The Ballad of Sadie Hawkins
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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Gary, Indiana, which can be considered a sister city to Chicago, is portrayed in such a marvelous light in a movie that was recently screened at the 14th Annual Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video.
Directed by theater veteran and Gary native Mark Spencer and starring members of Gary’s West Side Theatre Guild, the movie is flush with Gary landmarks and locations. The Ballad of Sadie Hawkins is about a young woman’s quest for stardom and need to keep allegiance to her hometown, Gary, and friends and family members, who are rooting for her success.
As the film starts, she’s left Gary and to try her luck in Vegas, where she’s been living for three years, auditioning and scraping by dealing cards at a casino. Sadie is stubborn, but she’s determined to strike it rich with her mellow voice. She finally returns home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and the movie is told through flashbacks that portray her life from childhood through her eventual welcome as a hometown superstar.
Great Gary locations and events are featured in the film, such as Dolly’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, Black Oak Food Mart, the Roosevelt High School marching band in the Thanksgiving Day parade, the Gary airport, Majestic Star Casino, the U.S. Steelyard Baseball Stadium, among other venues.
I spoke to the director Mark Spencer before the fest’s first screening, and he was very excited to be on “State Street in Chicago.” His background is in theater, and he says sometimes directors need to focus on one thing, instead of multitasking. “Directors need to work on their craft and, after a film is complete, leave things such as distribution to someone else.”
Spencer used as many locations “as the big boys,” he added. “I want to set the trend for being different and allowing people to see the beauty of Gary.” He said Gary officials were glad to let him film throughout what is famously known as the birthplace of the Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. “They knew that my intention was to produce a quality product for other communities to see,” Spencer said. “I wanted to show positive, warm-hearted, good people in positive exploits to counter the negative things that we see daily.”
And Spencer and performers from the West Side Theatre Guild do just that in a movie that, while it is about a young girl and has majority young cast members, contains no violence or scuffles where someone accidentally gets shot, etc. It is pure, homespun entertainment, and the Guild should be proud of this accomplishment.
“The Guild is a magnet for theater enthusiasts, and we welcome everyone from eight to 80,” Spencer said. He taught speech and drama for more than 12 years before directing the West Side Theatre Guild and says he’s sometimes too critical. “I put my theater knowledge in film, and I want people to think that my films are irresistible enough and that they are worth discussing.”
Britanie Buggs and Chicago director/actor Ron OJ Parson star.
Another one of Spencer’s movies that will screen at the14th Annual Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video is The Gilded Six-Bits, based on Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s short story.
Spencer voiced excitement about two of his films being chosen for screening at the same film festival. “I believe it’s a rarity that two films by the same director are chosen,” he added.
The Gilded Six-Bits is a Depression-era tale of betrayal and forgiveness set in a small Florida town. From the distance of decades, an old man reflects back on the threat posed to his newlywed happiness the day a slick stranger comes to town.
This film was also shot entirely in Gary, with cast members from the West Side Theatre Guild. Ansa Akepa and Erynn MacKenzie star.
The Gilded Six-Bits will screen on Sunday, August 24, at 5 p.m., and Wednesday, August 27, at 6:15 p.m.
Spencer’s upcoming works include The Firing Squad, a “PSA-styled edutainment” that addresses smoking among youth.
The Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video is the Midwest’s biggest and most diverse celebration of the Black experience on film; featuring talent from around the nation and world, with an emphasis on Chicago-based filmmakers. Films will be featured through August 28 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
Tickets for The Gilded Six-Bits may be purchased at the Gene Siskel Film Center box office or through Ticketmaster. For more information, call the Siskel Movie Hotline at 312-846-2800.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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