Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader: The Back Story
by Anna Jones
I am frequently introduced by new friends as: “This is Anna Jones. She is a filmmaker.” I immediately correct that with “I made a film; there is a big difference.” I have never attended film school, knew nothing of making a film, and naively thought it would be less demanding than writing a book. The films I saw at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. made it seem uncomplicated—relevant interviews, photographs, footage, narration, some cool music. My assumption was flawed. The films I had seen were so well done that they looked easy. That’s how they are supposed to look. Filmmaking is hard work.
In the Beginning
In 2007, I set out with my little Radio Shack cassette recorder to document a few anecdotes about my parents for their nineteen grandchildren. James Henry and Viola Brown Jones had been leaders in the Northampton County community, both formally and informally, for decades. My father–farmer, civil rights advocate, Northampton County School Board member, North Carolina’s first Black Chairman of a school system; my mother, certified midwife, health professional, school attendance counselor. They both had stories worth telling.
My father was killed in a tractor accident on our farm in 1984; my mother died in 2007. It struck me then that there was no written record of their works and the scope of their relationships to the community as I heard recounted at their funerals and elsewhere.
As I sat with local leaders—mayors, farmers, community leaders, citizens, etc., two comments struck me. “He was in the middle of all of the integration stuff.” Really? “He did more for this county than anyone else.” What did he do? I needed to know more. They all seemed to have respected and admired my father’s leadership during the turbulent era of school desegregation and beyond. They clearly trusted him. When I explained my project and asked for interviews they said YES. Easy rapport and instant credibility. Eager to tell me of his work in the County, they took pride in recounting the stories of that era. They trusted me to accurately preserve this piece of Northampton County’s history. My journey of discovery had just begun.
Unlike my younger siblings, I was not involved in the county’s school desegregation movement (I had left for college); as my parents’ stories unfolded, I discovered that my father had led a long, relentless movement of people from segregation to cooperation around the education of Northampton County’s children.
I discovered that in addition to supporting my father’s work, my mother had been midwife to over 300 babies born in Northampton County between 1967 and 1983, personally naming many of them, taught sex education to teenagers in her living room before it was popular in public schools, and had advocated for children in the Court System. She was the last midwife in the County.
Why Make a Documentary Film?
Impressed by a documentary film of Ralph Johnson Bunche’s story at Durham’s Full Frame Film Festival, I wondered if I could do the same for my father’s story. Bunch was a Black political scientist, academic, and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in Israel in the late 1940s. The first Black person to be so honored. James H. Jones was not a Ralph Bunche, but his presence in the lives of people in rural Northampton County, N.C., just as valuable. Plus, his journey from sharecropping on a former slave plantation to Chairman of the Board of Education seemed more formidable than Bunche’s journey. How does that happen to a Black man, with limited education, under North Carolina’s Jim Crow System? Why was he not paralyzed by fear or racism? I wanted to know.
Had I ever made a film? No. Did I have any idea of how to make one? No. What made me think I could make one? Well, I had a successful corporate management career in IBM. I knew how to manage large projects, how to interview people, possessed some marketing skills, and believed that I could get financial support. In addition to a mountain of research, I knew that funding would be crucial to success. If I had money, I could hire others to do what I could not. Experience and observations had taught me that people will typically give if there is some benefit to them.
So, I submitted a proposal to the Southern Documentary Fund requesting fiscal agency from them for my fledgling project, bypassing the need to obtain my own 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation, but still allowing my donors to receive a federal tax deduction for their contributions.
Many obstacles, hurdles, and struggles would ensue for a novice like me. Each phase of the process was a major project--fraught with missteps, do overs, setbacks, discouragement, high learning curves, and just plain laborious. I found myself in uncharted waters with naysayers. A senior elected official in NC who knew and worked with my father in politics told me that it would be impossible to produce the film because I lacked film assets such as photographs, speeches, papers, film footage, etc. I was undeterred. I did not know it then, but producing Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader would be a long, twisted, and painful journey. Had I known how difficult it was going to be, I probably would not have started it.
The Southern Documentary Fund did not accept my proposal. It was clear to them that I did not know what I was doing. It was clear to me as well. But, the story had promise. Instead of closing the door, they sent me back to the drawing board. The proposal itself became a major project. The experience was humbling. I was accustomed to being competent. But, in this arena, I was clearly out of my league.
Fortunately, a couple of local filmmakers helped coach me to think through the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t even know the whole story. But, it became abundantly clear that I could not do a story about both of my parents. My mother had her own big story and I couldn’t imagine managing those two trains running at the same time. I could barely conceive of one. So, I decided to focus on my father’s story.
Much research followed. Budget line items for films, how much things cost, the vernacular of filmmaking, the storyline, character, the intended audience, what is B-roll. I needed letters of support, staffing, and on and on in order for me to complete a reasonably acceptable proposal. Finally, on the second try—success at last! Next step, develop and implement a plan for raising funds and conducting research.
Meanwhile, taking courses at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies I was learning some of the intricacies of quality documentary filmmaking—writing , storytelling, interviewing, gaining community trust, fact checking, permissions, and so on. I immersed myself in classes, workshops, lectures, seminars, etc. Everything that was offered. I was a neophyte in the world of film. For me, it was like drinking from a fire hose. I had already completed several critical courses when I realized that I needed to stop classroom learning and begin producing. First-hand witnesses that I needed in my father’s story were aging and some had already died.
Funds to hire a professional film crew to video tape quality interviews were critical. I wanted to be proud of my film and I wanted others to want to see it. I knew that I could conduct the interviews, but I certainly could not video tape them. In addition to the Southern Documentary Fund, I tested the concept of the story with friends, in classes at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and with my Rotary Club members. It showed promise. It was unrecorded history, an untold personal story. A proposal to the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation netted me $2,000 in grant money. Another $5,000 was donated by a personal friend, and I loaned myself $500--enough seed money to finance the initial interview shoots. My plan was to produce a fund-raising trailer from some of those interviews. I knew that I would still need to raise much more money but right then it was imperative to record as many interviews as I could within my $7,500 budget. I found a reputable production company willing to work with me.
By the time the full film project was finished, however, I would have contacted everyone I knew, requesting support for this history project—friends, former co-workers, Rotarians, church members, former classmates, neighbors, hometown people who knew my parents, local civil rights organizations, etc., and raised over $70,000. Understanding that fundraising is personal, there were letter-writing campaigns, emails, fund-raising events--a crowd-funding event that required a short video, specific goals, and special perks for certain giving levels. Each activity a major project along the road to Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader. I was working alone. Even when others agreed to help me, they failed to follow through. At times things looked pretty bleak. I kept going.
I started out conducting pre-interviews, as recommended in my CDS classes. But, that was taking up too much precious time. So, with just a few pre-determined questions, I scheduled, conducted, and filmed raw interviews with leaders and others in Northampton County who knew my father and his work. This proved to be an excellent strategy. Raw interviews yielded some of the best and freshest first-person clips for telling the story. It also gave me fodder for kicking off the additional archival research I would need to fill in gaps and verify facts. I quickly burned through my $7,500 budget. But, the stories from these witnesses gave me the content for a fund-raising trailer and led to the ultimate success of the film. Witnesses told me far more than I knew to ask about. I sat with them in their homes where they were comfortable. Logistically challenging, but during a two and a half-day period, we taped 12 interviews. They not only told me about my father’s leadership and principles, they told me their own stories. I listened. Some went on for 60–90 minutes. I learned to be patient, let them talk, and then pull them back to the topic at hand, constantly aware that each minute was costing me money.
One key witness I pre-interviewed on audio cassette early on, Mayor Melvin Broadnax, then eluded me for two years. The audio recording session had been comfortable for him. But, when it came time to actually appear on camera, he was elusive and had many excuses for not being available. I continued to hound him. He was the only one alive who could tell the story of the secret group of Black men my father led, known as The Ten. They had taken an oath of silence during the Jim Crow Era. Mr. Broadnax, although not a member of The Ten, was a trusted envoy, sworn to secrecy. He still honored the pledge. Appealing to his sense of history as a public school teacher, I said, “Mr. Broadnax, you are the only one left. If you don’t tell the story, it can’t be told. This is history. And, after you’ve passed away, there will be no record of what you all accomplished here.” “And, I can’t tell my father’s story without you.” He finally relented. “How quick can you get here? I’m going to tell it all!” Thank Goodness! (Get the crew together and go to Northampton before he changes his mind.)
Expanding the Story
Interviews were merely the beginning of my research. Corroborating the events around school desegregation—court cases, judges’ orders, school board meetings, county commissioner resolutions, newspaper articles, community reactions, and so on would be arduous. I never intended to delve deeply into school desegregation. I knew that it happened during that period but I thought I was doing a story about my father’s unbelievable rise from sharecropper to education leader until Dr. William Friday disrupted my course.
In 2010, at a book-signing event, I was introduced to Dr. William Friday, host of “North Carolina People” on our Public Broadcasting station UNC-TV. When I explained what I was trying to do with my project, I recall Dr. Friday saying, “Keep going, keep going.” I was encouraged. Eventually, he hosted me as a guest on his program. He apparently had done some background checking on me and my father with one of his peers, former lawyer, judge, and State Legislator, Perry W. Martin who was involved in taking Northampton County’s case to court refusing to follow Brown v. Board. Because, when Dr. Friday introduced me, he told the audience, ”She is producing a documentary film called Chairman Jones about the implementation of Brown v. Board in Northampton County and the role her father played in keeping peace.” Both were news to me! He announces it on North Carolina television. This is a much broader story than my father’s personal story and far more than I intended. I didn’t know what happened in Northampton during that era. But, how can I now release my father’s lean personal story when Dr. Friday has said I will release a much broader account of Brown v. Board and school desegregation in Northampton County and North Carolina. My story was changed for me. The research mountain grew that much steeper. This is not going to happen in 2011 as I naively planned.
I found myself in libraries and archives from Northampton County School Administrative Offices, County Courthouse, and Museum to N.C. State Archives, to UNC Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, North Carolina Central University, to The National Archives of the US in Atlanta, Ga. And many places and visits in between, gathering relevant documents, photographs, articles, and so on. At the same time, creating a comprehensive timeline and picture of key events occurring in James Jones’ life, in Northampton County, in North Carolina, and in the United States of America. I conducted forty-two interviews, reviewed six decades of school board minutes, three decades of local newspaper articles, and a decade of Judge's papers. It was daunting.
Promoting the Project
From the beginning, I wanted to create interest in the project so that it would become a “looking forward to” in both of my communities—Durham, N.C., where I reside as well as in Northampton County, N.C. , my hometown, where the story takes place. Reactions to a presentation to the diverse membership at Durham Rotary Club and to aspiring filmmakers at Center for Documentary Studies confirmed the story’s viability for a broad audience. In Northampton County, newspapers covered the project when Treehouse Productions and I came to town just to film the first interviews. That in itself was an important local story.
My interview on “North Carolina People” would set both Northampton County and Durham communities abuzz with eager anticipation of the televised interview with Dr. William Friday. The original working title for the project had been Chairman Jones—A Portrait of My Father. After the interviews were mostly done and my paper research had begun, I settled on Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader. It became clear that the story was more about James H. Jones, the leader and his impact in education in North Carolina, than it was about my father. My two simple goals for the film were 1) Present it to the citizens of Northampton County, and 2) Have it broadcast on UNC-TV.
I received two pieces of priceless advice: “Don’t tax the audience,” and “keep the story moving.” Personally transcribing the interviews (with time codes) was laborious and wearying but it was time well spent. Playing back the interviews and hearing those voices directly speaking into my ears gave me the advantage of knowing who said what about a given topic and how they said it, making the later job of selecting quotes a bit easier. With the interviews transcribed, documents in chronological sequence, and timeline complete, it was time to create and structure the story.
Breaking the rules for trailer length that I had learned at CDS, I produced a 10-minute piece. I needed more than a one- to two-minute preview to present the story and attract supporters. It worked. But, not without upheaval. Unable to identify a Black editor, I found that working with specific white male editors exasperating. It seemed that they wanted to lead and tell my story from their perspective, instead of listening to me. Frustratingly, it took four iterations and as many editors before I was reasonably satisfied with the tone and look of the trailer. The first 10-minute trailer was delivered to me at the last minute—the day before my first big fund-raising event was to be held in Northampton County. With no time left to re-edit it and also do advance work needed for the fundraising event, I was forced to use a piece with which I was totally disappointed. Technically it was very sound, but cool, void of feeling, and lacking my perspective. Feedback that stung me most was “the film is too white.” I knew it but was still saddened to hear it. I wanted to give up. I vowed to never use that trailer again. By that time, my meager budget was exhausted and so was I.
After a period of respite and reflection, I started over. I searched for a different editor. Discouraged by people in the local documentary business, I was asked why I didn’t just settle for a slide presentation, an oral history, or at most create a 28-minute piece for my “small” story. I was determined to press on. The second editor was a novice and presented me with an amateurish piece. The third editor was experienced, delivered a more interesting and energetic piece, but it had quality issues. The fourth and final editor cleaned up most of the quality issues, added some clips, and created the 10-minute “Prelude” that would become the centerpiece for fundraising and presentations, turning screening events into receptions and community social events.
Still needing more funding to actually edit the film, Indiegogo required a two- minute trailer to crowd-fund on their platform. The last editor, Stewart Nelsen, and I created it in his studio with me reluctantly narrating and making the appeal. That labor-intensive campaign successfully exceeded the goal! At last, money to move forward with editing the story.
Structuring and Telling the Story
I decided on a straight-forward chronological approach, since my father’s life story was the spine of the piece. It traversed the eras of Jim Crow, Brown v. Board, school desegregation, Civil Rights, his rise to education leadership in North Carolina in the 1980s, and his posthumous induction into the Educators Hall of Fame.
We laid out the different eras, the main topical headings, and key events on the studio walls, using large sticky notes. Identified and time coded all quotes that helped tell the story for each key event. Then, copied, cut out and pasted the time-coded quotes beneath each topic. I selected the best quotes and used them to prepare a paper edit of the story. In the meantime, I took a course in Final Cut Pro to better understand some of the basics of the editing process before we got started. Narration would be a hurdle. We began editing without a plan for who or how we would handle narration.
I stubbornly refused to narrate the film. Because I was already in over my head, I felt that adding another layer of anxiety was more that I could bear. We interviewed a couple of men with big voices but they were not what we needed. We kept going until we became stuck in the story. What to do—how to move forward? One day during the lull, we were looking through our hard drive when we happened upon a file of an interview of me telling the story. It had been filmed a couple of years earlier when we were making the first trailer. None of it was used in that trailer and I actually forgot about it. It was golden. Just what we needed. We realized that we could use clips from it to help us now. When we laid in some of the footage, it was clear that mine was the voice needed to thoughtfully tell my father’s story. The decision was made. I would record narration when the clips were insufficient to make the transitions needed to keep the story moving.
At times we used text cards in the edit as place holders for what needed to be said, with a plan to actually record the text as narration later. Other times, I reluctantly recorded narration on the spot. Interviews, copies of photos and documents, other B-roll were being added as we went along. We sat side by side in the editing suite every day, making decisions and editing. I was my editor’s assistant! My paper edit did not always work. If we completed 90 seconds of film in a day in Final Cut Pro, that was a good day. We recorded continuity reports daily. It was tedious for me but quite useful later. We forged ahead. Using free music from the internet, we laid in place-holder music until we could find someone to score the work. With very few photos of my father and literally no footage, we worried that the large family portrait would become overused. There was no choice. We used what we had.
Avoiding a Culture Clash
With our vastly different perspectives—Stewart, the editor, a white male from the West Coast and me a Black female from North Carolina—our interactions at times became contentious and testy. There were times when we were not speaking the same language at all. One day Stewart was inserting footage of two houses into the timeline--the large plantation owner’s house juxtaposed with the former slave quarters where my father was been born. He was transitioning the scene from the slave house back to the big plantation owner’s house when he lingered on the big house. I said, “No, stay longer on the plantation house.” He replied,” I am on the plantation house.” To which I responded, “That might be your version of a plantation house but this old slave house is mine.” Silence. We got a big laugh out of that. But, we realized the magnitude of that moment. From then on, when there was disagreement, I would typically say, “This is a plantation moment.” It helped us render the story from my perspective and reduce time spent squabbling with my white male editor.
Screening the Work in Progress
The only recording we had of my father’s voice was of him singing “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.” To give him the first word in his story we used the recording in the opening scene. We introduced the story with a few clips from witnesses about the man. Then, took the viewer on a ride through Northampton County, before launching into his personal story.
We edited for an entire year before the Southern Documentary Fund hosted a “Work in Progress” screening for Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader at the Full Frame Theater.
Local filmmakers, friends, family, students, UNC-TV representatives, and local elected officials attended. Text cards were left in place instead of inserting narration. Reading bits of information seemed less taxing on the audience than hearing more “talking” as we kept the story moving. Some wanted to see more tension, threats, and violence from white supremacists. Some wanted me to delve more deeply into the details of my father’s fatal tractor accident. Still others thought there was too much reliance on “talking heads.” Although feedback was mixed, in general it was positive. Everyone had a different opinion about what would enhance the story.
I decided to focus the film on my father’s life, leadership, and legacy. The threats, hatred, brutality, and violence in cities across the South during the school desegregation era are already well documented and imprinted in our minds. Images of white governors standing in school house doors, keeping little Black children out, are iconic in our nation’s history. What we have not seen enough is civility, real communications, fairness, cross-racial/cultural alliances, and mature leadership in resolving complex community issues. No yelling and screaming in the streets, no burning and rioting in neighborhoods—people actually talking with each other as they did in rural Northampton County, N.C. Delving into the particular details of my father’s death might have been intriguing but not relevant to the story I was telling. Plus, it would prolong the film that I was desperately trying to hold to sixty minutes runtime. “Talking Heads” were the best assets to help tell the story. We used them. I was finally telling the story that I wanted to tell, using the assets that we had.
After the screening and follow-on edits, we tried four different musicians to score the film. Nothing worked. The free placeholder music was better. So, we made the extra effort to obtain permission from the artists… just in case. The story had a beginning, middle, and an end. But to end the story and leave the audience with the fatal accident was not my desire. In late 2014, my father was posthumously inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame at East Carolina University. I attended the ceremony, accepted his award, and had the event videotaped. That footage became a more gratifying ending for a story about this champion for children’s education.
With the editing completed, the work of color correcting remained. A local filmmaker recommended a finishing editor. Bill Blankenship reviewed the 10-minute “Prelude.” The story of the man resonated with Bill. He decided that it deserved to be told and that he would help me over the finish line. The universe was cooperating with me. He did the finishing work as well as the online editing. Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader premiered to a sold-out audience of approximately 400 people at a local cinema in the Roanoke Valley Area on a cold, rainy, Saturday morning in September 2015. It was a blockbuster.
My aspiration to present this history to the community was met. Later, in 2017, my aspiration of broadcasting on UNC-TV was also achieved. The station’s programming people were already aware of Chairman Jones—An Improbable Leader from Dr. Friday’s interview and also from the “Work in Progress” screening. They simply needed to review the final product to determine its suitability in their programming. After the painful job of editing the film down to fit into a broadcasting slot, it finally aired.
It took me seven years to complete the work. It was exhausting but worth every ounce of the effort and energy that I put into it.
July 21, 2020
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