For filmmaker Robert Clem, Mobile is familiar territory. He’s just not sure the same is true for its residents.
Clem’s latest pair of projects put him back in the Azalea City through 2015 looking to correct some of that oversight. In mid-May, he’ll arrive to pick up footage for “How They Got Over,” a film telling the story of African-American gospel and the important groundwork it laid for soul and R&B.
“I guess I got interested in that from the Blind Boys of Alabama when they became major in the 1980s, after they did this production with Morgan Freeman up in New York City,” Clem said. In looking through the medium’s history, he found opportunities for African-Americans were limited.
“Gospel was the opportunity they had. They developed their style, started implementing doo-wop and all these things,” Clem said. “Music was crossing over and more whites were interested in it. Doors got opened for Sam Cooke, The Temptations and people like that.”
What drew him to town for this shoot is familiar and lauded. It’s the same thing that kept Ken Burns’ crews here to shoot B-roll footage for his 2007 documentary “The War.”
“I like the landscape in Mobile,” Clem said in reference to its historic structures. “Most of the action in the film takes place in the late ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s; that’s kind of the golden age of the music. Plus, I’m using some vintage cars from there.”
A graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, Harvard Law School and New York University Film School, it’s not the first time Clem has mined Alabama history for projects. Since 1997, he has created a string of works inspired by the state’s history and culture.
He began with “Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism,” then made “Company K” from the literary masterpiece of Mobile writer William March, followed by “In the Wake of Assassins” about Phenix City’s notorious past. Next came 2008’s “Eugene Walter: The Last of the Bohemians” and “The Passion of Miss Augusta,” a 2013 semi-biopic of Mobile author Augusta Evans Wilson.
That literary link has Clem returning again in September to tell the story of the “Company K” author. Taken from a recent biography by Roy Simmonds, “The Story of William March” is being timed to coincide with the centennial of World War I, which ended in 1918.
“I am trying to expose March’s personal story,” Clem said. “World War I was the platform whereby March started getting more attention.”
March’s story is complex. His mother was from a prominent Mobile family but marriage put her into rural poverty in Wiregrass lumber towns. Largely self-taught, young William scrambled to return to Mobile. Intellectual prowess earned him entrance into law school but he lacked the financial resources to graduate.
March joined the U.S. Marines in World War I and witnessed some of the most legendary and brutal campaigns of the war. He returned home with a chest full of battlefield commendations and “a shadow on his soul.”
“March was a very intriguing person but also a dark person,” Clem said. “He had psychological issues connected to his time in World War I, but I want to emphasize his connections to Mobile. He spent a lot of time in New York and other places but Mobile was a place that always brought him back.”
Though he built a comfortable life through investments and business acumen, March spent his spare time devouring psychology books and writing creatively. He was first published in 1929.
Four years and 20 short stories later, March’s first novel “Company K” debuted. The assembly of vignettes told in the voices of men in a World War I military unit was lauded and linked with Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” as one of the most powerful war novels ever written.
As he moved between Europe and New York City, March penned various series of tales set in fictional Southern towns. His 1943 novel “The Looking-Glass” was hailed as his finest literary achievement.
“His style was modernist, with a fractured point of view,” Clem said. “Like Hemingway, he was economical with words.”
Still peripatetic, March returned to the Gulf Coast in the late ‘40s, moving between Mobile and New Orleans. In 1954 his final work, “The Bad Seed,” about a chilling juvenile psychopath, made an immediate impact. March died roughly a month after its publication and never knew it was turned into a hit play and classic film.
Journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke called March “the most underrated of all contemporary American writers of fiction” and “the unrecognized genius of our time.” Cooke labeled his unique style “classic modern” and declared March “a whole ionosphere above Faulkner.”
Yet in his hometown, March is basically unknown. While celebrations of authors like Julian Rayford or Eugene Walter abound, March – like fellow Mobile writer Albert Murray – is far more exalted beyond his home city.
Is it because his writings portrayed March’s native region as naturally beautiful but marred with the ugliness of hypocrisy, cruelty and stringent class- and race-based divisions? Perhaps.
“Well, ‘the prophet is without honor in his own country,’ I guess,” Clem proffered. “March wasn’t very sociable, though he had good friends in the Waterman Steamship Company. He didn’t really socialize because he was really a damaged person, I think. World War I probably played a role in that.”
With Clem’s limelight, maybe that changes. Maybe darkness of skin or mind will no longer deny acclaim to any “in their own country.”