Posted May 3, 2018 | View original publication
One story about slavery in American history is reaching wider audiences, thanks to a group of University of Nebraska–Lincoln scholars.
“Anna,” a short animated film produced by Nebraska’s Michael Burton, Kwakiutl Dreher and William Thomas, is making its way into upcoming film festivals.
The film is based on the story of Ann Williams. Williams was known only as “Anna” in abolitionist writings after she jumped from the third-story window of Miller’s Tavern in Washington, D.C. in 1815. Williams was attempting to escape the fate of being sold to another slave owner and separated from her husband and family.
Burton, the film’s director, is ecstatic about the reception of the film, which was finished in January.
“It means a lot to the team that these festivals have been open to the film,” Burton, assistant professor of practice in textiles, merchandising, and fashion design, said. “We expected it to take longer, but we’re having really good success early on.”
Thomas, whose research unearthed later court case and petition for freedom, said he’s excited for people to see the film because it exposes the interstate slave trade.
“Ann’s story has such importance,” Thomas, professor of history and 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, said. “It opens up the whole story of the interstate slave trade, the selling of people into a market, separating families and brutally and terrifyingly removing them from their homes.
“This was a massive forced migration of historic proportions that Americans are only just beginning to come to terms with as a part of American history.”
The film is also accessible — an original purpose for Burton, Dreher and Thomas.
“It is an emotionally wrenching, dramatic story and it reveals the moral problem of slavery, but all audiences can view it,” Thomas said. “We saw this as an opportunity to present the moral problems of slavery in ways that would broadly affect many audiences, adult to young people.”
The team dug into not only the court records of Anna’s case but also the testimony of ex-slaves from Maryland, particularly from Prince George’s County. These narratives described every aspect of slavery in Maryland – whipping, terror, deception, and cruelty. The film draws on these historical records in its depiction of all that Anna faced.
Dreher, who wrote the screenplay, said she wanted to tell a more emotionally complex story of the enslaved than is typically rendered.
“We did not want only the usual suspects – rape, runaways, whips, lynchings,” Dreher said. “That all happened, but there is so much other material that a writer can draw from. There is a life that happens that allows survival. I wanted to explore what that was.”
With this in mind, Dreher let the historical record speak for itself and soon, Dreher zeroed in on the theme of devotion to family.
“The thread of family runs throughout,” Dreher, associate professor of English, said of the script. “‘He wouldn’t let me see my husband.’ It was the love for her husband and what they had produced that I felt was the key, the driving principle behind why she jumped out of that window.”
The team will continue to enter the film in festivals as new calls for entries are made. Burton said this step is important for gaining momentum and reaching a targeted audience.
“There’s a lot of energy at these festivals, which creates future opportunities for more people to see the film,” he said. “Plus, we’re aiming to make more and we’re finding our audience.”