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Review: Sedona International Film Festival Features VOODOO MACBETH

USC School of Cinematic Arts' VOODOO MACBETH is one of the premiere films to be screened at the 2021 Sedona International Film Festival (June12th-20th).

Review: Sedona International Film Festival Features 

Eighty-five years have passed since Orson Welles established his presence as an artistic genius and theatrical force with the 1936 all-Black production of VOODOO MACBETH, an unconventional adaptation of Shakespeare's "Scottish play" (the tragedy whose name, according to theatre superstition, if uttered outside the context of the play, will court disaster).

Now, a bold and refreshing initiative by USC School of Cinematic Arts claims the title of Welles's legendary stage production for a full-length film that chronicles the making of the staging.

In USC's successful 2019 grant proposal to Warner Brothers, the film's producers ~ Miles Alva, Jason Phillips, and Xiaoyuan Xiao ~ present a vision of a uniquely collaborative effort that would engage the diverse elements of its "large film family" (a writer's room of eight selected USC students, ten of the top graduate directing students, an almost all-USC alumni crew, and department heads actively engaged in the business), all overseen by WB executives and film producer John Watson (Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, The Outer Limits, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys).

They promise to reveal "the bizarre events and extraordinary characters behind the making of this theatrical sensation" and Welles's "struggles to control the inexperienced cast, fight off personal demons, battle through a troubled marriage, and fend off the attempts of a ruthless Congressman determined to shut down this 'subversive' production."

Given the ambitious scope of the project, the School's fulfillment of its dream is nothing less than a tour de force, enhanced by a sterling cast and spectacular technical elements, including amazing costumes and sets.

Following a string of screenings at the Pan African Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, Harlem International Film Festival and the New York International Film Festival, the film is scheduled for showing at the Sedona International Film Festival (June 12th-20th).

A bit of context is now in order ~ to explain the uniqueness of Welles's production and the controversy behind it.

Under the aegis of FDR's New Deal, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was established in 1935 as a major job creation program for Americans suffering the Depression. One of the beneficiaries of the initiative was the Negro Theatre Unit in Harlem. Persuaded by John Houseman and Rose McClendon, the Unit's director, to direct the company's opening production of Macbeth, Welles altered the play's setting from Scotland to a 19th Century Haitian setting, complete with jungle scenery, indigenous music, and an all-Black cast and crew of theater technicians and supporting staff.

Before one could say voodoo, however, criticism was coming from the left and right. Protesters blasted the upcoming production as exploitive and demeaning of the Black community. Right wing red-baiters complained that it was "un-American."

As it turned out the production at New York's Lafayette Theatre was a smashing success and went on tour to other Federal Theatre Project theaters around the United States.

Albeit the FTP was cancelled in 1939 ~ a casualty of the House Un-American Activities Committee's insidious claims that the program encouraged racial integration and Communist sympathies ~ the play became etched into theatrical history and its director proceeded to make his own name as a theatrical legend.

The cast of 150 featured Jack Carter as Macbeth, Edna Thomas as Lady Macbeth, Maurice Ellis as Macduff, Canada Lee as Banquo, and Eric Burrough as Hecate.

A footnote: For those interested in a glimpse of the original production of the Negro Theatre Unit's production of VOODOO MACBETH, footage from the production's final scene is available at the National Film Preservation Foundation website ~

Fast forward to USC's 2020 production of VOODOO MACBETH. The film features stellar performances by Jewell Wilson Bridges as Welles, Inger Tudor as Rose McClendon, Daniel Kuhlman as John Houseman, and June Schreiner as Welles's first wife, Virginia.

With what forces besides his own ego did Welles have to contend in order to consummate the staging of the show? The film makers reveal in compelling detail pressures and disruptions beyond measure:

Houseman and McClendon's immense and unnerving expectations of Welles.

Welles's personal (and presumptuous) doubts that enough competent actors were available to do the show and then, having recruited a cast of newbies, confronted with the challenge of cultivating and developing their innate talents.

The pressures of a supportive wife (imbued with an aura of delicate strength by Schreiner), desirous of pursuing her own film career and put off too often by her self-absorbed spouse.

The rabid anti-Communist Congressman from Texas, intent on sabotaging the production that he sees as "un-American." Hunter Bodine delivers a convincing and strident performance as the drawling Martin Dies, Jr., the acerbic and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas who served as the first chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities.

The mob of angry protesters calling for the show's cancellation.

Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune, portrayed by Ben Shields as an unscrupulous theatre critic who has no need to accept a bribe from the Congressman to do what he already plans to do in panning the show.

It's a definite sea of troubles that Welles has to face ~ one that he could not have anticipated when approached to direct a new play.

Seeking a director for the Harlem-based Negro Theatre Unit's premiere production ~ a risky undertaking of the Scottish play ~ Houseman recommends that he and McClendon recruit the 20-year-old boy genius, who was then a young broadcaster on station PBX promoting "mindless radio ads" a la HoldFast Hair Spray Formula.

Brash, self-possessed, and petulant, Welles, rejects the offer. Encouraged further by his first of three wives, Virginia (nee Nicholson), he deflects, proposing that there aren't enough "Negro" actors to fill the bill. It is she who poses the provocative question, What if Macbeth wasn't set in Scotland?

Bridges is superb as the brash young Welles, carrying his character with steadiness through shades of behavior ~ from arrogance to vulnerability, from alcohol-soaked frustration and directorial uncertainty to selfless determination. His epiphany as for whom the bell tolls in the production of VOODOO MACBETH and his surrender of ownership is presented with breathtaking power. The stage is set then for his next ambitious venture ~ a film with a riddle about Rosebud!

Inger Tudor is sensational as McClendon, the always poised, intensely dedicated mother of the company. Her character's pain is palpable when, suffering from pleurisy, she cannot fulfill her role as Lady Macbeth.

In weaving together the storyline of the film, the USC writers and researchers have succeeded in achieving something more than unearthing the mix of bedevilling factors that would make or break Welles and fold the show before it had a chance to breathe. They have not only illumined the trajectory of Welles's sense of his artistic self but they have probed the inexorable challenges confronted by the members of the cast. This film is laced with their humanity, their vulnerabilities, and their aspirations.

And it is this depth of exploration that brings to the fore equally brilliant performances by Ashli Haynes as Edna Thomas, the ingenue who replaced McClendon in the role of Lady M and Gary McDonald as Macbeth.

The bottom line: The remarkable collaboration of USC artists has given birth to an especially compelling and engaging film that explores with intelligence and insight one of the landmark moments in theatrical history. Kudos to all who invested in this film.

VOODOO MACBETH is one of the premiere films to be screened at the 2021 Sedona International Film Festival (June12th-20th).

Photo credit to USC School of Cinematic Arts ~ L to R: Jewell Wilson Bridges, Daniel Kuhlman, Inger Tudor

Sedona International Film Festival ~ ~ 928-282-1177 ~ 2030 W. State Route 89A, Suite A-3, Sedona, AZ

USC School of Cinematic Arts ~ ~ 213-740-8358 ~ 900 West 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA

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