In 2005 Nelson Oliver, then a UNCW student, walked alongside the Cape Fear River when a friend mentioned the 19th-century race riots that had occurred nearby in downtown Wilmington. Oliver was intrigued; aside from the fact it was the only coup d’état in U.S. history, his father, a local history buff, had never heard about the riots either. Months later, when the Wilmington 1898 Race Riot Commission published a comprehensive report of the history, Oliver pored over the documents, and absorbed every detail.
“That’s when I fully decided, ‘All right, I am committing myself to creating a narrative experience, a dramatization of the events of 1898 Wilmington,’” Oliver remembers. He chose narrative over documentary because of an experience in high school while watching “Schindler’s List.”
“It impacted my classmates so much, a few people in class started crying,” Oliver recalls. “We were transported instantly out of our classroom, from 2002 to 1942. I decided I was going to create an emotionally engaging experience in history.”
Thirteen years later, his decision has manifested “The Red Cape,” a 40-minute feature film. Following Willy, a precocious black child, and his tenacious father, Monroe, the film explores the prosperous late-19th-century black community of Wilmington. In events later known as the 1898 Wilmington Race Riots, orator and white supremacist Alfred Waddell led the charge to overthrow Wilmington’s biracial political leadership and destroy and disenfranchise the black community. The conflict and massacre is the only proven successful coup in U.S. history.
“The historical characters involved are Waddell, who really started the coup and led the coup, as well as the mayor he overthrew,” Oliver explains. “I took very few liberties. Most of their words are things they were documented saying. It did take a lot longer to develop the black side of the story.”
Willy and Monroe are fictional characters, but their narrative rings with truth. Oliver uses them to showcase the tragedy of the events. They also provide the ethos of the story. “[But] anything they interact with that’s historical is as accurate as we could possibly make it,” Oliver clarifies
Following two years of research and development and a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign, filming for “The Red Cape” began in 2008 and continued through July 2010. It was done in sprints because Oliver was working a couple of part-time jobs to fund what the Kickstarter could not.
“I actually had to move in with my parents during that time,” Oliver recounts. “I would travel to Wilmington, and we would shoot for a weekend. I would go back home till I could make enough money for us to film again.”
Oliver and his team researched the burning the building of The Daily Record, Wilmington’s black-owned newspaper. Oliver secured permission from the city, police department, fire department, and the church on the lot next door to reconstruct The Daily Record’s building and destroy it in a controlled burn. They utilized the skills of Will Purcell (“Hunger Games” and “Home Alone”).
“The greatest success was how engaged the local community of Wilmington became around bringing this history back to life,” Oliver continues. “There were hundreds of people who volunteered their time without ever expecting any payment. We had over 100 people on set just that one day for the burning scene. It really did create a familial unit . . . Everyone involved felt a similar compulsion and responsibility to recreate history faithfully.”
The visual effects were a huge feat: removing power lines, modern structures, and other elements of 21st-century Wilmington. Oliver and his crew filmed more than 200 shots.
He finished the project by commissioning a 33-minute orchestra score while he was in graduate school at the University of Southern California.
“The Red Cape’s” first screening (and an encore screening) took place at the Cucalorus Film Festival in 2016. It was also screened at the 2017 Charlotte Black Film Festival and Milledgeville Film Festival. “[We’re] beginning to present it to people in Wilmington as it was designed to be presented,” Oliver says. “I really could not be more excited about it on the big screen for an entire week in Wilmington; I don’t know how often this would happen, if ever again.”
From April 15 to 21, “The Red Cape” will be shown at The Pointe 14 at Stone Theatres. It will play at 11 a.m. from April 15 to 19 and at 6:30 p.m. on April 20 and 21. Cast and crew members from the production, including Oliver, will be available for Q&As after the evening screenings on April 20 and 21.
The April 20 showing also will feature one-day-only post-screening Q&A appearances from LeRae Umfleet, the film’s lead historian, and Nathaniel Cullors, who played Willie and is currently performing in Las Vegas as a young Michael Jackson in “Legends in Concert.”
“No matter what race or ethnic background somebody comes from, everyone the world over understands the perspective of a child,” Oliver says of his protagonist. “To me, beyond the political coup, beyond the unknown body count of people murdered, it was the removal of the promise of a future, the removal of prosperity, that impacted people across lifetimes . . . to see that through the eyes of a 6-year-old child who experiences all these promising opportunities, only to live the remainder of his life in a world of intolerance and segregation—that, to me, was the greatest tragedy of 1898.”