the timberland company film to tell story of slave escape
Charles K. Campbell doesn’t like slave movies.
“It’s surprising to me that I made one,” said Campbell, the director of All or Nothin’, his first feature film. “I loathe slave stories. So many movies about slavery focus on the beatings and the violence.”
So when he set out to make All or Nothin’, Campbell said he spared scant attention for the violence the characters in the story endure. But he didn’t carefully document the torture that feels central to so many movies about slavery, like 12 Years a Slave and 2016’s Birth of a Nation.
“I wanted to focus on the positive side of this,” Campbell said. “When you read the story of the Escape of the 28, you see the heroism in all of the people who wanted freedom. You see where blacks and whites, men and women, Quakers, Wesleyan Methodists all worked together to correct this evil. I knew I had to make a feature film about it.”
All or Nothin’ dramatizes the true story of 28 slaves who escaped from a plantation in Boone County, Kentucky in 1853. With the help of abolitionists and connections along the Underground Railroad, the slaves moved northward to Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 couldn’t reach them.
Campbell was in graduate school working on a master’s degree in film when he first learned about one of the biggest single escapes of a group of slaves in America. A historian friend gave him a pamphlet about the escape. Campbell knew about the Underground Railroad, the hidden network of safe houses and checkpoints abolitionists created. Convicted by religious fervor, American abolitionists quietly helped fugitive slaves flee the south using subterfuge, deception and no small amount of supplies needed for travel. Scholars believe that 30,000 fugitive slaves reached Canada, and that the Underground Railroad played a key role in getting many of them there.
But Campbell said he didn’t know about the escape of 28 slaves in Kentucky.
“I was amazed by the abolitionists across four states who were able to arrange the escape of these 28 people,” Campbell said. “After I read it, I opened my big mouth and said ‘this is going to be my master’s thesis.'”
Campbell made his movie on a micro budget, which shows here and there. But the principal actors Bryant Bentley as the slave Washington Barker and Daniel Britt as the leathery John Fairfield bring gravitas to their scenes and the supporting cast is convincing in the tale about hardship and loss on a journey undertaken on foot. The crew made all the costumes and built all the boats and guns seen in the film.
Campbell recruited Ukrainian filmmaker Michael Avensen to do the cinematography, and Ben Devine to edit the film. Campbell’s friends in California cast the movie, and the production team traced the fugitive’s journey, packing the trek into about two weeks. The crew shot the film in about 11 days.
Campbell’s version whittles the fugitives to about a dozen, with Fairfield leading with a rough exterior and tender heart.
“There were 28 slaves who escaped we only focus on about eight,” Campbell said. “It would be hard to afford 28 actors, and the emotional investment on the audience it would be hard to connect with 28 people.”
Narrowing the narrative to fewer fugitives gave Campbell another opportunity he wouldn’t have had if he’d cast 28 actors.
“I also wanted to give them a voice,” he said. “If you look into the history, the slaves didn’t have a voice. Their thoughts about the things they experiences weren’t recorded. The history we have, a lot of it is through the writings of the white abolitionists who recorded it.”
Campbell doesn’t spare the audience the indignities and brutality of chattel slavery. Washington Barker is a compliant and gentlemanly slave who turns fugitive when his master decides to sell Barker’s wife, Tilly, to make room for younger “breeding stock.” The audience feels the tension that comes when Fairfield has to disguise the band of slaves as a funeral procession, only to reel minutes later when the sole infant in the party dies and the slaves have to bury one of their own. Campbell also shows the grief and frustration of young Elsie Terry, who has to endure the unwelcome sexual attention of her master’s shiftless son.
Campbell said he considers the movie an educational film as well as a drama.
“We tried to be as historically accurate as possible,” he said. “We just screened the film for some students in Kansas. At the end, several audience members were crying. For them to be moved by the story, they did some introspective thinking. That’s a good sign, to me. I want to make a good piece of art, and I want people to think.”
If you goWhat: Screening of All or Nothin’ at the 2018 Denton Black Film Festival
When: Noon on Saturday, Jan. 27. A short film will screen before the feature
Where: The Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
Details: Admission to individual film blocks costs $10 for adults, $8 for students with ID and seniors through Thursday, Jan. 25; $12 for adults and $10 for students with ID and seniors on Friday, Jan. 25. See the full schedule and festival passes.