Posted January 27, 2022
Come Along for "The Ride" with JBFC Artists-in-Residence Allison Bonner Shillingford & J Bird Lathon
by Dennis Giza, Guest Writer
Filmmakers Allison Bonner Shillingford and J Bird Lathon took full advantage of the Jacob Burns Film Center’s resources during their six-week Creative Culture residency this fall, which was organized in partnership with Black Public Media.
Lathon and Shillingford worked on their film The Ride, a short, animated interpretation of a powerful oral history. The filmmakers said that access to the Media Arts Lab while on campus was key to furthering their work, and helped them better understand how they can incorporate such technology into their workflow going forward. They found the residence a quiet respite that allowed them to fully focus on, create, and enjoy their work, and they relished the opportunity to enjoy new releases and repertory programming at the Theater, which helped contextualize their own current and future film projects.
The Creative Culture residency allowed Shillingford and Lathon to work in the same geographical area and physical space for the first time since their project’s inception. The filmmakers tweaked the film’s script to streamline scenes for timing, and reworked some imagery before passing the project on to their 3D animators and composer. They used the Lab’s green screen and video cameras, as well as the residence’s editing suite to create their Kickstarter campaign video. And they revised their animatic—an animated storyboard version of the film—which they later shared with future filmmakers at the nearby Denzel Washington School of the Arts, and will surely be a key component in their ongoing efforts to secure financial support to complete the project.
Lathon says that the “six weeks of the residency have been one of the best periods of my creative life.” Shillingford notes that “the residency was both an honor and a blessing. I am so proud to be among the Creative Culture Residency alumni. So grateful to be a part of the JBFC family. And so amazed at how much we accomplished in those six weeks.”
“ARE YOU MISSING ANYONE FROM YOUR FAMILY?”
The Ride is an animation of an oral history about a young girl’s first experience with racist lynchings in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1933. In addition to being a filmmaker and playwright, Shillingford is also an oral historian and educator. While working on the documentary In Our Lifetime, which asked Black Americans in their 70s and 80s their thoughts about the first Black American President, Shillingford interviewed the respected educator and education activist Dr. Adelaide Sanford. Sanford recounted a time from her childhood spent riding with her uncle—an undertaker in the deep South in and around Vicksburg, Mississippi—when she witnessed a horrific sight: lynched Black bodies hanging from trees. As the area undertaker, Sanford’s uncle would take down the bodies and try to find the families to whom they belonged. He would ask nearby residents: “Are you missing anyone from your family?”
Shillingford says, “When Dr. Sanford told me this story, it had such a profound effect on me. It was what she said and how she said it. In just seven minutes, she bears witness to childhood loss of innocence, racial injustice and violence as tools of suppression, individual and collective trauma, and the long-term effect it has on communities.” Shillingford says she lets the stories decide how they want to be told, and she saw Sanford’s seven-minute childhood recollection in her head as an animation in black and white. She was introduced to writer and filmmaker J Bird Lathon and sent him the script. “He sent me back these amazing images and I was like YES! He could see it too—and draw it. At that point, I knew I had found my director.” Shillingford is the film’s producer.
Narrated by Sanford’s eloquent voice from the original oral history, The Ride tells a larger-than-life story of American terror. Using the transformative power of animation, the filmmakers visualize this experience from a child’s point of view. The Ride’s beautiful and haunting soundscape consists of Sanford’s voice, abstract sound design, and a score composed of brass and percussive instruments as well as found objects. The film will be rendered in a hybrid style, including both two-dimensional hand-drawn printed and three-dimensional computer model characters and graphic elements in 19th and 20th-century styles.
Unfortunately, the subject matter of The Ride is still relevant today. Shillingford notes that “the same conversation that Adelaide Sanford’s mom had with her and her little brother to explain what happened to these people, I am having with my children today.” Lathon says that their film deals with complexities, causes, and causalities of lynchings as no film has done before. “Far too often, the violence of lynching has been highlighted in cinema for dramatic effect without clearly or honestly stating the root causes and systemic machinations that enable lynching to become and be maintained as the heinous act that it is. What makes the manner in which lynching is presented in The Ride different is that we use Dr. Sanford’s oral history as a departure point to visualize how racial insecurity, post-Civil War animus, economic oppression, and violence all contributed to a climate of fear and trepidation in regards to bettering oneself as an African American in and around Vicksburg. As Dr. Sanford speaks, we see elements in her story come to life as they lead us to other images and moments that share the same implications and results of other stories like hers. The Ride shows how family structures were destroyed, and the emotional and economic fallout following this intentional destruction. Most importantly, the machinations of the emasculation of men from lynching are countered by the strong presence of maternal wisdom and resilience in regard to the protection of African American children being threatened for simply existing.”
While the story is told from a child’s point of view, it is not a film for children. The target audience is ages 15 and up, and they aim to reach a broad audience. The filmmakers hope to connect with and further engage their audience via a related Website; museum and nonprofit programs and screenings; public television; middle-, high-, and collegiate school outreach; a home base on a streaming platform; and, ultimately, fully immersive multi-platform experiences in Augmented Reality and/or Virtual Reality.
Shillingford and Lathon’s project speaks directly to the JBFC’s mission “to spark dialogue and encourage an acceptance of a diversity of perspectives among our theatergoers and the community.” Lathon and Shillingford continue to work towards completing their film. They launched their Kickstarter campaign in January 2022 and, when their fundraising goal is reached, they will commence work on the 3D animated portion of the project, as well as the community outreach and virtual reality components of the story. Learn more about The Ride and contribute to the Kickstarter campaign.
Lathon says of the residency, “Being able to truly focus on a project in an environment so enabling and empowering is truly a rare gift of an experience. Being selected to become part of the JBFC family is highly motivating and in some ways a validation of the work we are doing with The Ride. Just as importantly, the staff has been a valuable resource as well. They have been supportive as they have been inquisitive, and the JBFC’s dedication to engaging with communities aligns with our own. We plan to be a part of the JBFC’s continuing efforts to do so.” He notes that sharing their animatic with future filmmakers at The Denzel Washington School of the Arts was one of the many highlights of their experience at Burns. Shillingford adds, “seeing our film on ‘the big screen’ when we screened it at the Media Arts Lab for staff was such an amazing way to end our residency!”
The JBFC continues to partner with Black Public Media, and other organizations, to support filmmakers through its residency and artist services programs. Click here to learn more about the Creative Culture Residency Program.
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