For everything there is a time. For Africatown, that time seems to be now.
This legendary community north of Mobile and established by the last Africans shipped to America in bondage has been the subject of widespread attention. A hotly rumored delta shipwreck didn’t pan out but sparked curiosity, and the recent publication of “Barracoon,” Zora Neale Hurston’s work on Cudjo Lewis, piqued interest.
The proverbial hot iron means a local project can raise steam of its own. There’s less than two weeks’ shooting left for local documentarians with their lens trained on the vestiges of Plateau’s storied founders.
“The timing was right for Ryan and I, and for our community as well, to connect in a way we haven’t been able to do before,” producer Joel Billingsley, PhD, said.
A University of South Alabama College of Education instructor and Mobile native — “I have three degrees from South and one from Bishop State” — Billingsley boasts indispensable deep ties. Her family traces to the place in focus.
“Sometime in my first year here I heard the story of Africatown and couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it before. The more you know about it, it becomes bigger and broader and more meaningful,” director Ryan Noble said.
Five years back, Noble relocated from Arizona to teach video digital production at Spring Hill College. Naturally, he was drawn to a provocative film title — “Mobile in Black and White” — at a downtown venue. Billingsley and then-South Alabama colleague Rob Gray were its producers.
Ryan introduced himself, his documentary roots and his interest in the subject. The producers sprang.
“[Gray] was like ‘well, we actually have some stuff for you, editing and some other segments’ of ‘Mobile in Black and White’ and they kind of brought me into the fold,” Noble said.
In the following years, Noble collaborated with Billingsley on other work, yet repeatedly brought up Africatown as a possible project. She consistently demurred.
“A little over a year ago we had a conversation and I said ‘I need a bigger project.’ She said ‘that’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about Africatown again,’” Noble said.
“There’s a lot of responsibility in telling a story like this,” Billingsley said in explaining her long deliberation.
So began “110: The Last Enslaved Africans Brought to America,” its working title. Noble said Billingsley pushed him into immediate filming.
They turned to Sylviane Diouf’s acclaimed 2007 book “Dreams of Africa in Alabama” as a guide.
“[Diouf is] our key interview. We went and interviewed her in New York. That is very important to the film,” Noble said.
Part of that value lies in the conflict between Diouf’s exhaustive academic pursuit — classified on Kindle as a textbook — and some oral history. For everyone you ask about the story, variables arise. The spelling of the ship’s name, the places the Africans were hidden, when they were released, all change according to who is telling the story.
“Why is there this divergence between documented history and oral history? I don’t think it’s just that people don’t know. I think there’s something more to it than that. There’s a lot of tension there and it’s time we make that apparent and important,” Noble said.
The plan is to shop it out to larger film festivals for next spring, to Tribeca, South by Southwest and the like. After that will come regional festivals. Their grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation stipulates screenings around the state as well.
Spring Hill College is the fiscal agent for the grant’s administration. Noble was pleasantly surprised to find social justice “in the blood” of the Jesuit tradition there.
For Billingsley, it’s an illumination of her life and legacy. These stories, these names and identities are central to her background.
“It was a custom for my family to gather monthly and hear about the story of the Africans that came over on the Clotilda. It’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember,” Billingsley said.
That means a key aspect of this film will be its representation by folks within the community. This isn’t produced by those from far away, swooping in to draw quick conclusions, then disappearing. These are local voices.
Those voices have questions for everyone willing to hear.
“How is it a child can hear a story of a man and these others who were taken from their home and taken on this journey where throughout that time survival and perseverance and strength were at the center of who they were?” Billingsley asked. “How can we connect to that as a community?”