‘The Untold Story of Marcus Garvey’: Interview with Filmmaker Roy T. Anderson

Marcus Garvey. Photo: Caribbean National Weekly.
Marcus Garvey. Photo: Caribbean National Weekly.

In today’s post, Christopher Shell, PhD Student in History at Michigan State University, interviews filmmaker Roy T. Anderson about his forthcoming film, Marcus Garvey: The Untold Story. Roy T. Anderson is a writer, director and producer whose first feature-length documentary is Akwantu: the Journey. A veteran stuntman/stunt coordinator, Anderson is a world record holder and an award winning stuntman. For more than twenty-five years he has performed stunts for such Hollywood stars as Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx, accumulating more than 400 production credits in the process. He’s worked on such hits as “Men in Black 3,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Spiderman 2,” “Bourne Ultimatum,” “American Gangster,” and top-rated TV shows; “Law & Order,” and “Sopranos.” *This interview has been edited for greater clarity.

Christopher Shell: With a great deal of scholarship having been and currently being produced on Garvey and Garveyism, what inspired you to create a film on Marcus Garvey?

Roy Anderson: A few years ago, Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius Garvey, saw my first film and it impressed him so much that he reached out to me and asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with him on a project about his father. Unfortunately, at that time, I was working on my second film, “Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess.” I said to him when I decide to do something I like to be 100 percent committed, and at that time Garvey was definitely not in the works. So, it happened that just less than a year after I completed “Queen Nanny,” Dr. Garvey and I established contact. We then started to talk about the framework of a film about his father, and I took the lead on driving this project and moving it forward.

Shell:  Your film is entitled “Marcus Garvey: The Untold Story.” What do you cover about Garvey in this film that may not have been addressed by other researchers?

Anderson: One particular group that keeps the Pan-African spirit alive is the Rastafari. And I know that several scholars have written on this group. However, the film elaborates further to show how artists like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, and even younger artists like Chronixx, have immortalized Garvey’s philosophies and teachings in songs. So people, for example, would hear “Redemption Song” and they might immediately think of  Bob Marley. But it stemmed from a speech Garvey gave in Novia Scotia in October 1937 in which he uttered those famous words “emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free the mind.” The film explores these kinds of connections. The film also elaborates on Garvey as a person, and seeks to correct some of the misconceptions about Garvey that continue to dominate.

Shell: What source materials did you consult to help shape this documentary?

Anderson: Let me tell you about my approach to film-making, especially the last two films that I’ve done, and it hasn’t really changed with this one. My methodology is combining oral history with archival materials plus scholarly commentary mixed in with reenactments and dramatization. I definitely want this work to be as accurate as possible, backed up by solid scholarship. It’s really important that this work is accessible to the layperson. As you know, I am a stuntman morphing into a filmmaker. So, I’m just, for a lack of better words, a traffic cop putting all these different elements together. In the end, I’m hoping that it will be a story that appeals to as much of the masses as possible. This film is going to feature some of the most important voices on Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism, as well as include a broad discussion on civil rights and social and political activism. We have interviewed over 80 folks.

Shell: What aspects of Marcus Garvey’s ideology or political beliefs do you hope will leave a lasting impact on the minds of individuals that watch your film?

Anderson: That is absolutely a great question because even after his death, his philosophy has impacted many social and political movements in Jamaica and around the world and his ideas have influenced many leaders, including Malcolm X and even Martin Luther King. Malcolm X once said that every time you see another nation on the African continent become independent you know that Marcus Garvey is alive. I don’t think Garvey gets enough credit because he really stressed the goal of self-reliance, nationhood, and self-determination. If you look at the former Gold Coast, which is now Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was somebody who was inspired by Garvey. A lot of nations became independent after his death. And so many countries in the Caribbean have Garvey’s imprints all over them. I think that is something important. This information is certainly clear in the scholarship, but I don’t think the world really knows and understands Garvey’s extraordinary influence. This is what I’m hoping to put out there with this film. While at the same time looking at somebody who is an international figure of note, I am trying to humanize him as much as I can. A lot of that will be done through the dramatization and the narrative as well.

Shell: Did you face any challenges when making this documentary? If so, how did you overcome them?

Anderson: I’m still overcoming them. For the most part, this is a self-funded venture. This is not backed by any of those studios in Hollywood. I have to say that a film on Marcus Garvey is not “sexy material”– the kind of topic that financial backers would gravitate towards. That’s why I need to keep my day job to fund my passion; it’s a labor of love. It’s part of the mantra of my company, which is “Action 4 Reel.” The goal is to bring underrepresented stories of peoples of African descent to worldwide audiences and film–no matter what the cost. Having said that, there has been some help along the way in places I’ve filmed, and there has been support. We’ve had several fundraisers that I received material contributions. There is a saying in Jamaica that is applicable here: “step by step, we will get the plan done.” Another major challenge is that it has been difficult to get some people to agree to do interviews. But I am grateful for those who have agreed to talk to me.

Shell:  What did you learn about Garvey through this film-making process?

Anderson: I learned that Garvey was a human being just like you and me. That’s one thing that I’m hoping to bring out in the film, especially in his last few years in London. I would say that he was in a dark place–his family wasn’t with him, his wife and two sons were back in Jamaica. The doctor had recommended that the eldest, Marcus Garvey Jr., go back to a climate that was conducive to him getting better. So, there is one point in Garvey’s life that he received a letter from the children and in it was a picture of his two boys, and when he saw that picture, you could just imagine how he responded–he just shed tears. That’s something that I dramatized in the film. Every night he would kiss that picture and tuck it underneath his pillows before he went to bed. Another reenactment that I did which will be very powerful was when he read his premature obituary, which led to a debilitating stroke. So, we have that on camera and I think that is going to be a very powerful scene. Overall, the film includes many other moments where we see Garvey as more than the statesman or the orator. Viewers will see him as a family man; as someone who cares about his people, especially the working conditions of his fellow man. I am hoping to bring all of this out in the film.

Shell: In our current political climate, why do you think it is necessary for African descended people to see a story of Garvey on film?

Anderson: If you look at a film like “Black Panther,” you can see what it has done to the psyche, especially for people of African descent. There was just that sense of pride. With Garvey, he dedicated his life to the project of redeeming Africa which he saw as the cradle of civilization. Africa wasn’t just this dark continent as it was being presented at the time. So, in my own small way, I’m trying to resurrect a little bit of his message in this film. To be clear: this is not a propaganda film. I’m hoping for the film to be objective and balanced while also being insightful and engaging. I’m also hoping that the stars will align and that we can launch this film next year in the fall, in the year that we mark the 400 years of our people on these shores.

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Chris Shell

Christopher M. Shell is a PhD student in History with a specialization in Latin American and Caribbean history at Michigan State University. His research interests include immigration/migration, the modern Caribbean, black internationalism and 20th century socio-political movements. His dissertation project explores the activities of lesser-known itinerant Garveyites and their social, political, and religious activities in the Caribbean, United States, and Europe during the inter-war years. He is a recipient of the Michigan State University enrichment fellowship. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisShell95.