“It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Discussing her new documentary, The Contradictions of Fair Hope, S. Epatha Merkerson emphasizes the difficult dichotomy at the film’s core. The “contradictions” of the title are stark, she says. Sacred and Profane, Benevolence and Wickedness, Heaven and Hell — the duality of human nature on full display.
In the most immediate sense, The Contradictions of Fair Hope — which will be shown in Birmingham on September 12 and 13, in screenings at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and UAB’s Hulsey Recital Hall — is a history lesson. The film highlights the important and largely forgotten economic and social role of black benevolent societies in the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Promoting black self-reliance, these societies were critical institutions in the transition from slavery to freedom.
Standing in counterpoint to this meditation on history is what Merkerson describes as a story that is “fascinating but also disturbing.” As the Director’s Statement issued in the film’s media materials puts it, this is the story of “what happens when a community steeped in mutual care and concern loses its way and begins to put the ‘almighty dollar’ ahead of benevolence.”
Merkerson and co-director Rockell Metcalf explore these larger themes through the prism of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society, which was founded in 1888 by freed slaves in a small community near Faunsdale, Alabama. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the film presents a piece of history that Merkerson says had not been fully explored.
“The history we are taught misses a lot of stories,” she declares. “There are so many events, organizations, people in our community that we know nothing about. We know a lot about black people in this country up to emancipation. Then the next thing we hear about is the Civil Rights Movement. That long period in between was a time when black people literally took care of each other. I’m a person who prides myself on being a student of history, and for me to get almost to age 60 without knowing that story is shameful. That was a driving force in making the film.
“And then there’s the other side. The seedy side.”
Opening up history
Best known to a generation of television viewers for her role as New York Police Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running cops-and-lawyers drama Law & Order — and to an earlier generation as Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-wee’s Playhouse — Merkerson lives in Manhattan. That’s where she met her co-director, Rockell Metcalf, the chief legal counsel for a New York-based financial services firm, about eight years ago. They became friends, and later began to talk about working together on a film.“We weren’t thinking of a documentary,” Merkerson relates. “And then Rockell happened to go home to see his grandmother in Alabama.”
Metcalf earned his undergraduate degree from Talladega College. He later spent time in Birmingham as a law clerk for federal judge U.W. Clemon. But the visit with his 98-year-old grandmother — who, it turned out, was the oldest surviving member of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society — left Metcalf with a whole new understanding of black history in Alabama. Or, as he put it to Merkerson upon returning to New York, “I found a project.”
Like her colleague, Merkerson was drawn to the absorbing historical narrative of an insular organization, nearly 125 years old, that existed solely for the benefit of black Alabamians. Throughout its existence, the Fair Hope society has distributed food to needy families, delivered aid to the sick and elderly and provided a form of burial insurance for many blacks whose families could not have afforded a proper funeral otherwise.
“We worked hard to weave a story that leaves an impression of the depth of African-American history,” says Merkerson. “I was compelled to know more about the rich history of this organization, its traditions and practices. There is a lot of history still in hearts and minds. I hope we’ve been able to capture that.”
Indeed, the filmmakers seem to have captured more history than they bargained for. As they interviewed elderly members of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society, learning about the inner workings of the organization — including its secret burials and other arcane rites — Merkerson and Metcalf found their subjects opening up about the origins of a gathering known for a half-century and more as the Foot Wash.
“This place of debauchery”
The Foot Wash began as an annual reunion of the Fair Hope organization, with singing, sermons and members decked out in white. Beginning sometime in the 1950s, what had been a heartfelt celebration of emancipation and citizenhood transformed gradually into a carnival of profligacy. By the time the filmmakers began what ultimately was a three-year process to complete The Contradictions of Fair Hope, the Foot Wash was attracting crowds of 10,000 or more over three days to a site near Uniontown, and soon would attract the attention of the Alabama State Police.
Held on land owned by society members, the event offered attendees the usual festival wares and fares — music, food, arts and crafts. Unlike other events, the Foot Wash also had vendors selling guns, drugs and sex. In 2010, both the Birmingham News and the Tuscaloosa News reported the story of a woman who pleaded guilty to killing her boyfriend after finding him in what the papers termed a “prostitution pit.” The film is straightforward in its presentation of the revelry and frank in its assessment of what happens to a community that loses touch with its structure and traditions.
“Our question was, how did we get from this place of nobility, where the benevolent society started, to this place of debauchery?” Merkerson recounts. “If we can answer that question, we have created a tool to help us stay connected to who we are and where we came from. We’re losing communities, losing schools, losing kids, because they don’t have that sense of connection to their history. I hope this film can be a catalyst for changing that.”
A call to action?
Merkerson says that despite “dozens” of submissions, The Contradictions of Fair Hope “has been ignored by mainstream film festivals.” Black festivals and audiences, on the other hand, have embraced it. Since its release earlier this year, the film has won Best Documentary awards at black film festivals in Newark and San Diego, at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival and at the Festival International du Film PanAfricain in Cannes.
“By and large, our experience has been that white folks want to stay away from this film,” says Merkerson. “But it seems to fit comfortably with African-American audiences. I think they see it as a call to action.”
Merkerson is excited about bringing her film to Birmingham. Several of the primary interview subjects will be in attendance at the Civil Rights Institute screening, with some of them seeing the film for the first time. “Some may like it, some may not,” Merkerson allows. “That’s what happens when we deal in truth. It was always our intent to make the piece worthy of the people who created and perpetuated this way of life.”
The Contradictions of Fair Hope is screening Wednesday, September 12 at 6:30 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and on Thursday, September 13 at 6:30 at UAB’s Hulsey Recital Hall. Both screenings are free. There will be a Q & A with the co-directors immediately after each screening. The film’s running time is 1 hour and 7 minutes.