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From Law & Order to Fair Hope Filmmaker

S. Epatha Merkerson on The Contradictions of Fair Hope documentary about the Fair Hope society and the Foot Wash festival, driven by sex and drugs

After 16 years with a steady TV gig playing lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order, Detroit native and Wayne State alumna S. Epatha Merkerson got busy behind the scenes. The result is documentary The Contradictions of Fair Hope, out on DVD on Jan. 14.

The film, which Merkerson produced and directed, tells the story of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society in Uniontown, Ala. Founded in 1888, the society began as a communal effort among newly freed slaves to support those who have lost their families.

It created a strong sense of unity among area Blacks with regular meetings—and prevented many former slaves from having paupers' graves.

As founding members died, they took with them their history. Now, a fast-moving, hedonistic generation uses the land for the Foot Wash—a one-weekend September festival driven by sex, drugs and other depravities.

Merkerson juxtaposes two generations to create a national call to action she hopes will bridge past and future.

How did you first discover Fair Hope Benevolent Society?

My producing partner, Rockell Metcalf, is from that area. And his grandmother, who turned 100 in August, has been a member since she was 17. He happened to go home for a visit, and she brought up the Foot Wash. And he had never gone because it was a place where children couldn't. And she started telling him about the history of it. He came back from his visit and said: "I think I found the subject matter for our first film."

Are prostitution and drugs still the main draw of Foot Wash?

Absolutely. And in fact, Magic (a Foot Wash organizer) said they had a very good year.

The end of the documentary alludes that things may start to change with the society's relationship with Foot Wash. Has it?

A couple of things have happened. There are people in the benevolent society who know how to deal with writing grants. And they have come back to the Faunsdale area to help get funds to do some of the programs the (benevolent society) wants to do.

So things are moving slowly and it may take a while for things to happen, but I think what happened with the film, because we screened it for the benevolent society, is that they all finally realized that they really have something they can continue if they really focus on it.

The themes of the older generation being so removed from the younger generation—do you see this beyond the Uniontown parallels?

I think that it is something that is happening across the country. The kids are disconnected from so many things. The history of the country, but specifically, yes, I think there is a disconnect on either side. Young folks don't know about the history and the old folks are not teaching it.

I grew up in Detroit, and during that time we literally spoke about our history. It was very much a part of the forefront of thought. And somewhere we have lost that. We're not passing stories. These things happen to such a large degree I think because we need, for instance, another movement that allows us to give our young people something to look forward to.

We know about slavery. We know about emancipation. Then fast-forward to the civil rights movement. And in between emancipation and the civil rights (era), so many things were happening. One of which were these benevolent societies that allowed our community to help each other.

Do you see a need for a benevolent society in Detroit?

Well, we are all in need of a little benevolence.

For either generation, what would you like the film's final takeaway to be?

A sense of purpose—say it is a "call to action." In your community, take a look at what is going on. Are there any organizations that you can salvage?

Also, that our history is really strong and is worthy of passing on. Like I say after each Q&A: It is important to know where you have come from, to know where you are going.

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