Actor Aunjanue Ellis may be best known for performances in the film “King Richard,” HBO series “Lovecraft Country,” and “When They See Us,” but personal passion continues to bring her to the table. In a new short film, “Fannie,” Ellis and Director Christine Swanson pay homage to Fannie Lou Hamer, a U.S. civil rights advocate lesser known to some. Not for much longer, though, if Ellis and Swanson have anything to say about it.
Ellis, who currently is receiving Oscar buzz for playing the mother of Venus and Serena Williams in “King Richard,” wrote the short about Hamer, and is hoping to develop it into a full-length feature film. They spoke with Culturs about the genesis of the film and their passion about bringing Hamer’s story to the wider public. (UPDATE Feb. 8: Ellis was indeed nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar)
In 1964, according to Ellis, Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – comprised of “maids and farmers and sharecroppers from Mississippi” – boarded a bus and went to the Democratic National Convention in New Jersey.
Mississippi that year sent an all-white, all-male delegation to be representatives for the state at the convention.
“And so, Mrs. Hamer and this motley crew of folks from Mississippi said, ‘No, they don’t represent us,'” according to Ellis. “So they went to New Jersey and said, ‘These people don’t represent us. We are the true representatives from the state of Mississippi.'”
But, “It put the whole convention into a turmoil,” said Ellis. “Lyndon Johnson felt his presidency threatened by Mrs. Hamer, by the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.”
DO THE RESEARCH
Ellis refrained from telling even more of the story, because she wants people to research Hamer and, presumably, be awed by her inspiring actions at such a crucial time in history for themselves.
“As a result of Hamer’s and her colleagues’ actions, the Democratic Party no longer allowed all-male or all-white delegations to go to its conventions anymore,” said Ellis.
So here’s the thing: We live what this woman did in 1964. The consequences and the ramifications of her efforts are . . . what we are experiencing right now,” she continued.
Until she found out about Hamer, Ellis herself had never heard of history-making powerhouse.
We live what this woman did in 1964. The consequences and the ramifications of her efforts are . . . what we are experiencing right now.Aunjanue Ellis
“I certainly didn’t learn anything about her when I was in elementary school, when I was in junior high school, when I was in High School [so] what can I do in what I do to change that as a course correction? And so I wanted to do a film about her,” Ellis said. “I reached out to some writers, reached out to some directors, reached out to everybody, and nobody wanted to do it, so I said, ‘Well, I gotta do it myself.'”
Consequently, Ellis began to write a screenplay about Hamer. Not long after that, she told Swanson, who directed Ellis in the 2020 Lifetime TV film “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel,” about the idea. Swanson caught the passion bug as well. Swanson then applied for and received a $10,000 grant from the Chromatic Black Organization to make a short film, which they did in October 2021 and is now on YouTube.
I certainly didn’t learn anything about her when I was in elementary school, when I was in junior high school, when I was in High School [so] what can I do in what I do to change that as a course correction?Aunjanue Ellis on Fannie Lou Hamer
“It’s really an introduction to what I have been working on and writing, which is the full feature on Mrs. Hamer that we hope to make happen,” Ellis said.
PRIDE AND JOY
As for Swanson, she thinks what Ellis has written would have made Hamer proud.
Ellis is “just so dogged in making sure that it pops on the page. I just feel like it’s really turned into something that Mrs. Hamer would be very proud,” Swanson said.
Swanson provided another selling point for a feature-length film on the subject:
“it could be one of the few civil rights stories told through a female lens,” she said.
FIRST OF ITS KIND
Not only that, “this may be really one of the first feature films made that is strictly told through the lens of this black woman written by a Mississippi native, Aunjanue Ellis, [and] directed by a black woman with deep roots in Mississippi,” said Swanson, whose paternal family hails from Mississippi.”
I just feel like it’s really turned into something that Mrs. Hamer would be very proud of.Christine Swanson
EFFECT ON CRITICAL RACE THEORY
Given the heated debate in recent years in the United States about critical race theory, Ellis said Fannie Lou Hamer’s effect “on American electoral politics is not a story, is not a narrative, it’s the truth.”
She continued, “So that’s what is so important about Mrs. Hamer, what happened with Mrs. Hamer, the truth of Mrs. Hamer. I just really want to make sure that I put that word in there, that it’s the truth.”
Read more about Ellis and Swanson’s project in Culturs Winter 2021 Edition, available now.