History Department Offers Documentary Making Course

The History Department’s Dr. John Wertheimer leads his class on their documentary film projects. Photo by Elayna Daniels ’21

By: Drew Eastland ’21

Staff Writer

So you want to synthesize filmmaking with legal history? Davidson has a course for that. As a liberal arts school, Davidson College prides itself on offering diverse cross-disciplinary courses, majors, and research. This spring, Dr. John Wertheimer’s Filming Southern Legal History seminar seeks to do just that.

The class falls into the History Department but with a twist. Wertheimer’s students, with help from two filmmakers, are currently working on creating a documentary film focused on a specific part of South Carolina’s legal history.

The documentary will center on the lynching of Willie Earle in 1947. Following his death, Earle’s mother Tessie, with the help of the NAACP, sought financial compensation from the county in which the lynching occurred.

Exploring the contradiction between written law and social customs has been one of the unexpected outcomes of the class.

“I think the most surprising thing that you learn in this class…is that you could be anti-lynching, but very much pro-Jim Crow,” said Frank Carroll ‘19. “It was kind of a way of saving face; these southern states were aware of how barbaric [lynching was perceived].”

One of the most difficult elements of the class is learning how to shoot a documentary. Learning the basics of filmmaking has taken up a majority of the class time.

“As we progressed, [we] realized that the film was going to be very time-consuming especially for [most of] the class who hadn’t had previous film experience,” commented Stevie Jefferis ‘19. “We’re definitely just starting out.”

“[We’ve learned] about the relationship between the government and the legal system,” Cassie Harding ‘20 said. “What people live by day-to-day sometimes doesn’t fall in line with what the law says.”

Thankfully for the students are not alone on their filmmaking quest. Two graduate filmmaking students from Wake Forest University Documentary Film Program are co-teaching the course with Wertheimer. Thomas Espenfield and Colin Sylvester join the class for its weekly meeting and assist them with their film shoots and cinematography.

“[Espenfield and Sylvester] are coming from a visual aesthetic point of view, [and] Dr. Wertheimer is more about the facts,” Harding remarked. “It’s coming with two sides of the brain and finding one good mixture.”

The original goal of the class included creating a book chapter to go alongside the film; however, the class quickly realized that filmmaking would take up most of their time. Therefore, learning cinematography became the most crucial element of the class.

The class structure involves each of the students (twelve in total) working on an individual section of the film. Right now, the focus is on synthesizing each of these subsections into one large film. The class hopes to debut their first cut at a history forum on April 25th.

As with any group work, synthesizing the different ideas has proved difficult.

“The true difficulty lies in making it cohesive,” Jefferis said. “I think the transitions are extremely hard between each sequence because they are different.”

Synthesizing both history and filmmaking allows the students’ work to be presented through a unique medium that enhances the research.

“Film is especially good at conveying emotions,” Wertheimer commented. “That makes for a different kind of challenge.”

Unfortunately, the film will not be completed before the end of the semester; however, three students, Harding, Carroll, and Jefferis, have received grants to continue their research over the summer. Harding and Carroll received their grants from the Davidson Research Initiative (DRI), and Jefferis received hers from the Abernethy Endowment.

Both DRI and the Abernethy provide students with funds to continue their research. The DRI uniquely combines the student applicant(s) with their professor in order to foster good research mentorship.

Other students in the class have offered to assist the summer researchers as well.

The end goals for the film include making it to a film festival and having the work be used as an educational tool. Hopefully the film can play a role in understanding southern legal history.

“We want a lot of people to be aware,” Harding explained. “I hope it is a tool of education and it gets across the message we’re getting across.”

As far as the future of the class, both students and professor were hesitant to speculate about this course being offered again.The future of this course will likely be determined by the film’s final success.

“I’d like to see how everything turns out,” Wertheimer commented. “If it works out well…then I would absolutely consider doing it again.”

A cut of the film will be shown at the history forum on April 25th.

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