New film based on Allendale killing
It begins in Allendale County with the 1970 killing of an 18-year-old black man named Wallace Youmans.
And it ends with a feature film inspired by a novel based on that tragic episode and its aftermath. The novel, "Grievances," was written by a journalist who investigated the case and, many years later, wrote a screenplay.
The journalist-turned-screenwriter, Mark Ethridge, worked at the time for the Charlotte Observer. He would become its managing editor before turning his attention to fiction, history and other interests.
Ethridge, on a 2006 book tour, read from his novel at an Exeter Academy reunion in New Hampshire. Listening was his old schoolmate and movie director Curt Hahn, who was struck by the story and its message of social justice and redemption.
Hollywood reps already had made overtures to buy the book rights, but wanted to employ their own screenwriters, Ethridge said. Hahn, instead, insisted that the man with direct experience of the episode have control of the script.
Two years later, the script was ready -- and the recession was in full swing. But Hahn secured financing from Hunter Atkins, chairman of the Bank of Nashville, who invested his own money in the project, Ethridge said.
Last winter, with cast and crew assembled, Hahn started shooting in Nashville. The movie, called "Deadline," stars Steve Talley, Eric Roberts and Lauren Jenkins.
It will be screened at 7 p.m. Monday at the Terrace Theater on James Island. The special local premiere is part of a multi-city tour Ethridge, Hahn and some of the actors are taking to promote the film before its national release next month.
The movie, meant to be a work of fiction based on another work of fiction, takes some liberties with the facts of the original case.
A 1974 story in People magazine described it just months after the U.S. Justice Department and South Carolina officials reopened the inquiry and a state grand jury indicted five white men for the slaying.
Youmans was passing by a white-owned grocery store in Fairfax on a May night in 1970 when he was shot down. Ethridge said he speculates that townsfolk were reacting to alleged interracial prostitution that took place at the back of the store. The slaying prompted no serious investigation or arrests.
Beekman Winthrop, 33, "an earnest, thoughtful former divinity student, Brahmin millionaire and 11th-generation descendant of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony," was vacationing in South Carolina at the family-owned Groton Plantation when he read a newspaper account of the crime. The article likely was written by Charleston's Jack Bass, who was a Columbia-based reporter for the Charlotte Observer at the time and remembers covering the story.
"The case seemed headed for obscurity until 1972, when a mortally ill former Fairfax constable confessed that he and five other unnamed white men had committed the crime," People reported. "According to the constable's statement, all six had agreed to kill the first black man who passed by -- in apparent retaliation for the wounding of a white man the week before. Despite the 'deathbed' confession, state officials unaccountably still failed to take action."
Winthrop was "appalled that such a thing could still happen in the United States in the 1970s," according to the People magazine article.
So he set to work on the case, writing a 110-page report and spending $4,500 of his own money.
He also made an appearance in the Observer newsroom carrying piles of documents and other materials, seeking help from a newspaper known for its coverage of civil rights. Ethridge, a cub reporter, was assigned to the story.
For the screenplay, Winthrop becomes a 21-year-old female blue blood, played by Lauren Jenkins. Cast through her Tennessee agent, Jenkins seized the opportunity to play a leading role, she said.
"It's a really, really good story," she said, "and my first co-starring role, so that was good for me. I got to have a character with substance."
Hahn said the film is rated PG-13 because it contains racial slurs but that he hopes to reach a young audience with its message.
"It allows parents and their children to have important discussions about race," Hahn said.
Churchgoers, journalists and those interested in civil rights are likely to "latch on to the movie first," he said. But the story of justice and redemption should have wide appeal.
To promote this small, low-budget movie, Hahn and Ethridge are in the midst of a 47-city tour, relying on word-of-mouth and social media to garner audiences.
Net profit from each city premiere (tickets cost $25) will be donated to a select charity, Ethridge said.
The messages he hopes audiences will take away from "Deadline" are: "We really need journalism, investigative reporting, newspapers, great, tough reporting," he said. But most importantly, "people need to take a stand for the truth ... and against injustice."
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.