For Jason Gourdine, it all began with Willow, Ron Howard’s fantasy film. “I was five years old and my family was moving from New Jersey to South Carolina. We were real tight with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and it was going to be a different experience living apart from them. The weekend before we left, we all packed the theater to spend our final moments together as a family. The way we were able to gather together and get lost in the movie made the move a little easier.”
As the writer and director of Vesey’s Resistance, which makes its premiere this Thursday at the Charleston Music Hall, Gourdine remembers how his love for Willow, as well as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, brought him to this point — making a film that explored the complex life of Denmark Vesey, the man behind one of the largest, most organized slave insurrections in history. Aside from the account reading like a screenplay to him, Gourdine had another, more personal reason for tackling such a lofty subject, saying, “When you dig into the history, it gives you a different perspective of Charleston’s role in antebellum slavery, and deeper insight into the lives of the people who were forced to live in that system. It’s problematic enough that black history is often limited to when Africans first stepped on U.S. soil, but the portrayal of the submissive negro can be troublesome to self-awareness of a young, impressionable African-American. I remember seeing these images growing up, and I felt as a new father, my son needs to grow up with different representations of the experience of his ancestors.”
With his mind set, Gourdine began a journey that would find him in front of many obstacles. With the help of the team at the Avery Research Center, Gourdine was able to create a more balanced view of Vesey than he had initially anticipated.
“I felt like I got to know Vesey and his cohorts through the accounts in the court documentations,” says Gourdine. “These were people, who were possessed as property, but shared the same human condition as their white counterparts. They loved their children. They had dreams. They wanted to feel safe and aspire to be their best self. If I wanted to properly represent the story of my ancestors, I had to keep that in mind.”
When writing was finally completed, it was time to start crewing up. Thankfully, enthusiasm for the project made that process easier for getting a cast and crew on board. In fact, the whole Vesey’s Resistance team was able to film the project in just five days spread over nearly four months due to scheduling.
“Getting everyone’s schedules to sync proved challenging. Once we arrived on set, it was the team’s incredible work ethic that allowed us to keep it to five days. These guys were amazing. Some shoots were up to 10- to 12-hour days with minimum breaks and a poor man’s craft services budget,” says Gourdine.
It’s ambitious enough to take on shooting anything, much less a period piece. “I would say we were working on a shoestring budget, but shoe strings are an extravagant luxury when you’re self financing an independent film,” says Gourdine.
Needless to say when shooting a period piece, you’re fighting the present. The crew had a few delays during filming, waiting on cars to pass and planes to fly over. They had to be very careful in hiding electrical outlets or other modern-day appendages. They didn’t have money to rent locations, much less shut down any downtown streets, so the team had to rely on creative ingenuity and the kindness of family and friends. Gourdine also used it as an opportunity for on the job training when he personally took on the costuming as a way to cut costs.
As the premiere looms closer, Gourdine’s eyes are already focused on bigger things. Plans are already in place to put Vesey’s Resistance in the festival market as they produce the remainder of the series and distribute it digitally through streaming platforms. His end goal is more lofty than just creating an entertaining film though. Gourdine says, “We hope Vesey’s Resistance is the springboard to produce and uncover more of Charleston’s great, hidden history here, and help other local independent filmmakers get their stories made.”
Another element Gourdine plans to include in future episodes of Vesey’s Resistance is the music of local emcee Benny Starr who will be performing at the premiere. “I was introduced to his music by my friend KJ Kearney. My first thought was, ‘If hip-hop was around in 1822, Benny Starr would have been on Denmark Vesey’s playlist,'” says Gourdine. “He has a distinct ability to convey visual emotions sonically, which only adds to the emotional message we try to communicate in our story.”
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