Help fundraise for riot, rock docs

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As I explored on C-U Blogfidential earlier this year with articles related to WILL Channel 12, the documentary is a potent way to dramatize stories that can have impact on how viewers relate to their world. Nonfiction films can also provide dynamic records of particular points in history where none might have existed before. We’ve gone over recent programs that WILL has picked up for local broadcast as well as produced in-house to be distributed to fellow PBS stations, their common thread being a universal focus with Midwest roots. Outside of the efforts made by WILL and the University of Illinois branch of the Big Ten Network, with occasional special programs appearing on the area’s network affiliates and public access channels, we don’t really see an outpouring of long-form and in-depth content about, well, us.

It’s clear we must look to the independents who take up the slack in their own work when they latch on to local personalities and issues worth an investigation. Today, I’d like to shine the spotlight on the makers of two upcoming films that feature subject matter directly connected to our communities. One is about an unfortunate blight in early 20th century race relations that some would rather forget while others actively remember as a cautionary tale. The other is about an idiosyncratic musician whose shortened time on Earth should be celebrated and distanced from a professional rift that overshadowed his solo career. Both can benefit from your attention and monetary support.

Within the past two weeks, Crowdson Creative Video Production in Springfield has released a second teaser trailer and launched a crowdsourcing effort for their long-in-making documentary called WHITE HEAT/BLACK ASHES. The piece aims to give African-American residents a strong voice in revisiting the city’s “race riot” of August 1908 that sent a shock wave through prior generations of their families and neighbors. The sorry incident, involving thousands of white townspeople inciting mob action against black households and business districts that ended in lynching, death, and property destruction, lead directly to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its ongoing fight for the civil rights of African Americans. If the social media quotes in that trailer are any indication, an updated reflection on the riot is sorely needed as some folks have yet to truly comprehend how badly its repercussions continue to affect Springfield in the present.

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Much has been accomplished since WHITE HEAT/BLACK ASHES producer Brian Crowdson resumed work on it in 2018; according to the Springfield State Journal-Register, he originally intended to release a version on the 100th anniversary of the riot in 2008. As seen in the first trailer, several interviews have been recorded. They include historian Kathryn Harris, author James Lowden, artist Preston Jackson, former Springfield NAACP president Ken Page, and Betty L. Thompson and Charles Wilson, great grandchildren of the successful black businessman William K.H. Donnegan who was hung from a tree across the street from his home by the mob. Crowdson is aiming to raise $5,000 so his firm can afford to scan and colorize vintage photographs that will be accessed from the holdings of the Sangamon Valley Collection at the Lincoln Library of Springfield like the one included here. This visual scheme will boldly illustrate the damage done and help the audience picture those lives affected and long lost.

Coincidentally, the creators of our other project are also looking for a budget bump to afford an artistic flourish as well as other needs that will embellish the story of a unique talent. WHERE ARE YOU, JAY BENNETT? is a documentary by Fred Uhter of Wingman Studios in Chicago and Connecticut-based Gorman Bechard of What Were We Thinking Films. The former has pieces about performers like Michael McDermott and The Vulgar Boatmen under his belt, while the latter’s track record includes works on independent and fringe musicians such as Lydia Loveless, The Replacements, Grant Hart, and Archers of Loaf. The gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, an Illinois native who passed away at his Urbana home in 2009 due to medical complications, is deserving of the nod. I cross fingers the film will rinse out (but not gloss over, since that’s disingenuous) the wound left on our souls by the 20-year-old twin debacles involving Wilco and I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART.

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Bennett’s loyal friend and collaborator Edward Burch helped the directors pull together interviews and footage from all corners of the artist’s lifetime. Appearing between the official and Kickstarter teaser trailers are the former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, Death Ships vocalist Dan Maloney, the just-retired Chicago Tribune music columnist Greg Kot, and faces familiar to C-U residents: Don Gerard, a recent Champaign mayor and former band member with Bennett, Chris Green, an animal rights lawyer and former Wilco tour manager, and Mark Rubel, a recording studio instructor in Nashville and former owner of Pogo Studios in Champaign. While Bechard and Uhter completed a successful campaign to cover early costs, they want to reach a $22,500 stretch goal to pay for final tweaks, legal fees, and animated graphics. Thanks to the seeming thoroughness of WHERE ARE YOU, JAY BENNETT?, we will better know Jay Bennett and be left to fathom what adventurous music he would still be composing today.

Please hit the links throughout this article to learn more about the stories behind these productions and think about whether you can give them a lift in these compounding times. It is clear that most smaller-scale filmmakers have been temporarily put out of business due to the federal and state restrictions meant to contain the COVID-19 virus; Crowdson admitted to CUBlog that his company has essentially “shut down” as a direct result. There is no reason for us to not encourage them to push forth with their own projects if they can do so autonomously and safely, even if it consists of resource-building for the near future. I’m sure that many of us want to see these documentaries completed, distributed, and successful in their aims sooner rather than later. Advocate for the arts if you can swing it, friends.

~ Jason Pankoke

p.s. Of course, I’m not suggesting in the absolute sense that putting money into films is more important than saving money for emergency, sweating money if out of work, or parceling money to places where the need is dire including the front lines where health workers and public servants are being overworked and exposed to the coronavirus. Prioritize your charity within your means. Cheers.

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