Great art often takes years, decades even, to complete. Francis Ford Coppola spent four years making “Apocalypse Now.” DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” took 17 years. Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona started construction in 1882 and isn’t scheduled for completion until 2026. Wilmington’s very own auteur, Alicia Inshiradu, of Playingod Films, has been working on a passion project for more than 20 years: “What the River Knows.” What began as a master’s thesis in 1997 at UNCW made its way through multiple schools, from ECU to NYU, during Inshiradu’s academic career.
“I decided I needed to follow in Spike Lee’s footsteps and make my first film as a grad student at NYU,” Inshiradu says. “I knew right away I wanted to write a fictional feature-length screenplay with the backdrop of the Wilmington 1898 riots.”
Officially recognized as a coup just last week on its NC historic marker, the massacre of Wilmington 1898 refers to horrific murders and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in Wilmington. What’s now considered the “minority race,” in 1898 black people were actually the majority and even controlled local government. Yet, they were overthrown by white supremacists in the middle of the night on November 10.
Inshiradu has been writing her dramatic feature with historical accuracy of the insurgency but also including a supernatural bent. “A man is murdered and secretly buried in 1898, and after 100 years, he has still not been found—or missed,” she explains. “This is the trope which dictates the film: The past has been buried and is now being unearthed. And the spirit is determined that the past will be excavated when his spitting-image reticent descendant returns to his hometown of Wilmington.”
The film follows the story of Balaam Futrelle (Rob Smith), who was the only bill poster and sign painter in Wilmington. Because he was black, he was killed and buried in a slave cemetery by his arch nemesis in November 1898 during the white-supremacist massacre. His wife, Kitty (Joy James JJ LaBeet), died during child birth, while hiding out in a dank swamp. 100 years later, in 1998, Bailey Futrelle (Rob Smith) returns home to Wilmington to bury his grandmother, and unearths hidden secrets of his family and the city of his youth, when ghosts of the past return to him.
Inshiradu found Balaam Futrelle’s real-life business listed in the JL Hill 1897 Business Directory during research. She read numerous books and articles on 1898, like “Hanover, Or, Persecution of the Lowly: Story of the Wilmington Massacre,” a 1901 novella by Jack Thorne, who was an anti-lynching pamphleteer from Wilmington; Phillip Gerard’s 1994 novel, “Cape Fear Rising”; and Sr. H. Leon Prather’s 1984 seminal nonfiction book, “We Have Taken A City, the Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898.” She studied documents in the public library’s NC Room and Cape Fear Museum, and interviewed several connected individuals around Wilmington.
In 2001, Inshiradu received the NC Arts Council grassroots grant to adapt the script into a stage play. She kept editing and rewriting, and after retiring as an instructor of African-American literature at Cape Fear Community College in 2014, she went from screenwriter to filmmaker. She reached out to her 31-year-old son, KC Alexander, to take over cinematography and editing. They launched a successful Indiegogo campaign to continue funding, and received the 2017 Cucalorus Filmed in NC Grant.
Through various incarnations of the project—including workshopping it in 2001 with Cucalorus executive director Dan Brawley, while both were teaching students at DREAMS of Wilmington and she was overseeing leadership roles in Wilmington (cofounding Black Arts Alliance and Cine Noir: A Festival of Black Film)—Inshiradu had rewritten her 22-minute film 13 times. Without post-production funds, she couldn’t get the project in front of camera. Then, three backers, Michael Barron, Janette Hopper and Charles Kernan, stepped in to help fund a five-day shoot.
Fourteen actors and three voice-over actors, all local to Wilmington, have shown up to film at Poplar Grove, Walkerworld Artist Retreat, Brand Engine studio, and a historic home on 7th Street. More than 50 local crew joined the project, including 1898 costume designer Mary Connor, set designer Erica Fester, makeup artist/hair stylist John-Paul Coffman and William H Stine. “William created special effects makeup, dead black bodies and pregnant bellies,” Inshiradu says.
After 300 shots, Inshiradu did yet another narrative edit to ensure audiences would understand what really went down on November 10, 1898. Aided by voice-over narrator Chuck Denson, the story weaves seamlessly between historic events and dramatic scenes of the Futrelle family in 1898 and in 1998.
“The last scene, set in 1998, was the hardest,” according to Inshiradu. “We lost light and sound and valuable time, and had no money or time to do reshoots.”
The version shown on November 14 during Cucalorus is a rough cut. The proof-of-concept film is more like a teaser or glorified trailer, shot from her 120-page thesis. “Hopefully, it will make it to the silver screen some day,” Inshiradu tells.
“The goal of this whole project is to rewrite and strengthen the feature in order to attract investors or studios who can make a longer movie happen,” she adds.
Inshiradu promises the staged reading will be more than actors reciting lines; it will be action-packed and injected with life. Then, the 22-minute short will make its debut. Her goal is for viewers to exit the presentation—which screens amidst the 121st anniversary of 1898—armed with the truth of what happened in one of America’s only coup d’etats.
“Also, I want to pose questions of what it will take to redeem this American city,” she says. “All African-American stories have a tendency to fit into the horror genre. As my creative process evolves, my story is more a visitation from a resilient spirit than a ghost story; however, it is inspired by a horrific event—the worst day in Wilmington history.”