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Balls of Steel™: The Road to Sundance

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman takes you to Sundance Film Festival with her writing partner, Douglas A. Blackmon, as he experiences the thrill of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book becoming a Sundance-chosen documentary film.

In most cases, the road to the Sundance Film Festival starts with crowdfunding, a group of artists, and a film in the can, screaming with independent-filmmaker pride.

Or you could be a journalist with a dream.

Back in 2001, Douglas A. Blackmon wrote an article for TheWall Street Journal exposing unjust enslavement of African Americans that existed for decades after the Civil War. This article not only launched into a seven-year investigation and the writing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name (SBAN), but it also turned the Atlanta journalist into a filmmaker.

As writers, we should take note – one small piece of writing can become a multitude of storytelling opportunities.

When I first contacted Blackmon in July of 2008 to pursue adapting SBAN as a dramatic narrative, his book was only months old, just making the New York Times Best Sellers List. Around the same time, he was also approached by TPT National Productions to craft a documentary.

For the next two years, Blackmon juggled co-executive producing the documentary with TPT and co-writing the narrative adaptation with me – not to mention his job as senior national correspondent of The Wall Street Journal.

How could one writer juggle so much? By embracing collaboration.

Writers often try to do it all. We write, direct and produce our own short films. We assume no one else can see our vision clearly. We’re control freaks.

I ask, “How’s that working for you?” Most likely, it’s not.

There’s a reason this industry thrives on the benefits of collaboration.

Blackmon knew in order to reach the wider audience that both a documentary and a feature film could, he needed to bring on other writers and a team of talent.

Oscar-nominated director Sam Pollard was attached at the onset, and Emmy-winning writer Sheila Curran Bernard was hired to write the documentary.

Teamed together with Catherine Allen of TPT and Blackmon as executive producers, Blackmon’s vision to life.

Douglas A. Blackmon (left) and Sam Pollard at Sundance

Douglas A. Blackmon (left) and Sam Pollard at Sundance

Many people asked me if Blackmon and I experienced any challenges in writing our narrative script knowing a documentary version of the same book was in development.

Yes and no.

There’s no question juggling the two projects pulled Blackmon in different directions, but having him so intimately involved in both was a blessing for me as a writer. He had his finger on the pulse of the two scripts, making certain the documentary and our narrative were consistent with each other yet totally different.

The documentary would cover 80 years of history, while we explored only a few month’s time, dramatizing one black man’s enslavement, leading to the trial of the very first white man accused of holding a slave – 40 years after the Civil War.

Blackmon purposely kept the projects as separate as possible, not sharing either script with his collaborators. His eyes were the only ones to see the big picture.

In my opinion, that decision was brilliant.

Our projects were on parallel paths, always with the goal of our narrative script being completed by the time the documentary was finished.

In December 2011, as I put the finishing touches on our script, Blackmon called – the documentary was chosen to compete at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Blackmon and Jeanne Veillette Bowerman at the Sundance Film Festival

Blackmon and Jeanne Veillette Bowerman at the Sundance Film Festival

Finally, the recognition we all hoped for.

With most of the crew in Park City for the premiere, Slavery by Another Name, narrated by Laurence Fishburne, was viewed by a packed house glued to the screen. As the credits rolled, they rose to their feet for a two-minute standing ovation.

From Wall Street Journal article, to Pulitzer Prize-winning book, to documentary. A whole new audience was touched by Blackmon’s gripping research. Bound pages, and the true stories of African Americans who could no longer speak for themselves, brought to life by Sam Pollard and his crew.

I arrived at Sundance after the SBAN filmmakers had left, but that didn’t tarnish any of the joy I felt as I sat through four screenings of SBAN.

In the first screening, I was as spellbound as the audience, fascinated to see what Bernard chose to highlight in her writing compared to what we chose to cover in our narrative. As a fellow writer of this world, I can attest to how difficult it was to decide what to use in the 80 years of historical facts Blackmon exposed in his book.

But the most amazing moment of all was at the final screening in Salt Lake City. During the Q& A, an elderly black woman struggled to stand. As she leaned against the seats for balance, she announced that she was the daughter of a sharecropper. Stillness filled the room. We hung on her every word as she praised Blackmon for his research.

She was the face of all the African Americans in that film. She was a living, breathing example of all Blackmon had uncovered.

Blackmon and the sharecropper's daughter

Blackmon and the sharecropper's daughter

I never did catch her name. But I will never forget the embrace she gave Blackmon. I doubt he will either.

One article in a newspaper. One filmmaker born. Many lives changed forever.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you storytelling or filmmaking is a waste of your time. When done right, and with an amazing group of collaborators who share your passion, it can literally change a nation’s truth.

Now to get our narrative produced … stay tuned.

Slavery by Another Name aired on PBS February 13th. You can watch it online for free or order the DVD. I promise, it will forever change how you view our nation’s racial divide.