BOSTON — I had forgotten about the Daughters of Mount Zion until I spoke to S. Epatha Merkerson about The Contradictions of Fair Hope, her very first documentary. The Daughters were a benevolent order of women in my old church who would organize a fish fry each year to raise money for the sick and shut-in and those desperately in need. Contradictions is about one such benevolent church society in Fair Hope, Alabama.
Whoopi Goldberg lends her voice as narrator of this documentary, which has already taken home 17 awards, but will it make it to Tribeca or Cannes? Merkerson says that out of the more than 50 festivals that she submitted Contradictions to, only 10 responded favorably and only one of them had a non-black focus. She speculates that it might have to do with it being an election year or possibly it’s because white festivals aren’t interested in black stories. She could be right.
Aside from all of this, Fair Hope is a small community in Alabama that still practices a ritual that dates back to Reconstruction. I haven’t seen the documentary, and Merkerson wouldn’t budge when asked to provide some specifics. I tried Googling “feet washing” and “African American benevolent societies” but there’s little information out there (aside from links to Contradictions own website). Merkerson says the contradictions of the title have to do with how the benevolent society has changed over time, but she wouldn’t give any examples because she doesn’t want to spoil the surprise. She calls the film “a call to action.”
While Merkerson has starred in numerous Hollywood films and television shows, she’s not your typical Hollywood actress. She has a BFA and an honorary doctorate from Wayne State University. Her acting career began when she played Reba on The Pee Wee Herman Show, though most people know her for her role as LieutenantAnita Van Buren on NBC’s Law and Order. She was also in Lackawanna Blues and will appear in Lincoln, an upcoming film by Steven Spielberg. Among her awards are an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a SAG award and an NAACP Image Award. She is currently host of TVOne’s Find Our Missing, a docu-drama series that puts names and faces to the people least featured inmajor news stories about missing people.
Contradictions, which was co-produced by Rockell Metcalf, will screen at this year’s Roxbury International Film Festival. Merkerson will be there to present it and she will also take part in a Q&A after the screening. Among the many film screenings taking place at this year’s RIFF, this one is my top pick because it promises to tell me more about a little-known cultural and historical tradition and being the history buff that I am, I have to see this one.
The Contradictions of Fair Hope will be the closing film of the Festival on Sunday June 17 at 2:00pm at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. To purchase tickets to this film, and to find out more, visit the Roxbury International Film Festival website.