‘Slave Cry’: Filmmaker tackles Black actor roles in movies set in Virginia

Indeed, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown nearly 400 years ago, but Jai Jamison, a Richmond filmmaker, is hoping to update the narrative for movies set in the state of Virginia.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The main role that Black actors are given in the state of Virginia is that of a slave, according to a filmmaker who hopes to both shine light on and update the narrative.

Indeed, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown nearly 400 years ago, setting the stage for slavery in the U.S., but Jai Jamison, a Richmond filmmaker, is hoping to change the narrative for films set in the state of Virginia.

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He points to film and TV projects shot in Virginia, including Harriet, Turn and Mercy Street as examples that the roles need to broaden for Black actors in the state. He said he wrote the short film, Slave Cry, to address the issue. The 13-minute film debuted Saturday at the Virginia Film Festival, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The only roles for black actors are as slaves,” Jamison told the newspaper. “I worked on Turn for five months. I’d see these amazing actors come into town to play these rote roles that were full of trauma. Virginia is my home, but we’re so much more than this.”

Jamison’s film derives its name from a term his sister, Courtney, uses. She stars in Slave Cry and has struggled to find roles in Richmond, outside of what she terms “slave cry” roles.

“That real ugly cry, with sobs and snot…that 12 Years a Slave cry, Courtney’s character explains in the film, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Jamison said while he was writing the film, Courtney was applying to theater programs and ultimately earned an acceptance from the Yale School of Drama.

“I wanted to create a role for my sister that was meaty and nuanced,” Jamison told the newspaper. “While also wanting to write about Richmond, my home town, as it is now. There is so much culture here and young people and stories that don’t have anything to do with history. There are so many stories and different sides about Richmond to tell,” Jamison said.

In the movie, Courtney dons a slave costume as an historical interpreter side gig and stands in front of the town’s Robert E. Lee statue. Courtney also stops by the Maggie Walker statue, which allows the viewer to see her dreaming of a better life as an actress.

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Tim Reid, perhaps best known for his role as Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati plays Courtney’s father in Slave Cry. Some scenes from the movie were shot at Reid’s film studio in Petersburg.

Slave Cry will be shown before the feature film screening of Clemency, a movie starring Alfre Woodard that tells the story of a death row prison warden.