Aunjanue Ellis And Director Christine Swanson Shine Light On Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer


Fannie, the short film directed by Christine Swanson starring Aunjanue Ellis, has been nominated for NAACP Image Award and is in Oscar consideration. Filmed in one day in Chicago, Illinois, the nine-minute short has Ellis reenacting Fannie Lou Hamer‘s impassioned “Is This America’‘ speech before the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer, co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and an organizer of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), detailed to Democratic delegates through her address the brutal violence many Black Americans faced as they attempted to vote. Intimidated by Hamer’s candid account of racial discrimination, President Lyndon Johnson scheduled a televised press conference to usurp her airtime; however, stations later broadcasted Hamer’s heart-rending oration.

“What separates Mrs. Hamer from her contemporaries is that [she] prophetic if you listen to the words that she spoke, you would think that she just wrote them this morning [with] some of the language we hear from the early 50s and 60s that came from the Civil Rights struggle, not necessarily the Freedom Rights struggle, but from the civil rights movement, they don’t they didn’t age well. But when Mrs. Hamer spoke to us, not just we need to vote, but we the need to be a force for our people outside of the ballot because, as we all should know, at this point, this country was a slave economy before it was a democracy, it’s claims of democracy are very fragile. She knew that” Ellis said during a virtual panel called Beyond The Ballot. “She also knew that the ballot wasn’t enough; you have to have systems that support Black folks, people of color of need outside the ballot box because this whole thing was never made for us, and as a matter of fact, most of the time, it’s weaponized against us.” Ellis further explains that Hamer experienced a severe beating in a Winona jailhouse for defiance against the racist mores of the current society.

“She is a Sandra Bland who survived, and that’s why her words are as important, urgent, and filled with fire as they were in 1964,” Ellis adds.

For the 2022 midterm elections, many of Hamer’s dire words were fulfilled as 19 states passed restrictive voter laws to suppress the Black voter bloc.

Based on Swanson’s observation, the Black vote threatens the political establishment because of its ability to affect elections, “I would say specifically, when there is a consensus, in terms of the power that we hold, we have a collective voice. Black people single-handedly put Joe Biden in office; that is why our vote is so threatening. If you look at Georgia, essentially, the Republicans put up a candidate [Herschel Walker] who threatens Black intelligence, livelihood, and advancement. They did that purposefully to be insulting and prove they could adversely affect elections in their favor. The [Georgia] election [results} showed why the power of the Black vote is so powerful and threatening.”

Many critics of Herschel Walker’s campaign painted him as unintelligent and unfit to hold public office, some of the same accusations that her opponents said to describe Hamer. However, the comparison is faulty because of her immense integrity and the fact that she fought for rights on behalf of her people. In contrast, Walker allowed the Republican party to use him for self-interest.

Swanson worked with Ellis on the Lifetime movie The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel, she played the role of Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, and the production was Swanson’s first introduction to the Oscar-nominated actress.

“Together, we made a film that was remarkable and memorable in many ways. We established our friendship and creative collaboration during that project. She approached me about a project about Fannie Lou Hamer; Aunjanue Ellis is from Mississippi, was born and raised, and still lives in Mississippi. For her, Fannie Lou Hamer represented someone she called her North Star, someone that she could look to as an example to navigate the terrains of a racist America in the way that Fannie Lou Hamer did with the level of compassion, consideration, and grace that Fannie Lou Hamer did,” tells Swanson. Ellis wrote a feature film about Hamer and tapped Swanson to direct the project, who decided shooting a proof of concept would be prudent.

Ellis already wrote a feature-length script and has garnered top accolades from screenwriting contests. The duo is currently shopping the story to different producers and studios to secure funding.

“I applied for a grant through Chromatic Black and Ida B. Wells Fund, and they gave me $10,000, and lo and behold, it just took off and had legs of its own,” says Swanson of organizing the shoot for the short film. She maximized the budget and came up with the concept of Ellis reciting Hamer’s to the Democratic National Convention and the goal was to juxtapose it with images of voter suppression currently seen in the 2022 elections however, as Ellis tapped into Hamer’s spirit, Swanson decided to veer in the direction of juxtaposing images of the people she was speaking to and using images from the rural and poor of Mississippi.

“It gave us a collage or a montage of the texture of the fighting, the circumstances of her time that Fannie Lou Hamer was dealing with,” she explains.

Ellis masterfully conveys Hamer’s resilience, perseverance, and courage despite opposition which Swanson feels is expected. Her relatives on her paternal side hailed from Mississippi, and Swanson believes that she is a byproduct of the efforts of her ancestors, who likely were from Hamer’s generation.

“You cannot find a more resilient group of people than some southern Black folk, what they had to endure in the south, and what they accomplished. I have to speak of accomplishments, because I have a great-great-grandfather, who is probably one generation removed from slavery, accumulated 150 acres of land in Mississippi that passed down to me, not all of it but some of it, the idea of being able to do something, and leave a legacy for generations later, speaks again, to the resilience of our southern ancestors,” Swanson says. “Fannie Lou Hamer, in many ways, gained a sense of great identity in her suffering. She was born poor, a sharecropper, and had a sixth-grade education. Still, she had a great sense of community, including adopting many children that weren’t her own and setting an example for what true community looks like.”

Hamer’s selflessness speaks to Swanson’s upbringing; her grandmother and great aunt, both Southern women, raised her, “There is a sense of resilience [of] our ancestors, that I think we’ve forgotten as a community. That is why you have the Herschel Walkers of the world, who have no sense of commitment to what people have done for him to even have the opportunities he’s been given to run for Senate. I read a quote that said ‘Herschel Walker’s candidacy is a fundamental assault by the Republican Party on the dignity of Black Americans, that we can be used as pawns against ourselves, our well being and advancement as a community.’ We’re constantly under assault, because of the power of the unity of us whenever we can figure that out and that’s what Fannie Lou Hamer represented in her time.”

Hamer made judicious use of assembling community members to fight against the establishment, which frequently included her own people. In the 1960s, the civil rights leader and activist went head to head against Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell who felt that Hamer was not a great spokesman for the people and held to the idea that she was an ineffective representative for the cause because of her lack of education and understanding of the political process.

“Hamer, while she fought for voting rights for Southern Black folks, she was about human rights and was ahead of her time, in many ways because she kept advocating for the rights of poor, Black Southerners who wanted to know where was our seat at the table? It’s not enough to get voting rights, we’re starving. Remember, they said Martin Luther King Jr. probably died before he could start the Poor Man’s Campaign. Well, Hamer was always about the poor person’s campaign, and she fought with Black civil rights leaders to advocate for the poor and underrepresented people of the south,” Swanson argues. Hamer commitment to her people propelled her to raise sustainability farms before it was a buzzword, where people could get food to eat and not starve.

“We’re revisiting an era where our fundamental rights are under attack and it’s more important now than ever, not only to exercise our right to vote, and use our voice to fight for equality and justice, it’s time that we collectively pool our resources so that this can never happen again,” Swanson emphasizes.

In addition to advancing the narrative of the importance of voting to the Black community, many community leaders have taken steps to push for Black liberation by running for positions in the Democratic party; however, many have neglected to infiltrate the Republican party, which has proved to obstruct any modes of equality for the Black community.

“Certainly the Republican Party has shown itself effective in doing that in the Democratic Party with the positions of [West Virginia, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin] and [Kyrsten Sinema] from Arizona. They have a stronghold on the Democratic Party because they are heavily influenced by the Republican agenda and have thwarted the Democratic party’s ability to advance their policies. So it’s time for us to start using the same tactics as the opposite party, and I’m like, do the same thing! We have to be a little bit aggressive in the fight. I think we will be able to see what’s possible when we have a little bit more political ability and power to pass policies. We have not been able to do that even with a Democratic president,” she continues. “But if we have representatives in power, and we can see as a community of Black people that indeed, by voting in this way, agendas for us can be advanced by politicians. I dare say because they owe it to us, and that’s another thing Black folks need to demand what it is that we want for our votes because that’s how all politics work. You want my vote, what do you offer in exchange, every community does it, and Black people and our votes, by and large, historically have been taken for granted.”

To apply pressure on the Democratic Party, many Black Americans stayed home for the 2016 election. If the Democratic party wants to remain in leadership, they need to take note of the power of the Black vote, Swanson points out.

“It’s going to harm them in 2024; we are in a good position to start bargaining because they have seen us stay home and eat our votes, and that is how you leverage the needs of our community to politicians. I’ve seen a lot of people be more vocal on social media about being tied to voting for Democrats who don’t put the agenda of the black community at the forefront, so I think those conversations are happening now as we inch toward the 2024 election, those conversations are going to be greater. I think the [our] demands will be heard at a higher level than ever because those votes will be so crucial going forward,” she predicts.

The fiery conviction Hamer held is what many Black Americans yearn for their representatives today. If alive, Swanson trusts that Hamer would be a model politician that our society has not witnessed in a long time.

I think of someone like Jimmy Carter, a hard-working peanut farmer from Georgia, who put his country first and tried to be a benevolent leader in many ways. I see those qualities in Fannie Lou Hamer and the difference though well-meaning, Jimmy Carter got defeated. Fannie Lou Hamer has a fight in her, and that’s indomitable; she would stand apart as a force of nature, a politician who leads by word and example. She spoke with clarity and truth, and power. We don’t have a lot of that,” Swanson says.

To watch the short film, visit here.

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