“Savannah” is no “Fruitvale Station” or “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” but the modest indie opening today in 11 theaters from Ketchup Entertainment (and September 24 on DVD/VOD) is still a noteworthy entry in this year’s cycle of movies devoted to the African-American experience.
Indeed, the post Civil War fact-based drama about legendary Aristocrat-turned-market hunter Ward Allen (a more gregarious James Caviezel than we’re used to) boasts a sensitive performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has a more prominent role in the Oscar-contending “12 Years a Slave”). He plays Allen’s life-long friend, business partner, and hunting companion, Christmas Moultrie, a freed slave and the last born on the plantation where the Cotton Gin was invented. In fact, “Savannah” revolves around Moultrie’s vivid remembrances as an aging raconteur sitting on his rocker in the 1950s.
It was this conceit that made the leisurely “Savannah” work, adapted from a collection of stories about Allen and Moultrie by John Cay (played by Bradley Whitford in the movie). “I saw this as a tone piece about capturing a place in time,” explains director Annette Haywood-Carter (who gave Angelina Jolie her breakout role in “Foxfire”). “But we had to figure out a thread and what made it relevant today. We realized that it’s a story about men passing values down to their sons and the narrative structure is this multi-generational piece where these values impact each person’s life within the context of the time they’re living in. Ultimately, Ward’s life gets tragic without an emotional anchor. But Christmas Moultrie understood what the river meant to Ward and that relationship to nature, and he passes this on to the next generation, young Jack, through his storytelling.
“And in the South, that’s how values were passed down. For Jack, he understands that he has something to pass down to his son. For him, it’s about care taking. He’s looking after Christmas but has been neglecting his son. He needs to spend time with him on the river with a camera instead of a gun. But then he’s also coming to an understanding of these values in the context of the 1950s in Savannah and the race issues that prevail. He’s a loner in terms of his sense of what’s right with pressure to remove Christmas from the land.”
The director, a Mississippi native, who took a hiatus to raise her family in Savannah before returning to filmmaking, strove to get the accent right, especially Moultrie’s. “The African-American dialect depends in part on where the slaves originated from and then how isolated they were when they got into the community. For instance, in Savannah, the rice plantation slaves were not integrated with anyone beyond their slave family. And that’s where Gullah originated. We literally had a Gullah expert come in and rewrite Christmas Moultrie’s dialogue in Gullah. And he learned it in Gullah. And then we gradually stripped the Gullah out because you can’t understand it. By the time we started filming, the Gullah was basically all gone but the flavor and the intonations were still there. And that’s what made his accent work.”
“Savannah’s” ultimately about being trapped in time. Allen’s an eccentric, boastful, and drunken free-spirit, but also a passionate defender of his market hunting rights (supplying ducks to the local restaurants). There’s a bit of Emerson and Thoreau in him. He has a tempestuous relationship with his wife, Lucy Stubbs (“Thor’s” Jaimie Alexander), a free-spirit in her own right, who’s attracted to this charismatic bad boy that neglects her.