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The Making of Denmark Vesey's Rebellion by Robert Brent Toplin When recounting the making of a historical film, two approaches are possible. The first relates a story of glory, triumph, and excitement. It is a cheerful, glossed-over, antiseptic view of the experience of movie-making. The second approach reveals the tension and conflicts behind the scenes. It relates the intrigue, confusion and stumbling that are part of a TV production. Judging that readers of Film and History would much prefer to know the drama behind the drama, we will proceed with the latter approach. Before discussing the "inside" story, however, it is worthwhile to recall the happy conclusion to the project. Somehow, after all the labor, Denmark Vesey's Rebellion went into production. For three weeks in September, 1980, our production company took over the streets of Charleston to film a ninety-minute docu-drama about a slave conspiracy in 1822. In that historic event a free black carpenter named Denmark Vesey attempted to lead both city and plantation slaves in a revolt for freedom. At the eleventh hour some slaves betrayed him, and the conspirators were caught. Filming took place on location at historic sites in and around the city, including the Heyward-Washington House, the Pineapple House, the Market, and Boone Hall Plantation. A number of noted actors played the roles of historic figures, including Yaphet Kotto (in the lead as Denmark Vesey) and Ned Beatty, Brock Peters, Bernie Casey, Cleavon Little, Samm-Art Williams, William Windom, Antonio Farkas, and Donald Moffat. More than 200 Charlestoni ans contributed to the production as walk-ons, dressing in period costumes, as masters, servants, field hands, and townspeople. RobeJit BtL&nt Toplin íá a membeA ofi the HiAtofiy Vepantme,nt at the UntveJiòtty o ^ Uohtk Carolina at Wilmington. In addiXlon to Ku> cAe.diti> ?? {¡tlmmake/i, Toplin hai> published uiideJiy in. the oxea, oi Anglo-AmeJtican ¿laveAy and hacial attitudeA. In filming the Charleston scenes we made great effort to recreate authentic settings. The attention to detail is particularly evident in the market scene. For this brief three-minute segment of the drama, we took control of the historic open-air building for a day, purchasing all the food in the stalls. Goats and chickens were brought in; more than 100 people were assembled dressed in the closhing of the era; the asphalt streets were covered with dirt; and horse-drawn carriages circled the Market to establish a proper background for scenes of a Sunday morning in Charleston in 1822. At the precise moment when all of these people and props were in place, two elderly ladies who were touring the city came around the corner and set their eyes on the marvelous scene. "My goodness, they really do historic restoration right in Charleston," said one lady to the other. Her confusion offered amusing testimony to the tremendous effort we put into creating a visual image of ante-bellum Charleston. The opportunity to produce Denmark Vesey's Rebellion came principally from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Four types of grants moved the project to completion: a Planning Grant, a Research and Development Grant, a Script Grant, and a Production Grant. In the early stages management was largely in the hands of the academicians. As Project Director, I identified the subject, conducted the research, formed an Advisory Board of scholars, and developed a treatment that shaped the main outlines of the screenplay. As the project grew, we involved professionals at every level. Producers and directors with screen and TV credits coordinated the production plans, and a screenwriter drafted the shooting script. By the time we were in production, the enterprise involved over two hundred administrative and support people, including a British film crew, a set designer who had recently managed Fort Apache - the Bronx, and a technical assistant who had built his career creating visual tricks for the James Bond movies. In many respects Denmark Vesey's Rebellion is rare among historical docu-dramas, because professional scholars played a vital role in its development.' Indeed, the project took six years from start to finish, partly because we took the advice of the Advisory Board quite seriously. It was difficult to integrate...


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