In 2015, while Lateef Calloway was working on developing a feature film and directing a stage play, he was fortunate to meet the descendants of Sojourner Truth, who live in Battle Creek, Michigan. Lateef’s life would change forever after those meetings.
Sojourner Truth is Lateef’s life-long hero, as his mother raised him with stories about Sojourner’s messages, goals and dreams for Black people and women’s equality. After meeting with the relatives, Lateef was immediately convinced that he was the right person to work with the family to bring Sojourner’s life to the big screen. He dropped all other projects to dedicate his professional life to the production of SoTru™ - Sojourner Truth’s life story.
As an independent film maker, you go into a project knowing that producing a movie from the idea stage to the finished film takes time, tenacity and teamwork. Over the years, interest in our Sojourner Truth feature film project had grown tremendously. From 2016 onwards, my team at Phoeion Group (dba Calliwood Productions) worked extensively with Sojourner Truth’s direct descendants, hoping to create a first-class feature film for world-wide release.
Yet, as the head of an independent production house, you also learn how to change direction as needed. By 2018, our team was gaining more traction with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Productions with the idea for a multi-season, episodic television series.
Our goal then and now is to tell the world how important our hero Sojourner Truth was in advancing abolition and women’s rights. The story is for the Black Community and the world at large. A history of racial inequality, coupled with recent traumatic events, have awoken people of all races, ages and economic status to the urgent need to fight for racial equality.
Yet, many Americans don’t know US history. How did we get here? For some people, our TV show would be their introduction to the African American story through one of America’s most important historical figures.
When I meet someone who doesn’t know Sojourner, I give them the basics in a nutshell. Sojourner Truth was born a slave, Isabella “Bell” Baumfree, in 1797 and died at age 85 an international icon. She is best known for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech delivered in 1851 in Akron Ohio, solidifying her place as one of the foremost champions of the abolition movement, women’s suffrage and post-Civil War rights for Freedmen.
All the leaders of the day—from President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison and others—looked to Sojourner Truth for strength and inspiration. And she gave them hell when she disagreed with them! Our television series would showcase Sojourner’s amazing life story, irrepressible spirit and her individual courage.
So, by 2019, the Calliwood Productions team was in full pre-production mode. We teamed up with Women of Color Unite, a non-profit group that supports women of color who are rising stars and seasoned professionals to promote their skills to the industry, insisting on equal pay. As we all know, women of color are often overlooked and passed over in the industry. Our producers were determined to find women of color to help us shape this important TV series for our community and all races. We were deep in the interviewing stages, learning about extremely talented female writers, line producers, editors and other staff.
At the same time, our core team was hard at work shaping our first TV season’s story arc so that Sojourner Truth‘s life would be told in an exciting way, intertwining her life with her contemporaries’ lives and the events of her era in the mid-1800s.
In early March 2020, my days were jam-packed with meetings with my LA-based producers and our executive producer to move the TV idea to fruition. I will never forget the day that Covid-19 became our new reality. The team knew right then and there that things would change, and quite quickly, Hollywood shut down.
Then I had an idea. With all my time spent with the descendants of Sojourner Truth since 2015, I came to know their rich personal histories. The oral history within the family ran deep, and there were fascinating artifacts held by the elders. Why not make the family’s stories the center of a documentary? I would still be able to spread the word about Sojourner, just in another way.
I went to the family elders and pitched the idea. I reached out to Thomas McLiechey, Burl McLiechey, Corey McLiechey and Hardy Keith Edwards and told them my vision for the documentary. The family members would tell their stories about how they came to know Sojourner Truth and her teachings.
In addition, the documentary would showcase how her teachings affected their individual lives and their views of civil rights, human rights, women’s rights and voting rights. What did they think? They loved it. The documentary was launched.
I was able to safely videotape some of the family members in person, and some interviews I did over Zoom. What a way to make a movie I thought to myself! Over the last year, I came to recognize that the documentary became more and more relevant. As the year unfolded with more and more racially-based police brutality streaming so clearly across our TV screens, we needed Sojourner’s strength and wisdom now more than ever.
I currently have over 20 hours of film containing extensive interviews with 10 bloodline descendants of Sojourner, two historians, footage of woman’s advocate Gloria Steinem and others who are inspired by Sojourner Truth’s story and teachings. These interviews not only contain historical facts, the interviewees tell us family stories from Sojourner that have passed from generation to generation.
Importantly, the voices in the film relate Sojourner’s teachings to current events, and the stresses and strains of twenty-first century African American experiences in the USA. The family describes what they thought Sojourner would say about the rising up of Americans of all races, sexes and economic backgrounds saying enough is enough, Black Lives Matter! The family said Sojourner would be encouraged with the scenes in America. She would be so proud that we are sharing our voices and our stories for all to see. Sojourner would say this is just the beginning, march on!
Our Calliwood Productions team and the family are poised to educate a wide audience about overcoming slavery, advancing human rights and ensuring women’s rights. I hope that this documentary film will make a difference in our world. That is our vision.
Chaz Ebert has been an unwavering and dedicated Producer on this project over the years and has facilitated introductions at Cannes, the Roger Ebert Film Festival, and meetings with production companies. Chaz is a champion of Sojourner Truth’s legacy. Recently Chaz attended the unveiling of Sojourner’s statue in New York State.