“I’m interested in the untold story,” says filmmaker and FSU College of Motion Picture Arts faculty Valerie Scoon. “Unknown narratives speak to people on a universal level.”
Scoon’s documentary, “Invisible History: Middle Florida’s Hidden Roots” premiered on PBS on Thursday, May 20, and is currently airing across the country as well as streaming online throughout the month of June. The film brings to light the contributions of the enslaved peoples of Florida who laid the foundation for Leon County’s infrastructure.
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A year ago, Scoon’s PBS documentary, “Daring Women Doctors” brought to light another little-known narrative and uncovered the pioneering stories of women like Eliza Ann Grier. Grier was born into slavery and entered the medical profession a decade before the Civil War and nearly 70 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.
“I was looking for a vehicle by which we could see something that was from a different point of view,” explains Scoon. “Looking at women doctors is very much a part of the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. With ‘Invisible History’ the angle was to see how history has shaped this area and invite conversations for people to talk and learn together.”
Scoon has always been a movie and history buff at heart. Growing up, she would attend Saturday matinees and re-tell the movie plots to her family, but always with a twist. If there was something in the film that she thought could be improved, she would alter the story and add her own critiques.
Leap from Harvard to HollywoodAt Harvard University, Scoon studied American history and literature, and appreciated the context that the former supplied the latter in all kinds of storytelling. She served as co-president of Harvard’s filmmaking club, and it was through a conversation with a fellow club member that she decided to take a leap and move to Hollywood after graduation.
Scoon started as a receptionist for a small film company, but soon was given the opportunity to create “coverage,” a two-page synopsis of a screenplay followed by a page of critical comments. One day she handed off coverage, and her resume, to a producer in the company elevator.
“I did what I did when I was a kid and told him what I thought would make the film better,” says Scoon who, shortly thereafter, became an In-House Story Analyst for the Creative Artist Agency.
Always looking for materialEventually Scoon became the first African American Creative Executive at Warner Bros. and worked on films like, “Malcom X.” She went on to serve as the Director of Development for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films.
During her tenure she helped “The Great Debaters,” featuring directing and performance by Denzel Washington, make it to the silver screen. The story pitch had been extrapolated from a Smithsonian magazine article about the Wiley College debate team that went on to challenge Harvard in the national debate championships.
Scoon describes the process from page to screen as accruing partners in telling, supporting and funding the film and story. Alongside writer, Robert Eisele, Scoon helped craft complex characters that go through an emotional journey while including dramatic elements and good dialogue. The process for making a documentary is similar in that the search for supporting material can help support the creation of the world and context.
“You’re always looking for source material to inform your script whether that is reading a book or watching documentaries,” says Scoon. “You get a sense or feel of the time period. I’ve always been interested in documentaries and seen them as great in the sense that you cannot deny them as fiction. They’re incredible because they really happened.”
Tallahassee’s slave graveyardsAfter a visit to Thomasville, Scoon uncovered Eliza Ann Grier’s story. For “Invisible History,” she had started to do research on Tallahassee’s slave graveyard in order to share that knowledge with her family and son. Soon, she was uncovering more stories about plantation culture and the 9,000 slaves that had lived in Leon County.
“You don’t see many placards or markers detailing these stories,” says Scoon. “That’s when I realized this could be an interesting documentary because it would inform people of things that I didn’t know, and maybe they didn’t know either.”
Scoon enjoys the synergy of filmmaking and was energized by the partners she had in creating this documentary including co-producer Theresa Marsenburg, director of photography Mark Vargo, editor Sheree Chen and animation by Jessica Kirby. She is also grateful to have the support of the community, especially the Grove Museum, Goodwood Museum & Gardens, FAMU’s Meek Eaton Black Archives, the Tallahassee Museum and the John G. Riley Center & Museum.
“It can be inspiring to look to history and see how people have navigated challenges and triumphed, and when you examine their lives from this point of view, you’re wildly impressed by the fortitude and the tenaciousness of their goals,” says Scoon.
“I see ‘Invisible History’ as honoring the enslaved who lived and died here and making sure they’re not forgotten. We try not to forget the people who died fighting for our freedom. It’s important to not forget the enslaved who worked and suffered here.”
Amanda Sieradzki is the feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).
If you goWhat: Invisible History: Middle Florida’s Hidden Roots
Where: Streaming on PBS WFSU-TV
Contact: For more information, visit pbs.org/video
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