Author, playwright and "Black Wall Street" director Rebekah Lynn Pierce (Photo by Jay Paul)
UPDATE, May 17, 2016: The "Black Wall Street" film won't be shown at the Celebrate Jackson Ward festival, but filmmaker and author Rebekah Lynn Pierce will be there displaying her book "Murder on Second Street" (which inspired the film) and answering questions about the movie. There are plans for a public showing of the film soon.
Author, playwright and educator Rebekah Lynn Pierce has the kind of voice that makes you pay close attention to every word she says. It’s soft but direct, braced by an underlying, easy confidence.
“There’s more to Richmond than the Civil War and Maggie Walker,” she says over the rim of a glass at Umami Gourmet Coffee & Exotic Tea on Lakeside Avenue. “There’s so much more than that.”
It’s been several months since her movie depicting Jackson Ward’s illustrious past wrapped production. “Black Wall Street: The Money, the Music & the People,” written by Pierce, was her ode to early 20th-century Richmond and “The Ward,” a hamlet made famous by its hard-working, forward-looking residents — most of whom were black, mere decades removed from slavery and still suffering the ills of racism and violence. Pierce’s film blends history and imagination, depicting the community in its golden glory, but also terrorized by a serial killer, a fictional character based on real crimes at the time.
“It’s what I call a docu-film,” Pierce says. “There is history, but there’s entertainment, as well.” The film doesn’t shy away from scandal, laying bare vices such as gambling and moonshine. Characters range from businessmen to law officers to high-toned ladies and beyond. “I try to show the humanity in my characters, even if they’re dealing with dark things like racism or poverty,” she says.
A particularly complex character in the film is Raymond Turner, played by veteran Richmond actor Toney Cobb. Turner is based on the real-life Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell, who in the 1920s wrote about racial equality frequently (and courageously, as his words could have gotten him killed). “Even though I wasn’t playing John Mitchell directly, I used a lot of his attributes: his leadership, his business acumen and particularly his love for Jackson Ward,” says Cobb.
A sense of urgency fueled Pierce’s vision for the film; it was her strong desire to present a past some have either forgotten existed or never knew about.
“The people of Jackson Ward, in 1929, 90 percent of them owned their own homes,” she says. “They were brilliant, they were successful. The Jackson Ward that’s here now, won’t be here much longer,” she adds, her tone turning somber. “But as the condos go up, as new things move in, don’t forget what was once there.”
Filmed in historic Jackson Ward and Petersburg, “Black Wall Street” features mostly local actors. Pierce partnered with Derek Wright of Richmond-based Full Motion Media to produce the film, with L. Roi Boyd and Yemaja Jubilee as co-producers. Funded largely through crowd-sourcing and private donations, the film was produced for about $5,000. So far, it’s had a couple of private screenings; this month, there are plans for it to be shown during the Celebrate Jackson Ward Festival. She plans to submit it to local, national and international film festivals, and hopes to have it placed in museums and libraries, and used as an educational aid for university instructors.
Pierce, a California native who lives in Midlothian, holds a master’s degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has taught high school English in Henrico and Prince George counties and has written several books. “Murder on Second Street” (2013) inspired the “Black Wall Street” film. In “The Secret Life of Lucy Bosman” (2014), set in Richmond just before the Civil War, a mixed-race businesswoman strives to survive and thrive in a world complicated by race, war and romance. Pierce’s plays have been produced on Richmond stages since 2004; her play “Bell Blu” placed third in the 2013 Venus Theatre Festival in New York.
This month, she crosses the ocean to present a scholarly paper she wrote on the works of lauded author and famous ex-pat James Baldwin at the American University of Paris’ International James Baldwin Conference, from May 26 to 28.
“Many black artists and writers flocked to France, because there wasn’t as much racial oppression there,” Pierce explains. “I look at James [Baldwin] as a transformative character. He had several things ‘wrong’ during his time: He was black, he was gay, he even called himself ugly! But he accepted who he was, and used who he was, his writing, to influence and heal people.”
Next on her agenda is a new play, “That Colorblind Kind of Love,” inspired by Richard and Mildred Loving, whose relationship led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down Virginia’s miscegenation law and leading 15 other states to legalize interracial marriage. Pierce aims for her play to debut in the fall, directed by Shanea Taylor, who teaches theater at John Tyler Community College.