Christopher Everett is a writer, film director, and film producer. More importantly, his work has placed him on the front lines of social change in North Carolina. From the small town of Laurinburg, N.C., Everett developed his creativity and love of film, particularly Sci-Fi, through making up scenes with his cousin, and love of African American history from his uncle. These influences led him to make his first documentary film, Wilmington on Fire.
Wilmington on Fire reveals the dark secret of a bloody massacre on the African American population in Wilmington, N.C. on November 10, 1898. It is one of the only successful examples of a coup d’état in the United States. Untold numbers of African Americans were killed and driven out by an angry white mob of the Democratic Party forever changing the landscape of Wilmington. Wilmington went from a thriving predominant African American city during the reconstruction period to a Jim Crow controlled city setting up a prototype of Jim Crow laws for the rest of the south. Ramifications can still be felt today in Wilmington as recent demographics place Wilmington at 73.5% White and 19.9% Black/African American.
Since, the release of the film in 2015, Everett has been able to showcase his work all over N.C. and outside of it. It has sparked numerous conversations on race, impacted N.C. curriculum, and has even become a supporting element for H.R. 40 – Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act – headed by Sheila Jackson Lee in Congress. I had the pleasure of having a phone interview with Christopher Everett to talk about his journey, current projects, and what to expect next.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. One of the continual themes of Block Chronicles is the concept of “home.” If I asked you what is your home, your block, how would you describe it?
A: My home, my block, is a place of inspiration. It is what inspired me to do what I do every day. It inspired me to be creative, to think out of the box, to make a way out of no way. That’s why my film company is Speller Street Films because that’s the street I grew up on in Laurinburg and that’s where I developed film concepts. My cousin and I talk about it now. When we were kids, we would always develop film concepts. We didn’t know what we were doing then. It was always fun for us. We would always make these crazy scenarios and film ideas, but we didn’t understand we were being little producers. Later down the road I ended up using those interests and remembering those days as a kid to do what I’m doing now.
Q: That’s awesome. How do you use those concepts in the work that you do now?
A: You know how it is growing up in small-town, there are not a lot of opportunities, very little resources, so going back to those things of using the most of what I have has helped me a lot. Turning lemons into lemonade. All the projects that I work on are low budget films, but they are of high quality. It’s about using the most that you have, to not only produce a great product but to tell an impactful story as well.
Q: I want to talk a little about Wilmington on Fire as this film has been very impactful to me. Growing up in N.C. I didn’t even learn about 1898 until my 30’s. When was the first time you learned about 1898?
A: My first time learning about it was when I was a kid. Laurinburg is about one hour away from Wilmington. My uncle was an RN and he spent about 5 years in Wilmington. My grandparents and I would travel to see him on some weekends. He was a big history guy, so whatever town he was in he would always look up the history of the area. He talked to me about it, but as a kid, I didn’t think too much of it. It wasn’t until I got out in the real world when I was confronted more with racism, that I started thinking back to 1898. Later down the road when I started making my own films, I chose to do a documentary. Documentary wasn’t my first interest. I really wanted to do supernatural, thriller, horror films, and Key and Peele type stuff. However, I do have a heavy interest in Black history, especially, Black history that’s not talked about. That’s when I said let me do something on the 1898 massacre. I had to research first if anyone was already doing something. Come to find out there was nothing on it. There was a group of film students doing a film called the Red Cape, a short narrative, but there was no one doing a documentary. The first person I reached out to was Larry Reni Thomas, aka Mr. 1898. He was the most active on social media at the time about this topic. He was the first person I interviewed. Then two other folks met with me. One was Dr. Lewin Manly, the grandson of Alex Manly. Anytime anyone looks at 1898, Alex Manly comes up because he was the owner of the Black newspaper at the time and exiled during the riots. The other was Faye Chaplin, who is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Miller, a Black wealthy entrepreneur that was driven out of the city as well. We were then able to get William Darity Jr. who is big on the reparation movement and has a book coming out in April about reparations, LeRae Umfleet, who wrote the 1898 report for the state of N.C., and independent researcher Kent Chatfield who offered knowledge. It was a combination of great minds. Two films gave me the confidence to make this film in 2010. The first was Hidden Colors. It really inspired me to see all these great minds together. It was the first time seeing all these people we knew not giving lectures but in a film. The other film was a documentary in 2006, Banished by Marco Williams. He documents three other massacres prior to 1898 in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Q: It’s incredible to see the traction the film has gotten in N.C. and beyond. What has that journey been like for you?
A: It’s been great! This was one of the most horrific events in North Carolina history and was a blueprint of white supremacy. It changed the course of not only Wilmington but all of N.C. and we still see the effects today. I had to move back to Laurinburg to do this project. We had a couple of crowdfunding campaigns. One was successful and we raised $3,000. We tried to raise $20,000 but was unsuccessful, so I was stuck. But out of the blue, David West, who is a retired NBA player, reached out. He wanted to get a DVD, but I said the DVD isn’t done yet. He asked me how much do you need to get this film done? We formed a partnership and that’s how we got the film done. You never know who is watching. The Internet has really opened things up and if you are doing the quality work people will find you. It has happened to me several times. I first reached out to Tariq Nasheed, and shared how he inspired me, and he gave me the first $2000 on the initial campaign and has Associate Producer credits on the project. I was able to connect with the audience from Hidden Colors and that has helped a lot over the years, and Pete Chatman, who is the executive producer on the project and a mentor to me. I just sent him an email expressing my respect for his films, and he responded back to me. These people have been instrumental in helping Wilmington on Fire what is today.
When we premiered at Cucalorus in November 2015 I didn’t know what to expect. We broke the attendance record and had 600 people which is still the record. It was inside Thalian Hall with about 300-400 people waiting to get in. It’s been screening nonstop since. We still do 2-4 screenings a month since 2015. I’ve been all over the country and won several awards. The most recent achievement was last summer during the whole reparations’ conversation. Dr. Julianne Malveaux saw the film and loved it. I didn’t know she was on the reparations panel. I’m on my lunch break watching because it was on CNN and all over. She tells people to watch Wilmington on Fire. Everyone tags me on social media, email, and everything. That’s really what the film was for, not only to educate people about history but to show the economic impacts in Wilmington and all over N.C. The only film mentioned during that whole congressional hearing was my little film. A little dude from Laurinburg, N.C. who isn’t in Hollywood. It really shows folks it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are right now. If you make the work that’s powerful and impactful people notice.
Q: At the end of the day we are starving to see our own stories, and especially being in Wilmington it’s impactful because it’s rare. So, what can we expect now?
A: We have so many projects. I’ve been building up my film company, Speller Street Films and it’s going well. We are filming Wilmington on Fire Pt II. It’s a very good complimentary piece to close out the story. First, we had to build up the history and tell what happened. Chapter 2 deals with the lasting effects and the people who are trying to reverse those effects through art, politics, entrepreneurship, and activism. We know what caused it, but now what do we have to do, and who are the people that are doing the work? We are going to have some familiar faces from the first one, but some new faces as well. We started filming last year. We are also filming
Grandmaster. It’s a martial arts documentary about Vic Moore, one of the first black karate champions in the United States. He’s here in N.C. and has been living here since the ’80s. He’s working with up and coming martial artists. I want to make sure I give him his flowers while he’s still here. A lot of times we don’t recognize people until they are dead and gone. Also, I’m producing other projects. We just finished a Sci-Fi short narrative film, Black Baptism.
A talented woman, Stephanie Diane Ford, did a great job of directing and writing it. She wanted me to be the executive producer. We premiered at Hayti Heritage Film Festival in Durham to a packed house. We have a couple of more festivals coming up that we will announce. I helped produce another documentary called, Black Beach White Beach that’s currently out on iTunes and Amazon. It’s about the two bike weeks that go on in Myrtle Beach. We are currently about to start a crowdfunding campaign for a film that’s about 80% done called, Harlem's Last Poet. It’s about Abiodun Oyewole who co-founded the historic group, Last Poets. It’s a film about his life and his contributions. He has a North Carolina connection too. He was locked up when the Last Poets released their first album here in N.C. for robbing a Klu Klux Klan recruiting meeting. He wanted to take a stand and ended up serving 3 ½ years. During that time in N.C. he worked on his craft. When he got out, he vowed to always come back to the prisons to help people in despair. So, that’s why we are raising the funds because we need different types of clearances to go into different prisons where he's teaching people how to
use poetry. He goes to schools all the time teaching kids how to use poetry as well. He also does these things called, “Open House Sundays,” every Sunday at his house. Poets and artists, like Talib Kweli, come from about 3-midnight performing their work. He gives them advice and feedback. He’s been doing it every Sunday since 1979. We are doing that crowdfunding starting March 16 for 30 days.
Q: What advice would you leave for anyone coming from a small town like us or just for anyone trying to pursue their dreams?
A: If you want to do a film just make it. The Internet has really changed the game and opened the door. You just must get through that first project and get out there. And getting it out there doesn’t mean you have to go to Sundance. Getting it out there is doing what we did. Doing the small festivals, the local festivals, building your audience, doing your own screenings. Connect with the people because those are the people who are going to support you. There are people who have been rocking with me since Wilmington on Fire that consistently support other projects, I’m involved in. They are not just supporting that specific project, but they are supporting you because they like what you are doing. People love people who do their own thing and tell impactful stories that you don’t always see in Hollywood. There’s an audience out there for you. It doesn’t matter where you are from. I was in Laurinburg when I made Wilmington on Fire and made all these lasting connections. You don’t have to move to LA or NY. You can do it right where you are.
Follow Christopher at Speller Street Films on
Also, check out http://wilmingtononfire.com/and harlemslastpoet.com.
Cameron Parker is a contributing writer for Block Chronicles.