Deann Gayman, June 3, 2022
‘Bell Affair’ tells true story of slave family’s fight for freedom
The new animated film from Husker scholars Michael Burton, Kwakiutl Dreher and William G. Thomas had its world premiere Thursday (June 2) in front of a sold-out audience at Publick Playhouse, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, part of the greater Washington, D.C., area.
“The Bell Affair” tracks the true story of the Daniel and Mary Bell family, chronicling the legal fight for Mary’s freedom following a widow’s rejection of a deed of manumission, the legal document granting freedom to an enslaved person signed by a slaveowner.
These courtroom battles culminated in an escape attempt on April 15, 1848, when 77 enslaved people boarded the schooner, Pearl. It was the largest escape attempt ever recorded, though unsuccessful.
The D.C.-area premiere will bring together supporters of the film, cast, crew and descendants of the Bell family and other families who were on the schooner Pearl.
“The Pearl escape is a highly significant story in American history, and the Bell family organized the escape,” said Thomas, professor of history, Angle Chair in the Humanities, and associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Eleven family members were on the ship. In Washington, D.C. today, it is widely taught in schools there and commemorated each year. This film really speaks to that history.”
The film was produced entirely remotely due to COVID-19, a process largely overseen by Burton, assistant professor in textiles, merchandising and fashion design, in his role as executive and supervising producer.
In advance of the premiere at the 494-seat theater, Dreher and Thomas did an interview with Sheilah Kast, host of “On The Record,” a radio and podcast show produced by the Baltimore, Maryland, NPR affiliate.
In the interview, Dreher, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas and directed the film, explained how she explored family dynamics and the determination of the Bells. In one scene of the film, young Caroline Bell stands up for herself during an appraisal of her worth as “chattle.”
“This little girl asserts her own authority,” Dreher, associate professor of English, said. “To me, that was a powerful play for her because generally, in visual culture, when the plantation genre was filmed, children are crying, they’re holding on to their mother. They don’t want to be taken away from their mothers, and that did indeed happen; however, I wanted to show a different way in which children respond to being touched by someone other than their own parent.”
Following the interview with Dreher and Thomas, Kast spoke to two descendants of Daniel and Mary Bell, April Green and her daughter, Jasmine Green, who will attend the premiere. Both Alice and Jasmine spoke about learning of and drawing inspiration from their ancestors’ story.
“Just like my mom said, it’s really hard to put into words how you can feel about something so grand, but I really feel like it has taught me — and I’m sure, other members of my family — that life’s challenges are inevitable, but they are meant to be conquered with resiliency and determination,” Jasmine Green said.
The team behind the “The Bell Affair” won awards for its short film, “Anna,” which told the story of Ann Williams, who jumped from the third-story window of Miller’s Tavern in Washington, D.C., in 1815, to escape the fate of being sold to another slave owner and separated from her family. Both “Anna” and “The Bell Affair” are based on the research done by Thomas’ team in the digital project, “O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C., Family and Law,” which is housed by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. The Bells’ story also was featured in Thomas’ book, “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War.”
Plans are being finalized for a Nebraska premiere of “The Bell Affair” in September at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.
The episode of “On The Record” is available online and additional podcast platforms, including Apple, Spotify and Stitcher.