What inspired you come up with the idea for the film?
About 5 years ago, I was directing a doc for CBS Sports on the important role basketball plays socially in the African-American community. In my research, I learned of Perry Wallace and his schedule only allowed an interview on my last day of filming. At the conclusion of our chat, I told Mr. Wallace that I was sorry and he asked “for what?” And I said, “I should be doing your story” I was able to re structure that doc and dedicated an entire segment to Perry and his remarkable story. I then asked Perry if I could send him a treatment on how I would properly tell his story, if given the chance, and the rest is history.
Why did you want to tell this story?
To be a successful storyteller, I think the first thing you must be able to do is recognize a great story when you see one. Especially one that is relevant and timely. Injustices in this country have been evident for my entire lifetime and I knew four years ago that America was heading to a boiling point. So my goal then and now, is that “Triumph” will be a launching point for a much larger conversation on race and sports in America. And this is not a sports story as much as it is a unique window on on America’s civil rights movement that chronicles Perry Wallace’s evolution from a reluctant “pioneer” in the final throes of the “Jim Crow” era to a determined “game-changer,” whose actions altered the way of life throughout the South. In short, Perry Wallace is a genuine “American treasure.”
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
It is impossible for me to truly relate to Perry as I am not a person of color. I would not pretend to and cannot begin to understand the pain and humiliation that he and others have endured. For that reason, I tried to tell this story from his perspective and that of his African American classmates as versus a more common chronological, historical look. I wanted viewers to gain a real sense of their experience.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
The biggest change or challenge was that, in the end, we did not have enough running time to get it all in… not even close. And the biggest loss was Perry’s professional career. Certainly, one could argue that what Perry has done with his professional life is the most compelling part of his journey. But we didn’t want to short change his harrowing journey so we justified his career effectively with voice over and graphics. There remains so much more to share about Perry.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during production?
I am not sure how “courageous” we were, but the toughest trap to avoid was getting caught up in taking SEC coaches and schools to task for their blatant racism. Don’t get me wrong…We told the story accurately and held people accountable but the key is that we didn’t dwell or create a laundry list of racist acts. We did not allow anything to distract us from telling Perry’s story. This was about him, and he was about finding common ground. He harbored no hate.We had to remain true to him.
Where there any risks that you faced during production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
The biggest challenge we met was that, even after 50 years, people are still unwilling to discuss or even acknowledge that things were a bit messed up in late ’60s. People would rather pretend it didn’t happen. Some SEC universities wouldn’t even allow us to film on their campus because of the story-line. Former coaches destroyed game films and contend that they never heard the crowd berating Perry with racial epithets. To give you an idea of what the scene was actually like… state troopers had to surround the court in a gym that seated 500. We utilized newspaper articles, classmate/teammate interviews and we were fortunate that a few writers are still alive to recall the awful conditions that Perry faced. Journalists seem to be the ones, aside from teammates, that were willing to speak the truth.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
The visual style was influenced by Perry Wallace’s life journey. From growing up in his hometown of Nashville to his groundbreaking athletic career at Vanderbilt, set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, and now recognizing his impact on American life today, helped to inform the creative decisions to visually portray his journey vis a vis locations, art direction, and historical representations to best represent the story.
What risks did you take to tell your story?
We insisted on editorial control. It was important to maintain the integrity of Perry’s story. It was risky as we passed up potential network broadcast partners, whom were willing to fund the film. But we passed as we felt they would water it down or give consideration to the concerns of their other partners.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screen writing or film producing?
I am not sure that I am qualified to give any advice as this is my first feature length film. My only suggestion is to recognize a good story when you come across it. This is a great example as I was consumed with another project when I met Perry. I am certainly not the first filmmaker to interview Perry Wallace. But I was the first to pursue telling his story. You never know unless you ask!
Grab your badge or film pass today to see this film and many more at this year’s Austin Film Festival!