WILMINGTON –– Wilmington’s “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now” art installation was filmed this week as part of a scene for a major, Black-centric TV production. The shoot took place late Wednesday, during possibly one of the exhibit’s last weeks in the prominent spot near Jervay Memorial Park before creators must remove it.
Especially controversial at the time of its assembly, the colorful display can be seen when traveling to downtown from the Isabel Holmes Bridge, as well as when traveling along 3rd Street. “Our Kind of People” shot at the location from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., according to film permits taken out with the City of Wilmington. A 60-person crew, two cast members and 10 extras set up for the roughly eight-hour shoot as North 4th Street was barricaded between North Front and Swann streets.
The show — premiering Sept. 21 on the network — spotlights the life of the Black elite in Oak Bluffs, a Massachusetts vacation community. Creators of the hits “Empire” and “Mixed-ish” are behind the series.
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Few details are known about the scene, other than it involves a fake news report, as described in the film permit.
“They swore to me that whatever they said would still be supportive of Black Lives Matter, that they weren’t going to say or do anything disrespectful,” said UNCW professor Janna Robertson, co-director of the project. “I mean, we’re still talking about Black people who are killed. These are memorials, not just art installations.”
Robertson and the art director Greyson Davis, a teacher at GLOW Academy and local artist who goes by Happy Fangs, said FOX reached out to them about obtaining rights to showcase the work. Both signed a contract this week allowing for the shoot at the location and accepted no payment in return.
“I’ve been so, just blown back and in shock,” Davis said. “I’m telling you, when I saw that email, I was bugging. I was literally sending screenshots of the email to my closest friends.”
The art exhibit features 8-foot-tall letters, spelling out “Black Lives Do Matter” across 130 feet. All 18 letters were painted by a different local artist. In full, the work memorializes Martin Luther King Jr. and Trayvon Martin, and references Wilmington’s history, with nods to Minnie Evans and The Daily Record. Spelled out on an oversized yellow traffic sign, the message “End Racism Now” accompanies the 18 letters.
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There is no guarantee the scene captured Wednesday night will make it into the final cut of the show. Regardless, the creators were pleased it was recognized, especially after the effort that went into receiving the city’s OK to put it up and the controversy they faced. This time last year, council members and the community at large were in a heated debate over racism and free speech stemming from the proposed exhibit.
“The process of even getting that thing put up was so arduous,” Davis said. “Once it was put up in the community, it was pretty well received, and to know it even got that kind of attention where it was worthy to be put on film –– I don’t think either of us could have even imagined that.”
One councilman, Charlie Rivenbark, voiced strong opposition to the art last year, suggesting the work was racist and would hurt white children’s feelings. On Aug. 18, 2020, it was approved to go up temporarily in a 5-2 vote, with Rivenbark and Neil Anderson dissenting. Bill Saffo said the issue was the most divisive ever encountered in his position as the city’s longest-serving mayor.
Among the community, concerns arose that the work would invite disruptions, but Robertson suggests it’s done the contrary. She noted one visitor shared it on TripAdvisor as a point of interest in Wilmington.
“All these terrible things they said would happen if we put the Black Lives Matter up, hasn’t happened. There’s been no vandalism. There’s been no riots,” Robertson said. “If anything, it’s been a tourist destination. People have come to town or gone to this park that they had never gone to before.”
The proposal was brought to city council by Robertson, Davis and Support the Port’s director Cedric Harrison last summer with the support of Councilman Kevin Spears. The idea was to join the national trend of erecting public art supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in the medium of street murals.
“We figured in a city that has the bloodiest history toward Blacks, that when Black Lives Matter was artistically going across the country, a year ago, we wanted to be a part of it,” Robertson said.
The end result was the art installation rather than a street mural. Robertson said she was pleased with the product; while a street mural is eventually destroyed by wear and tear, the installation will last for years as it’s made from 80-gauge aluminum.
Artists were solicited following the approval from council through an open call. A committee selected the finalists from upward of 60 submissions. The painters then picked up the cutout of their assigned letter, created the art and delivered the completed work on Sept. 26, 2020 to the designated property.
Robertson said all artists worked for free. Despite sponsors offering deals to attach their names to the piece, they accepted no money to avoid any semblance of mistrust. Lighthouse Films was the sole sponsor and only covered the cost of art supplies, Robertson said.
The production company is also working on a roughly 11-minute, free documentary about the art installation set for release in the coming months.
As the one-year anniversary of the display approaches, organizers are aware they will likely need to relocate the art installation soon, per the terms of the resolution council adopted.
Council member Spears said he plans to request an extension of the work’s tenure, and Robertson and Davis are crossing their fingers that it remains in the conspicuous location but are also cautiously exploring alternatives. “I can guarantee that if it comes down, it will be back up,” Robertson said.
Davis is hoping the recent film shoot will help officials see the value and persuade them to keep it in the public eye.
“The place was specifically scouted,” he added. “How do you say, like, ‘Well, we want to take this down?’ It’s a part of the city. It’s in the city’s blood.”
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