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From Slavery to Scottsboro

Making a Media Fund Work

By Margaret Schroeder | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

Since its creation in 1990, the Southern Humanities Media Fund has provided more than $1.1 million in production grants to thirty-five film, television, and radio projects, many of which have aired nationally and won awards.

"We look for projects that have a novel and compelling take on aspects of Southern social history and on the changing face of the South," says fund coordinator Andrew Wyndham. "Many of the films are projects of historical recovery; they unearth little-known or previously unexplored stories that bear on the experience of living in the South during periods of significant social or cultural transformation."

One such film is Hoxie: The First Stand, which has not yet aired. It focuses on one of the earliest and least remembered school integration battles of the South. In 1955, the superintendent and board members in Hoxie, Arkansas, voted unanimously to integrate, telling reporters that "it was morally right in the sight of God." The stance angered segregationists who saw the town as a place to challenge the Supreme Court on Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that struck down segregation in public schools. The Hoxie school board refused to be intimidated and called upon a local lawyer whose strategy drew in the Justice Department and eventually led to the nullification of segregation laws in Arkansas.

Other Southern Humanities Media Fund films also have dealt with the fight for justice. Academy Award nominee Freedom on My Mind explores the efforts to register black voters in 1964; The Uprising of '34 revisits a textile strike that involved more than a quarter of a million workers; Oh Freedom After While chronicles a 1939 demonstration by sharecroppers.

Oh Freedom After While and George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire are the projects that have aired most recently on PBS. Upcoming PBS airings include Stranger With A Camera, which examines the relationship between those who make films and those whose lives are documented.

The fund is a collaboration among the humanities councils in ten states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Each member contributes a minimum of $10,000 per year.

The states came together a decade ago when they realized how fragmented their funding for media projects was. "We were getting tons of these proposals that we were being asked to fund a piece of," says Robert Cheatham, executive director of the Tennessee Humanities Council, one of the founders of Southern Humanities Media fund.

By creating the fund, the states streamlined the dispersal of production grants, yet still allowed filmmakers to apply for pre-production support from individual councils. The fund's production grants are modest, averaging $40,000 to $60,000.

Providing a source of larger grants is one way to help ensure that more of the projects are completed. "A lot of states have been leery of funding documentaries, because you throw some money into it in the beginning, and you never know if you're going to see a completed project," says Randy Akers, executive director of the South Carolina Humanities Council. He sees the fund's ability to provide larger grants as a "smart business practice."

The states' efforts to create the Southern Humanities Media Fund were aided by the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga, which provided the startup money. Initially, the fund's administration moved from state to state. Now, it is permanently based at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. An executive committee that includes scholars, members of individual councils, and filmmakers recommends which projects should be supported. The fund's board votes for final approval.

Cheatham says the executive committee's decisions have always been honored "because the danger of the fund is for everybody to sit there and count up how much they got as a state."

Wyndham believes the grants give good ideas a chance to survive. "The Southern Humanities Media Fund monies often come into play at a time when a project is seeking a vote of confidence--a way to begin production and build momentum," he says. "We like to think that our willingness to go to the fore and select the best in films in our field of interest, helps to shape the decisions made by larger funders, further down the road."

George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, Tell About the South, and the film, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, are among the NEH-funded projects that initially received help from the Southern Humanities Media Fund.

Filmmakers say their work may never have been produced without those initial grants. "It's hard for a regional project to compete in the bigger pool of projects for a grant," says Kristy Anderson, maker of BlackSouth, a film about the life and works of writer Zora Neale Hurston. "Sometimes the regional angle bucks the traditional line of thought. For instance, in my film, we pull Hurston out of the context of the Harlem Renaissance and place her squarely within the South--after all, her writing was about the South, and her books were published long after the Renaissance ended in Harlem. That approach didn't sit well with some national granting agencies. They held a more traditional view of Hurston. But our SHMF grant affirmed this approach, and strengthened the project. After that, we received grants from the NEA and the NEH."

Andrew Garrison says Maxine, his film adaptation of a short story about a woman in Appalachia, is better for the funding. He used some of the money he received to put together scholars and the short story's author, who worked to improve the screenplay before production began. "That was just an extraordinary experience," he says.

Without the state collaboration, it would be difficult to bring together nationally known scholars and filmmakers to review treatments, scripts, or work samples, says Wyndham. "Individual state councils generally don't have this kind of technical expertise."

Probably the biggest benefit of the collaborative fund is ensuring that the well-storied history of the South, as well as the role of the region in the country's history is documented and preserved.

"The South is a gold mine for filmmakers," says Richard Wormser, director of the upcoming series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. "Taking those stories and putting them on film rescues our history from oblivion. We uncover things that get lost, and people forget about. It's through history that we understand the present."

About the Author

Margaret Schroeder is a writer in Illinois.