In 2015, the story of 1898’s coup d’état was brought to light by “Wilmington on Fire,” a documentary directed by North Carolina native Chris Everett. The film helped to bring forth parts of Wilmington’s history that have long been swept under the rug. The film shows audiences interviews, never-before-seen archives, testimonies, and art to tell the story of the 1898 massacre without censorship.
Everett has since screened the film at more than 15 film festivals and over 500 times across the state and nationwide. Between streaming on Amazon Prime, KweliTV and Vimeo On Demand, Everett’s documentary has a little more than 1 million views.
“I never thought that I could make a difference,” Everett admits. “When I made ‘Wilmington on Fire,’ I was living in Laurinburg (about 90 miles from Wilmington) and thought that no one really would care about this film. But when we premiered at the Cucalorus Festival in November 2015, that all changed. When I saw all of those people coming to see my film and appreciating the work, it really motivated me to get this story and film out there as much as I could.”
Amid current civil unrest and fight against systemic racism, Everett has now taken on a follow-up project to his groundbreaking film in “Wilmington on Fire: Chapter II.” Though Everett originally planned to start filming in November 2018, he had to postpone due to his health.
“The plan was always to do two parts to ‘Wilmington on Fire,’” Everett explains. “[But the] series of murders of unarmed Black men, such as George Floyd, sparked worldwide outrage and folks began to talk about racism and race relations in the United States. I also saw activism emerge in Wilmington and folks begin to talk about the 1898 Wilmington Massacre.”
The events of 1898 led to the only known successful coup in the United States, during which white supremacists of Wilmington massacred anywhere from 60-400 Black people. Instigated by elite white supremacist leader Alfred Waddell, 2,000 white men ascended on the Fusionist government and Black community on November 10, 1898. Waddell proposed to rid the city of Black people, “even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses,” and afterward he appointed himself mayor and oft-painted the coup as a “race riot.”
Waddell’s sentiments are still echoed today in corners of our community, as highlighted by racists Wilmington police officers recorded discussing (and even longing for) a civil war to come with Black citizens to “put ’em back about four or five generations.”
“[Those Wilmington] police officers really show how the past remains present,” Everett observes. “We are definitely going to address this topic in ‘Chapter II.’”
Alongside executive producer and actress Hilarie Burton-Morgan, Everett says the two plan to show audiences social, cultural and political changes on the horizon, as well as community-based solutions to pursue. Morgan lived in Wilmington for more than a decade while starring in the TV drama “One Tree Hill” as Peyton Sawyer. Everett says they both share the same love for Wilmington and filmmaking.
“Hilarie has been a major supporter of the first film and now ‘Chapter II,’” he continues “The style for ‘Chapter II’ will be different from the first one. The style will be more observational and cinematic in its approach and less ‘talking heads.’ We really want to capture what it’s like living in Wilmington and how people are working towards a better Wilmington for all.”
While still digging into the past, “Chapter II” will primarily focus on reparations for those affected by the 1898 massacre. “The film will show how it takes the business community, the activist community, and politics to make the change and the difference in Wilmington,” Everett clarifies.
Before 1898, Wilmington was flourishing with racial equity and ample representation of Black citizens in business and local government. In “Chapter II,” Everett plans to focus on the lives of those working towards making Wilmington the place for Black opportunity again, as well as a community with equal entrepreneurship, leadership and representation on all ends.
“I think it’s going to take the community as a whole to come together to prevent what happened in 1898 [from] happen[ing] again,” Everett observes. “Those steps towards healing is what we plan to address in ‘Chapter II.’ I think what we are seeing is the rise of community activism, Black entrepreneurship, the discussions of reparations, and allies helping, are the steps towards the healing that the community needs.”
With the platform Chris Everett has gained these last few years, he plans to continue being vocal on racial injustices and racial history. As a filmmaker and an artist, it can be a massive role and impactful platform in the fight for change and awareness. Everett hopes to use his skillset and voice, along with others like him, to clear a path for an informed and safe future.
“I tell filmmakers and artists all the time, if you want your work to make a difference, you just have to do it and go all out when you do it and don’t hold back,” Everett says. “It’s very hard to be vocal as a Black man, but I do what I have to do. I use my art and my film work as my voice. It does all the talking for me. And I’ll continue to use that voice and help others use their voices also.”
“[‘Chapter II’] should be ready to premiere next November 2021 in Wilmington—if COVID-19 is gone and stuff is back to normal,” Everett says. “If not, we’ll do a virtual premiere event in November 2021.”
Aside from supporting and following “Wilmington on Fire: Chapter II” at wilmingtononfire.com, Everett says people can do more for restoring equity right now by supporting local, Black-owned businesses; donating to Black Lives Matter organizations; above all else, continue speaking up about the ongoing injustices locally and nationwide.