Yes, that S. Epatha Merkerson--you know her from her roles in "Law & Order" and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, as well as playing "Mann and Machine"'s Captain Claghorn and Reba the Mail Lady on "Pee Wee's Playhouse." But did you know she was a talented documentary filmmaker? Me, neither.
She and writer Rockell Metcalf have teamed up to direct THE CONTRADICTIONS OF FAIR HOPE (2012), which I found to be quite an impressive effort for a couple of first-timers. A fascinating study in black history, it begins with a succinct telling of how newly-freed slaves after the Civil War found themselves with little or no support except from each other, forming what was known as "benevolent societies."
Such a community offered mutual aid for its members in everything from medical help (there were no hospitals or insurance plans for these struggling people) to the simple dignity of being given a proper burial. Founded in 1888, the Fair Hope community in rural Alabama was centered around its church and meeting hall, where the people elected their own president and queen and saw to each other's well-being in a number of ways.
These God-fearing people, mostly farmers, were a close-knit and extremely conservative group whose customs and traditions remained fairly constant for many years. Gradually, however, more of them began to migrate to big northern cities in Alabama for factory and construction jobs, returning once a year to reunite with family and friends. These reunions evolved over time into large-scale events that drew people from all around, including money-grubbing vendors and other opportunists, until Fair Hope found itself hosting an annual bacchanalia complete with drinking, drugs, prostitution, and violence.
With an artful use of images and old film clips (the early days of slavery and its aftermath are vividly depicted) along with lots of great interview footage with current and former members of the society in their everyday surroundings, the filmmakers have captured the earthy flavor of a rural black Christian community seemingly untouched by time and somewhat at a loss to deal with this invasion of carnal revelry. The sometimes eccentric interviewees are a fascinating bunch of characters to spend some time with, and the stories they tell are the stuff of American history that we don't often hear.
"There is a heaven side and a hell side to Fair Hope Benevolent Society," one member opines. And indeed, some of Fair Hope's citizens are more accomodating than others, profiting from what's known as the "Foot Wash" celebration (a Biblical reference now lost on most of its attendees) by leasing their land to strangers they know will use it to supply all manner of illegal and immoral indulgences.
The documentary pulls few punches in depicting this event in all its Babylonian debauchery, with rampant drug use at every turn and near-naked prostitutes brazenly displaying their "wares." Gunplay and other acts of violence bring local police into the mix, but they're seemingly content to simply quell the worst of it while turning a blind eye to everything else. How this clash of wildly disparate cultures and sensibilities eventually begins to be reconciled and/or repaired makes up the final segment of the film.
Whoopi Goldberg lends her dulcet tones to a straightforward narration which needs no sensationalism, manipulative music, or other flashy cinematic techniques to get its point across. Merkerson and Metcalf employ no cheap tricks to make this story more exciting--either you're interested enough in the subject to pay attention or you aren't. If you are, this very capably shot and edited film is richly informative and quite engrossing.
The DVD from Shelter Island is in 1.78:1 widescreen with 2.0 sound and English subtitles. Extras consist of appox. 40 minutes of material featuring members of Fair Hope (and some others) singing spirituals, praying, telling stories, etc. in what amounts to a substantial supplement to the film.
Has the annual "Foot Wash" devolved into a maelstrom of sin that will drag the entire Fair Hope community down with it? Or will the people of this age-old benevolent society somehow manage to restore the values and virtues that its founders intended? THE CONTRADICTIONS OF FAIR HOPE gives us both sides of the question in highly entertaining form and leaves us pondering.
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