Of the great men who’ve walked the White House floors, Paul Jennings may not be one that comes to mind. Yet.
A servant, father and freedom fighter, Jennings’ story will soon find a voice in the ABC mini-series, A Slave in the White House, the true account of President James Madison’s slave who surpassed the binds of his legacy and influenced a future America.
The network greenlit the project as a 12-hour limited run series, announced Oct. 1, which will be co-executive produced and written by Sundance filmmakers Sheldon Candis and Justin Wilson, and executive-produced by Maria Grasso and Deborah Spera (Criminal Minds, Army Wives).
Candis, who will also direct the project, envisions the series like a cultural awakening, the chance to underscore a national hero who slipped through traditional educational channels untraced.
“I had no idea this story existed,” Candis tells theGrio. “Paul Jennings is the first person to write a memoir about his existence in the White House. He saved George Washington’s portrait from above the fireplace when he was 10-years-old. He became what’s called a subversive in the White House. Twenty years before the Underground Railroad, he was helping slaves get their freedom. He is one of the greatest individuals to walk the soil of America. No one knows who he is.”
Power beyond entertainment
Based on Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s New York Times best-selling book of the same name, A Slave in the White House tracks Jennings’ course as a servant for Madison before, during, and after his tenure in the presidency.
Born of mixed race in Virginia, Jennings became a significant force in the emancipation movement, most notably leading the Pearl escape in 1848, the largest slave escape attempt in U.S. history.
He would eventually procure his freedom and reunite with his family in the 1850s. Additionally, Jennings wrote the first White House memoir, A Colored Man’s Reminisces Of James Madison, and his sons fought with the Union Army in the Civil War.
For Candis, whose debut feature film LUV premiered at Sundance in 2012 and was released theatrically thereafter, the story offers a chance to challenge Hollywood delegation.
“Coming out of Sundance, I realized they were really trying to pigeonhole me or paint me into a corner of the ‘black movie,’” he says. “I know from this point on, I have to only be making films and telling stories that have social relevance, that do something beyond just moving someone through the power of storytelling, but in serving a greater good in society.”
Not to be confused with ‘The Butler’
That means surpassing the categorization and conjecture of popular ideology. No doubt a high undertaking for an industry driven primarily by market sensibilities.
In fact, soon after the new series was announced, several websites immediately attributed the news to a so-called “Butler Effect,” projecting that Candis’ production was inspired and made possible by Lee Daniels’ success on the big screen.
Conversely, A Slave in the White House was in development before The Butler was released, and Candis believes it should not be simplified as a replica of any established mold.
He finds the comparison inaccurate, a misguided effort to define stories with limited philosophy.
“It’s unfortunate that they’ve lumped this important, special part of American history into ‘The Butler Effect,’” he remarks. “When it comes to other societies in this existence, they get to be anything they want to be. They can be Lady Gaga, or they can be Paul Thomas Anderson, or Ellen DeGeneres. But for some reason when it comes to [African-Americans], there’s an issue with us showing the tapestry of who we are. There’s this control mechanism.”
Like other American stories, A Slave in the White House transcends racial boundaries. It marks a universal, yet distinctive historical tale.
By classifying it a certain way, audiences could become distracted and misjudge its relevance.
Candis points to the fact there’ve been hundreds of films documenting the Holocaust, but no apparent prototype defining their terms.
He questions how those in power are often threatened by stories that broaden understanding of the status quo.
“My sole desire is to create emotional truth,” Candis comments. “Our ancestors built this country together. My thing is whether black, Asian, Hispanic, we’re just Americans. We need to know our history.”
And compared to Cecil Gaines, Jennings fights a much different battle.
“Paul Jennings had a calling greater than himself, which was the freedom and independence not only of himself and his family and his children, but also to the people,” Candis observes. “The Cecil Gaines character, well he also had a calling greater than himself, but at the end of the day, that was more of a singular journey of that character getting his just due and his respect as a servant in the White House.”
He continues, “Paul Jennings was a child who was fortunate to be educated alongside James and Dolly [Madison]’s stepson…Paul had access to this world, this education, this knowledge that he could then not only free himself and his family, but free a whole lot of people. He was a mastermind. He could do it through using his mind, but also activity on the ground, helping forward slave papers, finding sympathetic merchants.”
An acknowledgment long overdue
With a TV endeavor, Candis feels he has an opportunity to reach more people on his quest to inform, entertain and inspire. He also aims to create momentum by embracing the zeitgeist of the social experience.
Recently, the young filmmaker made waves with the short film he directed for J. Cole’s song “Crooked Smile” in tribute to Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
He says his forthcoming TV series will remain true to history, telling Jennings’ story in all its intricacies while also addressing the multiple dimensions of the Madisons.
“For me, this story is a journey of complexity and the shades of gray of humanity,” Candis remarks.
Currently in development, A Slave in the White House does not have actors attached at this point, but the director has hopes to cast Jeffrey Wright as the lead.
For their part, ABC allows for a platform that will give Jennings a lasting moment in time.
“We only know the stories we’ve been exposed to,” Candis points out. “Many an individual has given greatly to make us better and a lot of them just don’t even get an acknowledgment.”