“Griot Grit: Cultivating Community Through the Arts” is touted as a documentary that highlights the stories of a “group of dedicated teachers and students who spread hope in the Mississippi Delta by cultivating the arts and a sense of community” through Griot Arts, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to fostering engagement with the arts.
Lee Quinby, New York City-based filmmaker, retired teacher, and co-founder of the True Delta Project, a multimedia initiative celebrating the cultural assets of the Mississippi Delta, wrote and directed the film along with Erickson “EB” Blakney, filmmaker and award-winning writer and co-founder of the True Delta Project. Ji Hoon Heo, journalism and multimedia instructor at the University of Mississippi, served as director of cinematography and editor on the film.
Blakney has visited the Mississippi Delta since the ’90s, noting his grandparents are from southeast Mississippi. When leaving New York to visit Mississippi, he always wanted to visit other parts of the state – including the Mississippi Delta, a region that’s engulfed by poverty and overshadowed by its economic hardships.
The region though is rarely recognized for its many strides and accomplishments that local leaders and residents have made to move their communities forward, said Blakney.
“I’ve seen so many other documentaries and news stories and it’s just poverty porn. The photography books show hopelessness and desperation and that’s just not the Mississippi I know. Desperation can be told in other parts of the country as well,” said Blakney.
” … In Washington, it’s the White House, in New York, it’s the lights and tall glittery buildings … Chicago, beautiful Lake Michigan, and go to the Mississippi Delta and it’s always a shack or some shoeless kid sitting in the dirt and that’s just not the entire story.”
That was one of the main reasons Blakney and Quinby wanted to tell these stories through their multimedia and film organization.
“Mississippi has this horrible reputation and some of it is well earned. At the same time, there’s just incredible work happening in the Delta and incredible people doing the work,” said Blakney.
The project was made possible through a starter grant of $5,000 from the William J. Shaw Family Foundation.
The documentary featuring Griot Arts premieres March 22 at 9:30 p.m. on MPB television. If viewers miss the premiere, the documentary will air again on March 24 at 2 p.m. and March 26 at 10 p.m. The film will also be available online after the debut.
Griot Arts Inc., – established in 2014 by Cali Noland, an Ole Miss graduate who wanted to give back to her community – focused on preparing young people to gain skills to become productive citizens and provide for themselves financially. These opportunities are presented through after-school and job training programs.
“Don’t be afraid to be a dreamer. God gives us ideas and inspiration and he wants us to trust him as we walk in faith day by day,” said Noland in the press release, of the importance of acting on a dream by launching her nonprofit.
Blakney and Quinby set out to create “Griot Grit” after Blakney visited Meraki Roasting Company by Griot Arts, a local community space and coffee shop that supports Griot Arts youth by training them to roast coffee, learn job skills and sell local goods.
After hearing the testimony of how Griot Arts “saved” Zytavious McClenton, a young man working at the space that day, Blakney said he knew this story had to be told.
“It was two summers ago … I said tell me about Griot … and he said it saved his life and that was really powerful,” said Blakney in a phone call with Mississippi Today. “I immediately knew something special and unique was happening in that place in Clarksdale and it was a story worth telling.”
It took about a year and half to capture footage and add the finishing touches to the documentary, said Quinby.
“I think for me the takeaway is to show these are kids that have hopes and dreams and there’s a place where they can consolidate those hopes and create desires for what they’re gonna do when they graduate,” Quinby added.
But the hope isn’t for people to just see the film. It’s to spark action, engagement, and showcase the great stories here, filmmakers said.
“Throughout Mississippi, get excited about the good that’s actually taking place. More locally, I would love for people in the area to open their eyes and pitch in, send their kids (donate … volunteer) to Griot and Spring Initiative,” he said.
“Do whatever you can to support these organizations to create a stronger, more cohesive community.”
This isn’t the first documentary the True Delta Project has created that has been featured on MPB. Others include: “Enriching Destiny,” a tribute film to Sister Teresea and her service working at the Jonestown Family Center in Jonestown, Miss.
The second, “From the Crossroads to the White House,” a film about the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale documenting the journey of five students to the White House to play for Michelle Obama after winning the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award.
Both of these documentaries can be viewed on PBS.org.