[For each of the last few holiday seasons, I’ve made some requests to the AmericanStudies Elves. This year, I thought I’d highlight some amazing American stories that are ripe for telling in historical fiction films, novels, TV shows, you name it. Share the stories you’d like to see told, or any other wishes for the AS Elves, ahead of a wish-full crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the turning point moment that embodies both the worst and best of American history.
In yesterday’s post I wished for one version of a historical biopic, the kind that tells the full life story (or at least a narrative version of it) of an amazing figure. Lives like Ely Parker’s, those of Renaissance Americans who moved through so many roles and worlds, demand storytelling that includes at least many of those stages and traces the evolution of their focal figures as well as their communities and nation through that lens. Yet some of the best historical biopics, as exemplified by last year’s phenomenal Selma (2014), focus instead on one specific, crucial moment in an individual’s life, a turning point moment that helps illuminate not only that life but also some of the period’s and nation’s issues and histories to which it connects.
In 1892, journalist, editor, and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells experienced precisely such a turning point. Three of her Memphis friends, successful storeowner Thomas Moss and two fellow African Americans (Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart), were lynched after defending Moss’s store from a white mob; when Wells covered the lynching and its many contexts in her newspaper the Memphis Free Speech, rampaging whites destroyed the newspaper’s offices while she was on an overseas speaking tour and warned her not to return to Memphis or continue her efforts. No one could have blamed Wells if she backed down or at least took a break from her activism, but instead she did precisely the opposite: upon returning to New York CIty from abroad, she published her first book, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), with a New York press and set about distributing it as widely as possible. This darkest moment in Wells’ life marked, to put it simply, the starting point for her moves toward a fully national presence and voice, one that would never be silenced.
Can you imagine a better moment on which to focus a historical biopic? C’mon, AmericanStudies Elves, let’s make it happen!
Next wishing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other wishes you’d share?
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