Hollywood actor Sterling Brown to bring Scipio A. Jones and Elaine Massacre story to the movie screen [Updated]

Hollywood actor Sterling Brown to bring Scipio A. Jones and Elaine Massacre story to the movie screen [Updated]

By BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown — Dec. 2, 2021 – Although Arkansas history books have given scant recognition to civil rights icon Scipio Africanus Jones and the Elaine Massacre, award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown will soon portray the famous civil right icon and bring the story to the movie screen.

According to a Nov. 17 story by Hollywood entertainment news blog Deadline, Searchlight Pictures has snapped up E. Nicholas Mariani’s 2018 Black List script The Defender, which George Tillman Jr. will direct with three-time Emmy-winning Brown starring as the heroic lawyer in post-slavery Arkansas. (Read the full story here.)

Brown will produce the upcoming movie with 21 Laps’ Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen. Mariani and Danielle Reardon will executive produce with Dantram Nguyen, Katie Goodson-Thomas and Richard Ruiz overseeing for Searchlight. Ben Wilkinson, VP Business Affairs and Legal Counsel, negotiated the deal for Searchlight along with WME and CAA on behalf of filmmakers.

Tillman Jr. produced and directed the movie The Hate U Give for Fox 2000 Pictures, based on Angela Thomas’ novel. Prior to that, he produced and directed The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival before being picked up by Lionsgate. Other directing credits include Men of Honor starring Robert De Niro and the Searchlight biopic Notorious. He is currently in pre-production on Heart of a Lion, a biopic of boxer George Foreman being made under Sony’s Affirm label.

Brown currently stars on NBC’s This Is Us, for which he received a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series; overall, Brown has received five consecutive Emmy nominations for This Is Us. Brown also won an Emmy for Outstanding Narrator this year for CNN’s Lincoln: Divided We Stand. He also won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series for FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

He recently wrapped production on the indie movie Honk for Jesus, Save your Soul, which he is also producing, and the sci-fi film Biosphere. Brown’s other feature credits include Marvel’s Black Panther, A24’s Waves and Disney’s Frozen 2. His Indian Meadows Productions has a production deal under 20th Television; that company’s chief mandate is to champion diversity through the development and production of entertaining, educational and inclusive projects.

Mariani was recently elected to the WGA board of directors and is currently writing War Magician, based on the book by David Fisher. Colin Trevorrow will direct the Studiocanal WWII drama, with Benedict Cumberbatch set to star.

Named after a Roman general, Scipio Africanus Jones was born near the small community of Tulip, Arkansas, in Dallas County. Driven to succeed, Jones attended Walden Seminary (now Philander Smith College) and then attended Bethel Institute (now Shorter College), earning his bachelor’s degree in 1885. In 1889, Jones passed the bar and was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Arkansas in 1900 and by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905.

Attorney Scipio A Jones
Photo courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System

After the Elaine Massacre of 1919, he defended 12 wrongly accused Black men, the Elaine 12, who had been charged with murder and condemned to death by all-white juries. With his clients already facing execution, Jones fought their convictions in both state and federal courts.

An appeal was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the accused had been denied due process of law. After reviewing the case, the Supreme Court agreed and overturned the convictions. Moore v. Dempsey changed the nature of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. The ruling allowed for federal courts to hear and examine evidence in state criminal cases to ensure that the defendants’ constitutional rights were protected. It was a landmark ruling that sought to ensure that those accused of a crime had received due process.

Dunbar Historic Neighborhood Association Executive Director Angel Burt told BlackConsumerNews.com that Jones is finally getting his due, along with other famous Black icons from the historic Dunbar community that have been forgotten as a part of Arkansas history.

“Scipio A. Jones should be mentioned in the same breath as Frederick Douglas and W.E. DuBois and other civil rights leaders that fought for freedom and justice in the post-slavery era across the South,” said Burt, a board member for the Horace Mann Dunbar Archive and Building Project Foundation that is working on local efforts to renovate Jones’ former home in downtown Little Rock.

Burt said the renewed recognition in the post-George Floyd era for other Black icons that lived in the Dunbar Historic District has not only brought fresh attention to Jones, but also has brought a historical second look to Mosaic Templars founder John E. Bush and pioneering African American classical music composers Florence B. Price and William Grant Still.

Burt mentioned the ongoing local efforts to renovate Jones former home in the Dunbar community in downtown Little Rock, as well legislation by Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, which allows a portrait of civil rights champion Scipio Jones to be displayed in the Little Rock post office bearing his name. House Resolution 1043, sponsored by Rep. Denise Ennett, D-Little Rock, was also adopted by the Arkansas House on April 22. The resolution simply recognizes Jones’ and his role in defending the Black men accused in the Elaine Massacre but does not offer any observance or recognition of the tragic event where an estimate 100-300 Black men were murdered by a white mob.

Burt also noted that the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra partnered with the DHNA on Sept. 16 to sponsor a free concert at the Robinson Center and Dunbar Community Center that featured the symphony’s orchestration of Price’s Piano Concerto.

“It is past due time that Little Rock and Arkansas recognize the Black greatness that came from our community well before Little Rock Central,” said Burt.

[Story has been updated with comments from Lisa Hicks Gilbert, Founder of The Elaine Massacre of 1919]

“It is exciting to see the story of Attorney Scipio A. Jones and his successful defense of the Elaine Massacre Defendants  being written and brought to the big screen. His defense of the Black sharecroppers standing up and fighting against the injustices of the unfair sharecropping system at a time when it was almost unheard of, is a story that has long needed to be told! We have long known Scipio A. Jones was the hero of and for our ancestors.

“The Dunbar Community in Little Rock where he lived at the time of the massacre took in survivors of the Elaine Massacre and raised money for the families. During the 100 year anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, The “Lee Street Community Center” dedicated a small Civil Rights Park in honor of Attorney Scipio A.  Jones on Main Street in Elaine call “Turning Point Park.” It indeed was a turning point when he successfully defended the Elaine defendants and help then gain their freedom …It is time the whole world learn this story, and pass time for Attorney Scipio A. Jones to take his rightful place in American history,” said Gilbert”

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