In the wake of last Monday’s unrest, Jed Deitz, who has nurtured the Baltimore-based festival since its inception, called to ask if I knew of anyone or anything that might be added to the event’s lineup that might address some of what has happened here.
Centered in midtown Baltimore not far from the epicenter of both the mass civil disobedience that has so energized the city, as well as the site of Monday’s unrest, the festival is opening only days after authorities lifted a curfew and, perhaps, with many Marylanders and out-of-towners hesitant about attending the event.
I didn’t have much to offer in the way of screenings. Episodes of “Show Me A Hero,” an HBO miniseries slated for August, are not yet in final cut. And, too, that miniseries, while it addresses class and racial segregation in our society, is more about our calcified political processes than directly relevant to the core grievances underlying current events.
But a second miniseries, which centers largely on the final volume of the Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-winning triology of the civil rights movement seemed to me more relevant. “At Canaan’s Edge” addresses the three years leading up the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a period that offers not the affirming, earlier victories of the movement in securing civil rights legislation or desegregated public facilities, but the increasing conflict between non-violent mass protest and rebellion by any means necessary to secure equal treatment and opportunity.
The writing room for that miniseries offers a multitude of perspectives from Branch, a long time Baltimore resident, as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps our finest essayist on race and also a native of the city, and James McBride, the novelist and screenwriter whose most recent novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” reflecting on the saga John Brown and the employ of violence against American slavery, won the National Book Award. Eric Overmyer, a noted playwright and veteran writer-producer on both “The Wire” and “Treme” rounds out the room.
Realizing that this fledgling project might be something that could serve Jed’s intentions, I called the others and asked if they could post up in support of the film festival, but more generally, to affirm that city life in Baltimore remains intact and vibrant, even amid this needed campaign for change. The writers responded by agreeing to participate on the shortest notice, and I’m not surprised. Honestly, it’s one of the best writers rooms I’ve ever experienced.
And so…the panel, which will take place at 6 p.m. this Friday.
Work on the miniseries is only at the script stage, and for the most part, the five of us have been battling to bring the vast narrative of Taylor’s opus down to a size and shape that works in six hours of drama. But already, it’s clear to all of us that some of the same issues and arguments that predominated in 1966 and 1967 still remain in play.
If such a discussion of long-form scriptwriting on the issue of race in America interests you, please come to downtown Baltimore, Maryland. Or, if not, make the effort to attend other festival events, which aptly include screenings of Spike Lee’s iconic “Do The Right Thing” as well as a new and notable documentary on the Black Panthers, among much other acclaimed work. The festival — and Baltimore — needs you.
Below is the release that Jed sent out today:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Melina Giorgi
Maryland Film Festival Announces Premier Writer Panel as major addition to MFF 2015
A Work in Progress: Writing Race
Friday May 8th, featuring Taylor Branch, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James McBride and David Simon.
The Maryland Film Festival (MFF) will present an extraordinary panel within the schedule of free events in the MFF Tent Village, featuring four members of a five-member writing staff currently tasked with writing an HBO miniseries based on the detailed history of the some of the most volatile years of the American civil rights movement. The panel consists of Atlantic magazine editor and renowned essayist and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, National Book Award winner James McBride, HBO producer and former journalist David Simon, and Taylor Branch, whose Pulitzer-winning three-volume history of the civil rights movement is being adapted for the six-hour miniseries.
The four writers, three of whom have long-standing ties to Baltimore, are at work on scripts for a miniseries that will draw from Branch’s celebrated trilogy, America in the King Years. (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge) which chronicles the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1968.
The project is slated to be the next miniseries produced by HBO and Simon’s Baltimore-based Blown Deadline Productions, following the completion of “Show Me A Hero,” another six-part miniseries slated to broadcast this summer on HBO. That miniseries, which also addresses American racial dynamics, chronicles the divisive battle to build low-income housing in a predominantly white section of Yonkers, N.Y. two decades ago.
Brought in to helm the King Years miniseries, Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, author, and producer of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme” gathered the other three writers and longtime collaborator Eric Overmyer (“Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Treme”) to begin to boil Branch’s definitive three-volume history into six hours of drama.
“Breaking story is in many respects the hardest and most thoroughly intellectualized task in longform television,” says Simon, a city resident since 1984. “How your writers room works – or doesn’t – is the first great hurdle for any production. And when you are dealing with non-fiction – real events, real names – and attempting some real measure of historical fealty, the work is even more complicated.”
Simon and Overmyer recruited the other three writers shortly after signing on to produce the miniseries for HBO.
“Eric and I had a shopping list for writers that began with James, Ta-Nehisi and, of course, Taylor himself. On the power of Ta-Nehisi’s prosework and political acumen, and the beauty of what James achieved with the historical narrative of “The Good Lord Bird,” they were far and away our first choices along with, of course, Taylor. To our great relief, we never had to contemplate a second choice; I credit the power of Taylor’s original work and the importance of the historical moments that underlie that narrative.”
The panel will try to offer insights into the process of developing a significant and acclaimed historical literary work into drama for a medium that until recently has not proved particularly welcoming to precise renderings of history.
“This panel is an extraordinary opportunity for audiences to hear writers of the highest level and at this early stage of development share their process,” said MFF director Jed Dietz. “In addition, the content of the series is timely and relevant for our city, and a powerful way to frame the conversations around protest.”
Simon, who has previously participated in several MFF events, notes that the cultural and political moment is right for bringing Branch’s books to the screen.
“If there was ever a time to contemplate the costs, risks and potentiality that come with non-violent protest – as well as the costs and potentialities of the alternatives, this is it,” Simon says. “Baltimore has just passed through a hard, tense moment which tested the delicate balance between non-violent public dissent and civil unrest. The issues and needs of our society with regard to class and race are different than a half century ago, but many of the forces in play, as well as the dynamic in which the conflict is joined and pursued – these are very much the same the same.”
Simon adds: “The arguments that many of us are now having about both the morality and efficacy of a violent uprising, or of non-violent disobedience – these precise arguments are the core of the Branch trilogy. They are still the arguments and they still matter.”
With Coates being a native of Baltimore, and Simon and Branch both longtime residents of the city, the writers say they all find it notable that they are participating in the Maryland Film Festival, centered in a neighborhood only blocks from intersections where both the exhilarating and prolonged mass protests against police violence and the stark imagery of one night’s rioting took place. They see the film festival as an affirmation of city life in Baltimore.
MFF Director Dietz said that this great writing team, much of it deeply connected to Baltimore, joins an exciting and diverse Maryland Film Festival Program. “This years’ MFF program was obviously put together before the demonstrations of the last week, but it is full of movies that will inform, compel, and entertain audiences,” he said. “The movie art form is unusually accessible for filmmakers and audiences, and it is bursting with excitement and creativity right now., This program reflects that. There is literally Film for Everyone, “ he pointed out. Dietz added: “We are especially grateful that David and this extraordinary group of writers will be part of MFF 2015 as Baltimore takes its next step.”
Notably, the four writers made a decision early that it was largely Taylor’s last volume, At Canaan’s Edge, that should be the greater focus of the miniseries. There has been much filmed about the early and extraordinary heroism of the civil rights movement, but from 1965 to King’s assassination, there is a different story to tell about the country’s willingness to extend equality under the law to equality of opportunity, and a profound struggle among black leaders and activists to reconcile both the moral power and practical costs of non-violence against the fundamental need to self-defense and self-determination “by any means necessary.”
Taylor Branch said: “It has been a humbling thrill for me to join Ta-Nehisi and James on the HBO screenwriting team assembled by David and Eric, whose honesty about race made “The Wire” a classic. Our panel at the Maryland Film Festival will preview an urgent challenge of contemporary art and politics. How did a black-led citizens’ movement in the 1960s open stubborn gates of freedom for the whole country? In cynical times, can unflinching history light the future?”
In addition to Blown Deadline Productions, the miniseries is being coproduced by Harpo Productions, the film production company of Baltimore native Oprah Winfrey.
The panel will take place at 6:00pm on Friday, May 8th at the MFF Tent Village, located on the East Side Parking Lot of MICA’s Lazarus Center at 131 W. North Avenue in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. (Tickets are $12, $10 student, and are available online at mdfilmfest.com. After tickets are sold, there will be a stand by option as there is for all MFF screenings.)
About the Authors
Taylor Branch is an American author and public speaker best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, America in the King Years. The trilogy’s first book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards in 1989. In 2009, Simon and Schuster published The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Far more personal than Branch’s previous books, this memoir tells of an unprecedented eight-year project to gather a sitting president’s comprehensive oral history on tape. In the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Branch published an influential cover story entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” which author and NPR commentator Frank Deford said “may well be the most important article ever written about college sports.” The article touched off continuing national debate
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, and blogger for that publication’s website where he writes about cultural, social and political issues. Coates has worked for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Washington Monthly, O, and other publications. In 2008 he published a memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. He joined the City University of New York as its journalist-in-residence in the fall of 2014. He grew up in Baltimore, attended Howard University, and recently spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Johns Hopkins on the subject, “The Clock Didn’t Start with the Riots.”
James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, remained on New York Times bestseller list for two years. His latest novel about American revolutionary John Brown, The Good Lord Bird, is the winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. McBride is a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People magazine and The Washington Post, and has toured as a saxophonist sideman with jazz legends like Jimmy Scott. He has also written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Pura Fe, and Gary Burton, and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.
David Simon is an author, screenwriter, and producer who draws from his background as a crime beat reporter to craft narratives that probe urban America’s most complex and poorly understood realities. A 2010 MacArthur Fellow, Simon has authored a wide range of nonfiction works, both in journalism (as a Baltimore Sun reporter and freelancer) and book-length form, he is best known for his contributions to drama; he has been a screenwriter and/or producer for several critically acclaimed television series, including Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999), The Wire (2002–2008), and Treme (2010–2013). Simon is the author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) and co-author of The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood(1997), and his additional television projects include the HBO miniseries The Corner (2000) and Generation Kill (2008). Simon’s latest HBO series, Show Me a Hero, depicting racial confict amid court-ordered housing segregation, stars Oscar Isaac and is directed by Paul Haggis.
About the Maryland Film Festival
The mission of the Maryland Film Festival is to bring films, filmmakers, and audiences together in a friendly, inclusive atmosphere that reflects the authenticity and unpretentious nature of the greater Baltimore community. This community participates in and adds to the larger film dialogue across the country and across the world. Ultimately, MFF provides “film for everyone.”
Founded in 1999, MFF has provided the greater Baltimore community access to top-notch film and video work from all over the world. Dedicated to showcasing Baltimore as a thriving center of film culture and filmmaking, MFF has continued to expand its ability to nurture and challenge the next generation of filmgoers to appreciate film as both art and entertainment.
MFF has become an essential component in the continued cultural development of Baltimore, especially in regards to the revitalization of Station North Arts and Entertainment District (Station North). Beginning with the first festival that opened the newly expanded Charles Theater sixteen years ago, MFF now has moved farther into Station North, and includes a Filmmaker Tent Village adjacent to MICA’s Lazarus Center and multiple other locations in Station North allowing audiences to engage more directly with the neighborhood. With these venues, unique screenings and presentations, MFF has established itself as a major stop on the national film festival circuit, bringing over 2,000 films and 1,500 filmmakers to Baltimore. In addition to its annual festival, MFF programs 80 different screenings throughout the year.
In December 2012, MFF launched a historic campaign to restore Station North’s Parkway Theatre and three adjoining structures into a state-of-the-art film center. Opening in early 2017, this will provide the festival with a year-round venue and exciting opportunity to market Station North as a place to live, work, and play and promote it as a regional and national destination for film and theater innovation.