Town blocks ‘Slavery’ doc

Filmmaker Pollard disputes order

Veteran documentary editor, producer and director Sam Pollard has seen a lot during his 30 years in the business, but what happened in Centreville, Ala., in March, while filming his latest doc, “Slavery by Another Name” for PBS, caught him by surprise.

Based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Wall Street Journal writer Douglas Blackmon, which challenges the belief that slavery ended with 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation, the doc recounts how in the years following the Civil War, new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, trapping hundreds of thousands of African Americans in a brutal system that lasted until the onset of World War II.

But Centreville mayor Tom Bamberg blocked Pollard’s crew from filming in a local park.

During their seven-day Alabama shoot in late March, the crew filmed in various locations in and around Centreville, but when it came time to shoot a reenactment scene in the town’s Cahaba Park, they were told that the park’s pavilions were rented out and the grounds were unavailable.

Popular on Variety

Blackmon then contacted Bamberg via email asking for specific rental times and for permission to shoot in areas of the park away from the pavilions.

Bamberg’s emailed response was: “I do object to this being filmed in our park. I also object to it being filmed in our city. We are a quiet, small town, and I don’t want this to cause controversy.”

Pollard, who has worked on numerous race-related docs, including Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” and “4 Little Girls,” as well as HBO’s feature length documentary, “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama,” says he was startled by Bamberg’s words.

“I’ve worked on a lot of documentaries, and sometimes you run into people who don’t want to be interviewed,” Pollard says. “But this was the first time a community, led by the mayor, said that we were not welcome. It was surprising, because this is 2011, but I guess (Bamberg) felt that we were going to open up a can of worms that he didn’t want opened.”While Blackmon contends that the city’s decision to bar the crew to film from Cahaba Park was illegal and a violation of First Amendment rights, Centreville city attorney Mike Hobson maintains that Bamberg’s initial explanation and not the mayor’s subsequent email was the real reason behind the park’s off-limits status.

While Hobson denies that Pollard was banned from filming in the park, he did add that “they wanted to film with actors dressed in old-time prison garb, and he wanted to depict those actors as being slaves who were tied to a stake driven into the ground. He wanted to do that in a public park on a weekend when other people were using the park for recreational purposes. We didn’t think that that was appropriate, and we felt like that would cause controversy. So, yes, the mayor had a problem with that.”

Hobson then explained that the crew needed a license, which Blackmon contests.

The specific scene, which Pollard says was a reenactment on a farm using a historic structure in the backdrop, was subsequently shot at another location.

“This is the first time in the 10 years since I started researching and writing the book that the door was so overtly slammed in my face,” Blackmon says.

The doc, being produced by Twin Cities Public Television, with an estimated budget of $1.5 million, received funding through grants provided by orgs including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“Slavery by Another Name” is scheduled to air on PBS in 2012.

More Film

  • 'The Dissident' Review: Powerful Look at

    'The Dissident': Film Review

    It’s become common, if not cliché, for a critic reviewing a documentary about a turbulent real-world event to write something like, “It exerts the power of a true-life thriller!” Well, make no mistake: “The Dissident” does. Directed by Bryan Fogel, who in 2017 made the Oscar-winning “Icarus” (about the Russian doping of Olympic athletes), it’s [...]

  • Cathy Yan, Chris Messina, Mary Elizabeth

    Margot Robbie, 'Birds of Prey' Co-Stars Justify the Movie’s R-Rating, Violence and Cussing

    Following the success of “Joker” last year, DC Films is continuing its gritty streak with “Birds of Prey,” a slam-bang adventure about Harley Quinn. Though DC Film’s 2016 tentpole “Suicide Squad” took a critical bashing at the time, filmgoers quickly took a liking to Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn. “Birds of Prey” gives the [...]

  • Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has

    Film News Roundup: 'The Irishman,' 'Marriage Story' Added to Criterion Collection

    In today’s film news roundup, four Netflix titles have been added to the Criterion Collection, Slamdance and ArcLight are partnering, Steven Grayhm is starring in and directing a paranormal drama, and The Mammoth Film Festival sets its lineup. CRITERION COLLECTION Four Netflix titles will be released on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection — Martin Scorsese’s [...]

  • Bong Joon Ho 'Parasite' Director

    Listen: Who Will Take Home the Oscars for Best Director and Picture?

    The Oscars are just two weeks away, so it’s time to start making final predictions about who is going to win. On this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, I invited the magazine’s deputy awards and features editor (and my “Pick of the Week” co-host) Jenelle Riley onto the show [...]

  • Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

    'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets': Film Review

    “Smile for the camera, motherf—ers,” warns the graffiti outside the Roaring Twenties, a Las Vegas dive bar where spirits are high because the end is nigh. The boozers who’ve braved this dim red cave, in Bill and Turner Ross’ bitterly funny docufiction film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” have signed on to play themselves in an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content