Durham News: Community

New film documents literary ‘gem’

Elizabeth Spencer was championed by Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty on the release of her first novel, “Fire in the Morning,” in 1948.
Elizabeth Spencer was championed by Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty on the release of her first novel, “Fire in the Morning,” in 1948.

Elizabeth Spencer has been recommended for a Pulitzer Prize, one her books became a film and an award-winning musical, and the Chapel Hill resident’s next book, “Starting Over,” comes out this month.

“She’s 92 years old, and her history and her story is an incredible story of bravery,” said writer Sharon Swanson, producer of “Landscapes of the Heart,” a documentary based on Spencer’s memoir of the same name.

The film discusses Spencer’s literary work about racial and gender issues. It interviews writers Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Hodding Carter, Randall Kenan and Douglas Blackmore and includes photos, documents and reenactments to visualize Spencer’s life.

“I think they got a hold of everything,” Spencer said of the filmmakers’ research.

Swanson was inspired by Spencer’s writings about racism in the South, especially since Spencer grew up in a white, middle-class, conservative family. Spencer’s writings risked her relationship with her family, she said.

“It’s a real true story of a person who has been through a tremendous amount and is still publishing,” Swanson said.

Spencer’s book “The Voice at the Back Door” about a summer election campaign for sheriff in late 1940s Mississippi, was one of the first modern novels to tackle Southern racial tensions. It was nominated for a 1957 Pulitzer Prize, but that year the Pulitzer board awarded no prize for fiction.

“I was under some sort of pressure within myself to clarify my own thinking about racial matters,” Spencer said in a 1981 interview about the book, published three years before Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Many of my attitudes had been simply inherited, taken on good faith from those of good faith whom I loved. It seemed like blasphemy to question them, so I had to question myself.”

Spencer’s “The Light in the Piazza,” about a mother traveling abroad with her her mentally handicapped daughter, was published in 1960. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1961 and inspired a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland. A musical based on the book opened on Broadway in 2005.

“Landscapes of the Heart” was shown at La Femme International Film Festival in California last fall and has been screened in Chapel Hill and Durham. Its director, Rebecca Cerese, said the reception has been strong.

“Everyone’s like, ‘I want to read all of her works now,’” Cerese said. “You can’t really beat that.”

Small budget

Swanson began working on the documentary in 2007, and Cerese, currently vice president of the Peoples Channel public access station in Chapel Hill and Durham, joined the project three years ago.

Their budget was small – $125,000, Cerese said – but they both wanted to bring Spencer’s story to a national audience.

“I really felt like it was my baby, and you’re going to take care of your baby whether you’re getting lots of money or not,” Cerese said.

Swanson said Spencer was very open about her life, from writings to politics to her marriage.

“Although she gave us real access, she did not edit us,” Swanson said of Spencer. “She did not tell us what the story should be.”

And overall, Spencer said working on the documentary was a pleasant experience. She was interviewed, and she read from her memoir.

“I felt that their friendliness toward me and my work was a plus,” she said.

Swanson and Cerese are now seeking educational and national distributional deals for the film to reach a larger audience.

“I love uncovering lost gems in history, and I think Elizabeth is one,” Cerese said.