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Emerson Faculty Anti-Slavery Script Draws Oscar Winner

Affiliated faculty member Stephen Glantz’s latest screenplay, Mumbet, recently got a little star power when Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer signed on as executive producer.

Mumbet, a biopic about Elizabeth Freeman, the first slave to sue for freedom and win under Massachusetts’ new state constitution in 1781, is being directed by Alethea Root (Part Time Fabulous).

“She really champions young filmmakers,” Glantz said of Spencer, who co-executive produced Fruitvale Station, directed by a then-20-something Ryan Coogler. Coogler went on to direct this year’s blockbuster hit Black Panther. “She’s really also great about supporting projects about diversity and she’s just an all-around amazing person besides being a wonderful actress.”

Glantz met Mumbet’s young filmmaker, Root, at a party at the 2012 Palm Springs International Film Festival, where Wunderkinder, a German film he co-wrote, was nominated for an Audience Award.

“Everybody was drinking these frou-frou drinks and I didn’t know who to talk to,” Glantz recalled. “One woman was drinking something in a rocks glass, no ice, a brown liquid. I thought, ‘O.K., someone’s drinking something straight, I can talk to her.’”

The two hit it off and decided to work together.

Spencer, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Help, was handed the script by a Hollywood casting agent, a friend of actress Jayne Atkinson (Madam Secretary, House of Cards, 24), who is also executive producing the film, Glantz said.

Glantz said before he took on the project, he knew a little bit of Mumbet’s story, just from having lived in the Berkshires, where the story took place, but he didn’t know the details.

“It was always kind of told almost as a fable,” he said. “There’s so much texture to the story underneath it that kind of drives it, and makes it great material.”

Elizabeth, called Bet, was born into slavery on a farm owned by a Dutch family in upstate New York. When she was a young girl, she went to Sheffield, Massachusetts, when the farmer’s daughter married John Ashley. Ashley was a wealthy lawyer whose home was a hotbed of political debate and the site of the signing of the Sheffield Resolves, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence.

When Bet heard the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution state that “All men are born free and equal,” and have the right to liberty, she asked lawyer Theodore Sedgwick to help her sue for her freedom, and that of another of Ashley’s slaves. A Great Barrington jury ruled that slavery was unconstitutional in the commonwealth. Bet took the name Elizabeth Freeman, and took a job in the Sedgwick house, working for wages; in later years, she was known as Mumbet.

Sedgwick went on to represent Massachusetts in the House and Senate, and was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The team is committed to shooting the film in the Berkshires, Glantz said, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has a house in Richmond, has been a great supporter of the project.

Glantz said Mumbet is a great project to work on, because not enough people know her whole story.

“When you think of how a person who was illiterate figure out how to sue for her freedom when the constitution was barely dry…” Glantz said. “Hers was basically the first [case] to test the new constitution.”



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