For over a century, prolific documentary photographers such as Eudora Welty, William Eggleston, and Maude Schuyler Clay have tracked the often harrowing existence of life as a Mississippian. Behind the pristine homes lies a dark history of racism and murder, poverty and neglect. It’s no secret: My home state’s history is violent, divisive, and still being processed today.
The year 1964 stands out as one of the most pivotal years in Civil Rights history. It also serves as an impending backdrop to the events portrayed in my forthcoming short film, The Delta Girl.
Beginning in June of that year, groups of students from outside of the South traveled to Mississippi to help register the black population to vote. On June 12, 1963, 37-year-old civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot by a Klansman on his front lawn, just hours after John F. Kennedy’s civil rights address. On June 21, 1964, three Freedom Riders—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—disappeared in Neshoba County. The reluctance of the Mississippi authorities to look for the young men caused a national uproar, and the FBI, along with the U.S. Navy, headed to Mississippi to find them; their bodies were located two months later. As it turned out, the Neshoba County sheriff’s office and the local police department were involved in the murder. After a confusing federal trial in 1967, the seven defendants found guilty were only sentenced to three to 10 years in prison. For the next 40 years, no action was taken around the murder. It was only in 2005 that Edgar Ray Killen, the leader of the attack, was sentenced to three consecutive terms of prison. He was 80 years old.
Set in Merigold, Mississippi in late spring 1964, The Delta Girl follows 17-year-old Magnolia, a girl who has grown up in a family with a deeply racist streak, who’s subsequently sent to a strict all-girls school where she is expected to conform, make good grades, and eventually marry the token ‘white boy next door.’ Yet in this little slice of rural Mississippi, the central characters are not what they seem. Following a violent event at the beginning of the film, one not dissimilar to some of the events described above, something within Magnolia begins to rattle––and leads to her eventual realization that her participation in this hateful society is is simultaneously inescapable and unforgivable.
As both a filmmaker and a person, I believe it is critical to not apologize for where you come from. That said, while I have directed several short films thus far, none of them have been set in the South, perhaps due to the aforementioned violent and complicated history, one that is by no means easy to tackle onscreen.
Then there’s the question of the preexisting canon. When I think about the films that came before mine, in terms of genre and subject matter, I realize most were directed by men: The Help, Mississippi Burning, Twelve Years A Slave, To Kill A Mockingbird, Loving, The Color Purple, and A Time To Kill, to name a few. Only recently have we seen women of color like Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees stepping behind the camera and into directorial roles for their respective brilliant films, Selma and Mudbound, both of which grapple with the racist undercurrents running through the Deep South. Even Sofia Coppola’s most recent film, The Beguiled, though visually beautiful and deliciously dark, plot-wise, did not feature a single African-American character, despite being set in rural Virginia during the Civil War. All of these films led by women were made in the past five years––even though the events depicted happened over 50 years ago.
As a restless only child, I was the girl no one really understood growing up––the one who left home as a naïve-yet-determined teenager to pursue education and a career in the performing arts. The big city lights were far from, and pretty unfathomable to, the people behind the perfectly trimmed lawns and white-columned houses of Jackson, Mississippi.
Since leaving home, I have gone as far from Mississippi as possible to experience different cultures and countries. I have no accent, and when I tell people where I’m from, they are often surprised.
Despite the distance, I still feel a strong and present connection to my home state’s rich artistic lineage: Robert Johnson, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Oprah, and, yes, even Elvis. The list goes on and on.
Through The Delta Girl, I hope to contribute a new story to the growing Southern film canon. So many of the artists who emerged from Mississippi left a meaningful, lasting mark on the arts and culture, inspiring generations of artists like myself in the process. No matter how far away I travel, I’ve come to accept—and even embrace—the fact that Mississippi will always be my home. ★