Filmmakers focus on Maynard Jackson, John Lewis


Filmmakers focus on Maynard Jackson, John Lewis


Georgia-filmed “The Birth of a Nation” has earned praise and big bucks.

“Race” tells the amazing story of Olympics medal-winner Jesse Owens.

Maynard Jackson III can tick off the names of old guard black politicians, businessmen and civil rights leaders who are no longer around.

Herman J. Russell, who grew wealthy rebuilding Atlanta’s skyline, died in 2014.

Julian Bond, a civil rights leader, legislator and author, died a year later.

The Rev. Willie Bolden, who helped lead 1960s civil rights demonstrations, died recently.

“I knew the clock was ticking,” said Jackson, 45, the only son of Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, who died in 2003 and was the first African-American mayor of a major Southern city.

If he wanted to gain insight from his father’s contemporaries, Jackson figured, he’d best hurry.

“It would be a shame if all that he did was just kind of washed over,” said Jackson, who, along with his wife, Wendy Eley Jackson, is among the executive producers of “Maynard,” a 90-minute documentary in production about his father.

“He was able to throw down the gauntlet in terms of inclusion, making sure minorities and women were included in bids for contracts,” Jackson said. “And here is this younger generation that don’t know him. There’s a school named after him and some of the students thought it was named after a white guy. I knew I had to do something about that.”

“Maynard” is not the only Atlanta-based film project in the works about an iconic African-American figure.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a longtime congressman and civil rights leader, is the subject of a feature-length documentary directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is the honorary chair of the John Lewis Documentary Project, which grew out of the efforts of friends and former staffers. So far, about 30 percent of a goal of $2 million in funding has been raised, according to Chris Womack, president of external affairs for the Southern Co., who is chief fundraiser for the project.

Nelson, who directed such films as “Freedom Riders” and “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (which will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday on PBS), has known Lewis for a number of years.

He called the Alabama native “a unique American who has been through so many different phases of our history for the last 50 or 60 years. It’s a great story. He has always stuck to his principles.”

Lewis said he hopes the film “will inspire another generation of young people to stand up and speak out when they see something is not fair and be motivated to do something about it.”

The Jackson and Lewis documentaries are part of a growing number of films that focus on the achievements of African-Americans.

Among them:

  • “The Birth of a Nation,” about a 19th century slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival and Fox Searchlight Pictures has acquired worldwide rights to the project. The film, written, produced and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars as Turner, was shot in Savannah.

As with most films, the biggest challenges are money, marketing and distribution.

Wendy Eley Jackson said “Maynard,” which is being directed by Sam Pollard (“Slavery By Another Name”), is about a third of the way to its fundraising goal, which she declined to identify. The project got a major boost recently when Auburn Avenue Films, which is producing, signed a distribution agreement with Georgia Public Broadcasting.

“GPB is pleased to serve as the presenting station for ‘Maynard’ as part of our ‘Georgia Greats’ series highlighting extraordinary and influential Georgians,” said Teya Ryan, CEO and president of GPB.

Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association and a part-time Atlanta resident, said the number of black-oriented films hitting television and theater screens can be “cyclical.”

“It’s usually Hollywood’s response to the paucity of black content,” he said.

But some films have done extremely well, he said. Ava DuVernay’s 2014 hit drama “Selma” grossed more than $52 million domestically, on a budget of $20 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

“Black biopics tend to be very popular and have a history of success,” Robertson said. “These films usually earn their money back, and never lose sight that, when you are talking about Hollywood, it’s all about business.”

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