Durham News

June 20, 2014

Soldier’s diary gives movie a unique take on slavery and the Civil War

A Union soldier’s diary is the basis of a feature movie just finished shooting in Durham

Patricia Ennis had no idea what was in her ancestor’s Civil War diary until she and her husband, Bryan, decided to transcribe it. And then –

“Wow,” Bryan Ennis said.

As a result, the Ennises were in the woods at the Stagville State Historic Site one recent morning, watching Joseph Hoover’s diary become a feature movie.

“We felt so connected with him,” Patricia Ennis said. “By the time we finished ... everything came alive.”

Joseph Hoover was a Union soldier from upstate New York who escaped from a Confederate prison camp in 1864 and made his way back to Union lines – with the help of Southern slaves, including one who was running away too.

“That’s what’s unique about it, the bond between these guys. ... the relation between these two for freedom and liberty,” said film publicist Gary Balser.

“It’s an adventure, it’s like an odyssey, the story of a man trying to get home,” said actor Sean Stone. Stone, son of movie producer and director Oliver Stone, plays Hoover in the movie.

Larry “Tank” Jones, whose acting credits include the TV series “Breaking Bad,” has the other lead part, as a runaway slave named Jim Young who helps Hoover make his way through Rebel territory.

“I haven’t seen the story told from this perspective, where ... you’ve got the Underground Railroad basically used to help white Union soldiers get back,” Jones said.

A Raleigh company called Uptown Pictures is producing “Union Bound,” hoping for a theatrical release in May 2015, Balser said. Last week, the crew finished several weeks’ filming at the Durham County historic site that was once part of the state’s largest antebellum plantation.

“It’s brought an authenticity to the project,” producer Michael Davis said, with its 1850s slave cabins, 1860 barn, 1790s plantation home and rock-walled family cemetery for sets and background.

“It’s been very very interesting,” said site manager Stephanie Hardy. “It’s brought quite a bit of positive attention to the site.

“Visitors have been very fascinated by the project,” she said.

Leather-bound history

Visitors included the Ennises, who had come down from their home in Syracuse, N.Y., to spend a few days on the set.

“We’re only a subsidiary story – except we’re the ones that more or less said what was in the diary,” Patricia Ennis said.

Joseph Hoover’s diaries – two leather-bound volumes about the size of small index cards, one for 1863 and the other for 1864 – became a part of family lore.

“My mom had always wanted to see the diaries,” Patricia Ennis said, “so I decided I was going to try to find them.”

She found that the diaries were kept by a cousin she had never met, Pam Joy of Wake Forest. The two made contact, met and Joy offered to loan the diaries to them for a while.

“Anyway,” Patricia Ennis said, “we had them for a year, and so we decided to transcribe them” – a chore only partially done by anyone before. Bryan Ennis would hold a magnifying glass over the pages and read out as he deciphered the old, cramped pencil handwriting so Patricia could type it into a computer.

“He had little nub of a pencil ... and he’s writing little notes in this diary,” Bryan Ennis said. “Sometimes it’s just ‘It was hot today,’ ‘It was cold today’; sometimes ‘I saw a man hanged’ or sometimes ‘The bloodhounds are chasing me.’

“Some of it’s significant; some of it’s just the way war is. It’s boring most of the time.”

But as they went along, they discovered “This is a really cool thing,” Patricia said. “The slaves were helping. ... We kept saying, ‘We really should have a movie.’ ”

Patricia called her cousin to tell her what they had found; Pam Joy contacted Uptown Pictures “because they’re in her area” and the idea took hold.

“It’s a fun thing to shoot,” said Stone, the actor. “There’s some action, some good dialogue. Overall it’s a unique film. People have seen films about slavery; they’ve seen films about the Civil War. You’ve never seen slaves working to free white men.”

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