Mound Bayou, Mississippi, was founded in 1887 by Isaiah Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin Green as an independent black community. Mound Bayou has produced many leaders and has been the model for black empowerment in the South. In MOUND BAYOU: JEWEL OF THE DELTA, Chicago native filmmakers Jon C. Ross and John H. Rogers III bring this fascinating docu-film about the self-determined Mississippi town to the big screen. According to published reports, racial segregation did not exist within the city at a time when blacks faced lynchings just for registering to vote.
MOUND BAYOU: JEWEL OF THE DELTA will be shown as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival’s Short Program: History Lost and Found on Monday, August 26, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Co-directors Jon C. Ross and John H. Rogers, III will be present for an audience discussion after the film.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): Briefly describe your filmmaking experience and talk about any obstacles that you encountered during the making of In MOUND BAYOU: JEWEL OF THE DELTA and tell us what you did to overcome them.
JON ROSS (JR): I can describe the experience with one word… enlightening! Mound Bayou… for those that knew of its existence, was once considered the Mecca for African Americans in the United States. Let that sink in because it’s a powerful testament to how important Mound Bayou is, not only to African American history, but American history as well.
JOHN H. RODGERS (JHR): In filmmaking, there are always obstacles, and with this film, we faced many. When a story like this is literally written out of the history books, where would one go to procure such information? So an extreme amount of research and digging was a vital part of making this film. On location, we had to battle inclement weather and the challenge of staying within the budget. It wasn’t easy, but I think we were able to overcome all of these obstacles because… and I think Jon would concur with me when I say this: God is real.
PI: Why was it so important to make In MOUND BAYOU: JEWEL OF THE DELTA?
JR: To hear that former slaves were successful in establishing and governing their own town and for it to flourish the way that it did during a very tumultuous time for African Americans in this country and all over the world is very uplifting and encouraging.
JHR: I think it’s a story that transcends race. Sure, it’s a phenomenal story of former slaves finding land and successfully building a flourishing town on top of that land, but I also think this story represents something even more meaningful and inspirational to all people. It’s the idea that regardless of your circumstances, race, deficiencies, etc… the idea that no matter how impossible the odds may seem… that anything is possible! The word “impossible” itself implies that “I’m possible.”
PI: MOUND BAYOU: JEWEL OF THE DELTA is a short documentary. What processes did you use to determine what footage was important to keep in the film vs. what was less important?
JR: It was a very tough process. There were a lot of good things that made the cut and a lot of good things that didn’t. A lot of this has to deal with pacing and maintaining a common thread of narrative. Sometimes content just didn’t fit the mold we were going for or some things that were said and filmed became a bit redundant, so we had to sift through the footage to identify those occurrences and omit things as needed.
JHR: We also approached the information provided with extreme care. Some information and content couldn’t be verified, so ultimately we chose to omit some of those things. We also would be remiss if we didn’t recognize the great job our editor did on this film. He played a very important part in the process as well.
PI: What attracted you to this subject matter?
JR: My wife and I were in Mississippi for a funeral right outside of Mound Bayou. While staying in one of the hotels, we saw a brochure that said, “Visit Mound Bayou, the oldest governed town in America by former slaves.” That really caught my attention, so I talked with my grandmother, who is from an area near Mound Bayou, and she couldn’t stop raving about this town. She is the one that suggested that I do a movie about it.
JHR: Jon called me while he was down there visiting in Mississippi and we had a brief discussion about it. After hearing just bits of the story, there was no doubt in my mind that we had to do this film.
PI: How long did it take to make “Mound Bayou..?”
JHR: From conception to “the can,” it took us a little over a year to finish the film. Most of that time was spent researching and editing the project.
PI: Mound Bayou, Mississippi, was founded by Isaiah Montgomery. Did you interview any of his descendants during the making of this film?
JR: The mayor of Mound Bayou tried to get us an interview with one of the descendants, but unfortunately we ran into some scheduling conflicts. With that being said, our goal is to continue showing support for Mound Bayou and hopefully in the near future we can expand on this story and include that content.
PI: Talk a little bit about what life is like for the residents of Mound Bayou today.
JR: I think it’s important to mention that at one point in time Mound Bayou was a very successful African American town. It had its own hospital, schools, financial district, and it had a very low crime rate. The quality of life was good. The town represented a direct answer to “Jim Crow.” Unfortunately at this current time, the town is struggling and jobs are scarce, but the residents remain resilient in their efforts to rebuild and make it a place that African Americans can be proud of.
JHR: From what we’ve seen, in the midst of their difficulties, they have shown themselves to be some of the most welcoming and resilient people we have ever met. Southern hospitality is definitely real down there!
PI: Do you believe there are other communities with similar back stories to Mound Bayou’s? If so where are those communities?
JR: Towns that come to mind are Idlewild in Michigan, Eatonville in Florida, and even some neighborhoods like Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harlem in New York, or Bronzeville in Chicago.
JHR: Those were towns and communities where African Americans had opportunities that weren’t afforded to them in other racist or segregated towns and neighborhoods.
PI: Why did you become a filmmaker?
JR: I became a filmmaker because I love to tell stories. Growing up in the 80’s and being a fan of filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, John Hughes, and Spike Lee, I fell in love with the art form. I love to use the platform of film to teach, to entertain, and to see the joy people receive from looking at the films that I’ve created.
JHR: I’m a writer and the simplest answer to that is that I just love telling stories. Movies like Indiana Jones and Fright Night cemented that deal early on in my childhood. The thing about filmmaking, from my perspective as a writer, is that it’s a very intimate process. I’m constantly leaving myself open – kind of being transparent to the masses, so to speak with my beliefs and ideals, which naturally elicit both positive and negative reactions from people, but this is what drove me to become a filmmaker. It’s the gratification of creating content that excites and inspires me. I welcome the positive and the negative feedback because at the end of the day, I’m creating something that I believe in and that’s why I got into film in the first place… to have a voice.
PI: What projects are you currently working on?
JR: We have a few projects in the works right now. One of them is called The Man on the Roof, which is a new documentary that we plan to shoot about a Chicago pastor that decided to live on top of a motel roof to raise awareness on the violent crime in the city of Chicago and to raise money to go toward the building of a youth center.
JHR: In the telling of this story, we hope to shed some light on the current violence plaguing the city of Chicago. The senseless violence is something that greatly concerns us, especially since we both have children growing up in this city. We will not sit idly by and watch this destruction continue.
We also have a feature film project that we are working on called The Perfect Letter which we are trying to raise funding for. You can check that trailer out at www.jr2films.com . We also have some television content that we’re working on called “Follow-Focus,” so we are definitely keeping busy.
PI: Which film festivals have MOUND BAYOU.. played and where do you plan on showing it next?
JR: This will be a World Premiere at the Black Harvest Film Festival for this extended version of the Mound Bayou film. We have a shorter version of the film which has been shown at both local and non-local festivals. The shorter version has garnered several “Best Documentary” and “Audience Choice Awards.” We are planning for a nationally televised showing of the version that will be seen at Black Harvest and are currently waiting for confirmation of that from the distribution company.
PI: Do you believe that MOUND BAYOU… could work as a feature length, non-documentary film?
JHR: We do believe that it could work. We are actually in the process of working with an author to expand the story into a feature narrative. We are very early in the developmental stages at this point.
PI: What is the one thing that you want audiences to take away from this film?
JR: The one thing we want people to take away from this film is that you can do anything that you put your mind to even when circumstances suggest that you cannot.
JHR: I think it’s important for people to understand that Mound Bayou has great historical significance. It is a place that should be valued and preserved. The people of Mound Bayou need our support and hopefully this film will encourage people to reach out and help them in their efforts toward the restoration of their wonderful town.
PI: Is there anything else you would like to share?
JR and JHR: Please support JR2 Films by visiting our website at www.jr2films.com. We are accepting donations to help fund the aforementioned projects, so please visit our “Donate” page. Our goal is to create awesome content that is both diverse and stimulating. We cannot do it without the support of our fans and wonderful sites like PrideIndex.com. Thanks!
MOUND BAYOU: JEWEL OF THE DELTA will be show as part of the Black History – Lost and Found Short Program at the Black Harvest Film Festival on Monday August 26 at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 6:15 click here to purchase tickets.