Virginia has been home to many big-name film and TV projects over the past few years like “Harriet,” “Turn” and “Mercy Street.”
But they all have one thing in common, according to Jai Jamison, a Richmond filmmaker:
“The only roles for black actors are as slaves."
“I worked on ‘Turn’ for five months. I’d see these amazing actors come into town to play these rote roles that were full of trauma,” the 34-year-old filmmaker said. “Virginia is my home, but we’re so much more than this.”
He created “Slave Cry” in response, a short 13-minute film that packs a punch and will be screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville this weekend.
The movie stars his sister, Courtney, as a struggling actor, trying out for roles in Richmond.
She describes them as “slave cry” roles.
“That real ugly cry, with sobs and snot … that ‘12 Years a Slave’ cry,” her character says in the movie, describing her past five auditions.
When he was writing the film, his sister was applying, and eventually accepted, to the Yale School of Drama.
“I wanted to create a role for my sister that was meaty and nuanced,” Jamison said. “While also wanting to write about Richmond, my hometown, as it is now.”
“There is so much culture here and young people and stories that don’t have anything to do with history. There are so many stories and different sides about Richmond to tell,” Jamison said.
Richmond makes several key appearances in the film, which was filmed last year.
Courtney’s character stands in front of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Ave. in a slave costume, acting as a historical interpreter as her side gig.
She also visits the Maggie Walker statue, as the flip-side of Robert E. Lee, where she dreams about living a freer, more authentic life.
“Slave Cry” will be screened at the Virginia Film Festival on Saturday, before the feature film “Clemency,” a movie about a death row prison warden starring Alfre Woodard that won big at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
“Both ‘Slave Cry,’ and ‘Clemency,’ explore the current state of life in America as a person of color and the way that our history echoes into today, whether that is through the limited opportunities for actors of color or the way that our justice system continuously fails people on the margins,” Chandler Ferrebee, a spokesperson for the Virginia Film Festival, said.
Virginia actor Tim Reid, known for his role as Venus Flytrap on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” plays Courtney’s father in “Slave Cry.”
He’s known Jamison since he was 9 years old and visited Reid’s Petersburg film studio to find out more about becoming a filmmaker.
“I’ve watched him grow and his passion [grow] as he has continued his journey toward making his dream come true,” Reid said.
Jamison used Reid’s Petersburg studio to film some scenes for “Slave Cry.”
“Like many others, I’ve always thought that Virginia would be an ideal place to build a prosperous movie making industry. That’s why I invested money, time and effort … to bring consistent work to the state,” Reid said.
He bemoaned the lack of state support for the film industry, which is currently capped at $9 million in incentives. In contrast, he mentioned Georgia’s early support of the film industry with significant financial incentives that resulted in a billion dollar industry and turned Georgia into the top film producing state in America.
“Oh, if only I had built my studio in Georgia,” Reid said.
Jamison is currently working on “Swagger,” a much buzzed about Apple-streaming series based on the young basketball experiences of NBA star Kevin Durant that is currently filming in Richmond. He landed the job by showing “Slave Cry” to the series’ showrunner Reggie Rock Bythewood.
Now, Jamison is splitting his time between Los Angeles and Richmond.
He has also worked on “Homeland” and Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
“My plan is to be bicoastal,” Jamison said. “I want to live here and tell stories about Virginia, but I also need to spend time in Los Angeles to meet power brokers and bring projects back [to Virginia]. Richmond will always be home.”