to New Jersey to take the seats and to usurp the seats that were claimed by the all white, all male delegation from Mississippi. This made Lyndon Johnson so angry, that speech that people see in the short, he called for a press conference so the world wouldn’t see it. They interrupted her, took the cameras away from her, went to the White House. The cameras went to the White House, so he could talk about– people don’t even remember what he was talking about. And it’s so interesting that when you see the footage of the press conference that he called, the reporters are like mystified.
They were like why are we here? Is this why you called us over here? It’s really comical. But then the national networks at the time, you know where there were only three at that time, they decided, you know what, this is good television. We want to air this. We want to see this. And so she was able to give her speech in full on national television.
And because she did that, it really put the Democratic Party on blast. Because it called what they imagined themselves to be, it called all of that into question. Because they had to decide who they were. Do they seat these moral people, sharecroppers and maids and beauticians from Mississippi? Or do they seat the so-called Dixiecrats? And it put the whole convention in a spin.
Reckon: Well, and it’s interesting that Lyndon Johnson, you know who the common narrative would credit him with a lot of passage of the civil rights bills, that he was so threatened by her speech, that he would call a press conference during that. But not speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. or John Lewis or James Bevel. Why do you think her message was so radical at that time?
Ellis: I think that he was particularly threatened by her because Mrs. Hamer was talking about a life she lived. And that’s not to say… I mean, the other speakers, Charles King was a speaker. He was a chaplain at Tougaloo College. As you said, John Lewis and Martin Luther King and also Aaron Henry, who was a pharmacist from Mississippi whose pharmacy was bombed. All of them had, you know.. We all know what Dr. King went through. Here’s a difference. Dr. King was shot at. Dr. King was put in the Birmingham jail. And actually Mrs. Hamer and Dr. King, they were in jail around the same time. And what’s interesting, I had this conversation with actually Michael Dyson and we sorta kind of worked this through… when Martin Luther King was in jail, he got to write letters. He was writing letters. You know what I mean? When Mrs. Hamer was in jail, she was getting her tail beat.
So the testimony of that is so powerful. It’s so powerful. It embarrassed him. He couldn’t stand for it. And as you know, he was in the shadow of JFK. He wanted this to be his moment. And here this Black woman coming from Ruleville Mississippi was spoiling it all for him, you know.
Reckon: I’m curious about how you depict some of these things on screen without it feeling like torture. She was tortured in many ways. I mean, we didn’t talk about the quote unquote, Mississippi appendectomy, where they gave her a forced hysterectomy against her will in Mississippi. There’s been a lot of conversation recently about how a lot of the films that do get greenlit are ones that show Black Americans being tortured.
So how do you tell a story that’s really a story of uplift and power without getting bogged down in those moments.
Swanson: Okay. Well, one of the things that I kind of take away from how Mrs. Hamer is framed versus the other speakers at the Democratic National Convention, is that, they gave speeches and she gave her testimony. And that hits different.
You know, like speeches are common occurrences and it’s very formal in nature and that’s the expectation of this type of crowd. And Mrs. Hamer didn’t give a speech. Like she came just raw and gave a testimony. And what happens when people give testimonies, and this speaks to her church background, is that there’s like a spiritual negotiation that takes place between the speaker and the audience. And her speech so affected the audience members and the press that the press decided, “we have to do something with this because people were affected.” And that’s a superpower on many levels.
But, again, to me, it was a spiritual connection that she made with the people listening.
In terms of storytelling and cinematic tools, I would say, I think there are different ways to approach everything in terms of how you use the lens, how you frame the subject matter, and what have you. And, historically, when we see stories like this, to me, it feels like trauma porn, and this is a terminology for it now because it’s so overused. Because it is what it is.
These things happened. And sometimes, you know, maybe the choices made to show it and depict it have been consistently psychologically traumatizing for Black people whose ancestors lived through this and went through this. So one way that Aunjanue approached this in the writing is she said to me, I never want to see Mrs. Hamer getting beaten. We know it’s happening, and we know what that feels like. There are just other ways that we can visualize this and realize this in a way that the audience is connected to the violence that’s taking place. But at the same time being aware of an audience who’s just overwrought with trauma porn.
So there is a way that we will deal with it, that I think hasn’t been done before. Aunjanue and I were discussing that this is not a typical civil rights story or civil rights movie as we know them. We are doing something differently that kind of goes deeper. And we were discussing on a molecular level that will show itself very differently than anything we’ve ever seen before.
And that is another reason why this story and at this time is very important to tell because we’re tired. We’re tired of violence against our skin onscreen and offscreen. So we’re creatives. We have to think of different ways to do this, but equally, if not more impactful. Just like we saw in the short film, very impactful in ways that it’s concise, it’s specific and it’s hard hitting. And we didn’t see any blood.
Reckon: Aunjanue some of our listeners have been trying to get me to interview you for a while. You are beloved in Mississippi and in the South. And one of the questions that one of our listeners asked is, you’ve been able to use your art as activism in Mississippi and around the South, whether it’s murals or poetry or speaking out against the governor’s decision to invite Donald Trump to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
And I’m curious, right now you’re coming off of an Oscar nomination. You’ve got back-to-back Emmy nominations. You have, seemingly I would think, as much capital as you could possibly have in Hollywood at the moment. So why dedicate yourself to trying to get this story told in particular? What drives you?
Ellis: It’s what’s most important to me. Acting came because someone else saw that in me, not necessarily because it was something that I really wanted to do myself. I think anybody who was a creative person in the South understands this. Even now the opportunities for that kind of self-expression don’t exist a lot. Still in 2022. They just don’t exist a lot. So imagine growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, my theatrical expression happened in church along with everybody. Everybody under the age of 15, like, you didn’t have a choice, you know what I’m saying? So it wasn’t like my thespian experience, my thespian life began. It was everybody was a thespian. Everybody was. You didn’t have a choice.
Acting was not what was most important to me. Writing was and then that got derailed for a lot of reasons, but what was always important to me was the knowledge that I am living in a place where my people have been under constant attack. You know, that was in my home.
I lived with a woman whose husband was kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken to jail for bombing a church that was his own church. I lived with that. So it was in my blood. It was literally in my blood. So I was that before I was anything. You could take acting away. I don’t want to take it away because it’s actually paying my rent right now and taking care of other people as well. So I’m not saying that. I don’t want that to be taken away. You can take that away, but that’s still going to be there in some form. It’s always going to be there.
Reckon: It feels like the South is a region that gets depicted on screen a lot, but isn’t necessarily often telling its own story. And certainly Black southerners are not telling their own stories on film. What are some other stories about the South that you would like to see told?
Swanson: It’s funny because someone reminded me and, I don’t know why, there’s a career that I’d had before and a career that I’m forging now. And someone reminded me like, “you know that movie you shot in Mississippi?” I actually shot a movie in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
It was just kind of a weird and haunting like every day, because for me, I looked at it like, I’m this city girl and I’m walking backwards in time cause it feels like parts of Clarksdale just got stuck in time.
I think I discussed this with Aunjanue one time, I have a tendency to romanticize things. And I was just trying to always see things from the perspective of my relatives. And the challenge that I feel now is to see things the way I see things and to capture this backdrop. But again, let me replace that, capture this character in the way that it’s presenting itself. Like when I was directing Aunjanue. Like I’m capturing what she’s giving me in many ways. I’d like to see that, see this place through that lens. Like revisit it in a way that’s more personal and specific to me as opposed to always connecting it to a past, so that I can personalize it, maybe in a way that only I can. So there’s a slight obsession that I have with the South. What it gives to me and how I regurgitate it and articulate it. So that a constant process that’s still happening ,that I’m always excited about.
I’ve never been bitten by more mosquitoes in my lifetime. It’s just grueling. When I was shooting in Clarksdale, I was just eaten up by mosquitoes. How do people live here? How do people manage? It’s rough, but at the same time it’s challenging ona molecular level. So yeah, just as a storyteller, I’m just always intrigued by what the subject is trying to tell me. And I feel that way about Mississippi. Like, what is it speaking into me today?
Reckon: What’s next for both of you?
Swanson: I’m working on the finale of All American Homecoming as we speak. I’ve had a busy year of doing a lot of episodic work. A lot of it in the South. I do have a movie this fall to shoot about Kemba Smith. And it deals with minimum sentencing laws put in place by Senator Joe Biden that disproportionately institutionalized a lot of Black and Brown people in a way that really built up the prison industrial complex, which is a for-profit business. That not-Black people are profiting from. You know, again, we’re going back to the Black backs of Black people and somebody’s profiting off of that. So it never ends, it never ends. Pretty busy schedule in that sense. But as Aunjanue knows like I’m making room for Sunflower when that takes off.
So that’s priority in terms of what I’m excited about doing.
Ellis: I shot this limited series last year here in Chicago called 61st Street. So it’s going to be on AMC at some point in the next few weeks or couple months.
Reckon: And of course we’ll all be crossing our fingers for you at the Academy Awards here in a few weeks.
Ellis: Well, thank you. Well, you can uncross them. I won already, I got the nomination. That’s huge. I’m excited about that. I’m excited about that for my state, you know?