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Yes, Virginia, there is a development heaven

November 17, 2002|Michael D'Antonio | Special to The Times

I stopped talking about my idea for a movie called "The Deacons for Defense" on Thanksgiving Day 1996, right after my cousin's husband gave me a lecture on why it could never be made.

It says something about the way Hollywood has leached into the mind of the average American that a guy in New Jersey who works for an insurance company would be able to explain why my film concept was doomed and use the insider phrase "development hell."

"It's too serious and too historical," he said. "And you don't have anyone big behind it." What he didn't say, but probably thought, was that I had been pushing this story since 1986, and if it hadn't become a movie in that time, it wasn't going to happen.

It was true that the story had a tortured past. I had first heard about the Deacons from the mayor of tiny Ferriday, La.: Sammy Davis Jr. (his real name). I had stopped to see him for an article I was writing about the downfall of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, one of Ferriday's native sons. As we talked, he took an old pistol from the drawer of his desk and announced to me, "The story you really should write is about this gun, and about the Deacons for Defense." He then proceeded to tell me the best, most fascinating bit of American history you have never heard.

The Deacons for Defense and Justice were a militia of African American men, many veterans of World War II and Korea, who had confronted the Ku Klux Klan during the most dangerous moments of the civil rights movement. They had enjoyed their greatest success in Bogalusa, a tough paper-mill town on the Mississippi state line, where they conducted armed patrols for years and exchanged blows and gunfire with Klansmen on the way to defeating segregation. The most intriguing thing about the Deacons was that they defied the myth of the passive black man of the 1950s and 1960s. They were confrontational when the movement was nonviolent. Perhaps for that reason, they had received short shrift from historians, who focused mainly on figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

For the next few years, every time I got near Louisiana, I made sure to interview Deacons. I searched old press reports and eventually wrote a long proposal that failed to get a publisher interested in a book about them. I was certain that the story had merit, so I then wrote a 60-page movie treatment. It languished for years, with my agent getting nothing but rejections. A couple of Deacons died. Others stopped returning my calls. Then came the Thanksgiving lecture and I began to worry that my cousin's husband was right.

I had almost buried my hopes for the Deacons' story when it was optioned by Rehme Productions for Paramount Television in 1997. Two screenwriters, Richard Wesley and Frank Military, turned my treatment into a proper script. Last summer, Forest Whitaker signed to play the leading role. Showtime agreed to broadcast "Deacons" (it airs in February) and approved it for production.

As the writer who conceived the story but didn't write the script, I kept waiting to discover that my work had been chopped and processed and remanufactured into some unrecognizable hash. It never happened. The scripts improved on what I had conceived and followed the history I had uncovered. Producer Nick Grillo and director Bill Duke became fanatics about getting it right. But for me it remained a paper exercise until I returned a call that Grillo had placed from a strange new number.

"Deacons for Defense," said the voice on the other end.

My God, I thought, there's an actual office.

Even more startling was the scene I encountered during a visit to one of the film's outdoor sets in Canada. It was night, but huge lights illuminated the street. Dozens of people ran around doing jobs I didn't understand. Hours were spent on what would be 30 seconds of action on the screen.

I could not tell whether the scene I saw was good. And I will not know until "Deacons for Defense" is broadcast whether it is a superior piece of work. Even then, like a parent with his child, my judgment will never be clear-eyed. I love the thing too much and have lived with it too long. But all the people I met that night said they were happy to work on a film that would preserve a true story that might otherwise be lost. However it turns out, we have that satisfaction.

And there's one more thing. After 16 years, I'll be able to call my Jersey relatives and tell them to turn on the TV and see that Sammy Davis Jr. and I were right. Ever since I realized that, I've been in development heaven.

*

Michael D'Antonio lives in Miller Place, N.Y.

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