Like most struggling filmmakers, I’ve got to work to survive, but my passion is telling stories close to my heart. When I met Walter Richardson, a young, enthusiastic director who offered me the chance to make a film that could make a difference – not only for the dark subject matter it fights to bring to light, but also to share a piece of American history many people don’t know about – I jumped at the chance to work on something that yanked me on the inside.
I was a graduate student studying screenwriting at UCLA when I met Walter, who was working on his masters degree in directing. He told me he’d been reading the book "Without Sanctuary" and was deeply moved by its horrific images – photographs of lynched black men and women in the United States taken as souvenirs by the lynchers themselves. Walter planned on using this inspiration to make his thesis film, "Forgive Us Our Transgressions," The story depicts the sins of white Americans against blacks and portrays the violence that continues through generations when the truth about our country’s collective history goes unresolved.
When I signed on with Walter to develop the story and produce the short film, I delved into my own research on the topic of lynchings in America. My ignorant assumption, based on what I was taught and not taught in history class growing up in a very white area of suburban Pennsylvania, was that lynchings were part of the slave era and something that ended in the 1800s. I was shocked to learn how wrong I was, and how little so many of my friends and family in all areas of the country knew about the topic.
I used my newfound realization to help develop the story and its characters with Walter. In the film, a black man (Derek Shaun) learns that his elderly white friend (Gary Gardner) participated in the lynching of his grandfather over 60 years ago. Faced with the horrifying truth that destroyed his family, this black man must choose between moving forward or letting the past drive him to his own acts of violent revenge.
To depict the emotional weight this act would have on our main character, we traveled back in time to show the lynching of a fictional character, a tobacco farmer (played by Perry Brown), in Mississippi in 1953. Historical research recorded by the Tuskegee Institute shows that 3,437 blacks and 1,293 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the United States overall (not just the South).
Walter and I worked hard to tell the story of how one lynching has a personal effect on five men, black and white, past and present. We aimed to reach a broad audience with the film as we felt it wasimportant to show that we, as Americans, can resolve an evil past that includes slavery and lynchings and begin to heal the psychological wounds that reside in today’s society.
After the script was developed and its potential clearly much more than just a student production, we were fortunate to garner the interest of the seven-time Emmy Award-winning Donald A. Morgan as our cinematographer. Fellow UCLA producer Alexandra Creswick also joined our team. We originally thought we’d have to shoot at a rural location in the South, but got lucky when we discovered the Price Ranch in Los Alamos, California, just north of Santa Barbara. This location had everything from the period piece residential settings to the hauntingly tall, thick trees where lynchings historically took place.
We wouldn’t have been able to make "Forgive Us Our Transgressions" without the generous support of industry sponsors Technicolor, Kodak and Panavision. We worked closely with our UCLA faculty advisors, including Nancy Richardson, Barbara Boyle, Myrl Schreibman, Scott Brownlee, Tom Denove and Richard Yarborough to see the production and historical research through to completion. It was also through generous financial support from UCLA that we raised the funds necessary to make the film, including receiving the the Technicolor-UCLA Graduate Thesis Award and the Directors’ Guild of America’s (DGA) distinguished Frankenheimer Fellowship.
In addition, the picture includes an opening voiceover by high-profile actor Keith David.
The most gratifying aspect of "Forgive Us Our Transgressions" for me personally was the fact that nearly every person I’ve spoken to who has seen the film – from crew members, to the cast, family, friends and the UCLA community – identified with a certain aspect of it, and responded in the way Walter and I intended. The pain and suffering of the characters struck these audience members deeply. But more importantly, they were moved as viewers by a story that ended in forgiveness and a better future for the present-day characters. This film has undoubtedly influenced the projects I’ll strive to work on in the future. In fact, Walter and I plan on building the story into an independent feature called "Secrets of the South."
The short film "Forgive Us Our Transgressions" will have a screening at the Kodak Theater (1017 N Las Palmas Ave. in Los Angeles) on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. To register to attend the free event,guests can RSVP online.
The film’s 2010 screenings dates on the festival circuit will be made available on the film’s website: www.forgiveusourtransgressions.com.