April Marcell as Elizabeth Keckly (Photo by Ken Roy)
In her time, Elizabeth Keckly was the queen of haute couture, a Coco Chanel of mid-1800s United States. She overcame racial discrimination and other challenges with tenacity, like Maya Angelou. So far, filmmaker Tim Reid’s comparisons are making sense. But what’s this about Forrest Gump?
“She keeps showing up in all the important events,” the Emmy-nominated actor and producer says to explain his analogy. He is the director of a new documentary about the former slave from Dinwiddie County who went on to become a confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, writing the first White House “tell-all” book in 1868.
While a slave, Keckly’s earnings as a seamstress supported her owner, a lawyer for the pro-slavery defense in the notorious Dred Scott case. After she bought her freedom, she worked part-time as a designer and dressmaker for the family of Jefferson Davis, then a U.S. senator, where she overheard discussions about the prospect of war. Eventually she gained Mrs. Lincoln as a client and, Reid says, was pivotal during the years of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
“Lincoln wasn’t that pro-black, but through [interactions with] her, he learned about black people,” Reid says, adding that Keckly influenced the president’s views on slavery.
With this film, Reid wants to shape viewers’ perspective of Elizabeth Keckly (also spelled Keckley), who is usually presented in terms of how she served white people.
“We want to show Keckly from a different set of eyes,” he says. “She wasn’t ‘a dressmaker,’ she was a designer.” She created innovative styles for formal dresses. She was a businesswoman who hired and trained a studio of seamstresses. She founded several civil rights organizations. She was an author, a mother, a feminist. “She was a true Renaissance woman of the modern era,” Reid says.
The Life and Times of Elizabeth Keckly, a product of Reid’s New Millennium Studios, includes dramatizations of scenes from her life. It will premiere Oct. 17 to 19 at the Legacy Media Institute International Film Festival in Petersburg, then travel to London and other cities. The goal of the festival is to recognize cultural diversity and sensitivity in film.