S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf’s directorial debut Contradictions of Fair Hope, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, documents the nation’s last surviving philanthropic society. Founded in Alabama by freed slaves after emancipation, the Fair Hope Benevolent Society began as Black Americans joined to fund funerals and burials; efforts to preserve human dignity and in turn lift the community’s morale by honoring the lives of ex-slaves amidst oppression.
‘Indeed the society’s history is revelatory and eye opening. More so when you take into consideration that over the years, the Society’s annual celebration has been co-opted by a notorious outdoor “Foot Wash” festival, set on the rental property of the society members, many of aren’t aware of the full extent of criminal activities – a market of guns, drugs prostitution – held in the festivals tents.
The documentary begins with a thorough historical account given by the descendants of the original members and society workers, who tell of the oral history, carried through generations. They also tell amusing stories of their own lives and the fun activities they took place in during celebrations in the woods. And, said activities aren’t what you’d imagine.
“What were you doing in the woods?” asks the interviewer, which the society elder answers, “I was…dancing,” while laughing ashamedly. Such innocent moments of hilarity make the overall story all the more poignant, as we see footage of current the “Foot Wash” celebration: young women scantily clad wearing exotic/stripper apparel in the back of trucks and dancing for men nude in tents, other tents selling ammunition, which men carry and show off in the premises. The festivalgoers also tell the viewer candid accounts of engaging in said activities and witnessing a vast drug market in the tents.
It’s all for profit, and society members opt to almost live in denial. They hear of things going on but they don’t want to get involved. In one scene, the Foot Wash’s manager of the strippers’ tent, “Magic Mike,” and some of the strippers are invited to a religious ceremony in celebration of the society’s anniversary. We find out that “Magic Mike,” a seemingly grounded young man despite his work, is the son of one of the society’s directors; “Magic” is named trustee at the ceremony.
Hence the contradictions of Fair Hope, a captivating and through-provoking documentary which gives the viewer a unwavering lesson of identity and pride without being preachy or heavy-handed.