Insights from a Table Reading of The Bell Affair

I haven’t seen the presence of children too much in other feature films and stories. For The Bell Affair team to put children in the story lets me know that the entire Bell family are cut from a cloth of people who dared to speak up and speak out in the midst of it all. As I began to think about the empowerment of children in the story, I thought if more stories about children resisting enslavement had been dramatized, maybe Claudette Colvin’s voice would have been respected; maybe Emmett Till’s voice would have been respected—these voices of reason that declared, “No, this is not right! I’m going to speak out and stand up in the midst of it.” To me, children are closest to purity and to the morality of what is right and wrong. They are not tainted. Even if we look at what’s happening now, children, young people, youth, and millennials are at the forefront of demonstrations and declaring what is not right. The children’s voices in The Bell Affair inspire me so much in terms of how our children have been at the forefront of movements against injustices in our world.  

— Darla Davenport (Lucy Bell)

What I found to be compelling in our story is that Daniel respects what the women in his life have to say about his decisions, and again, it is something that you don’t necessarily see dramatized onscreen for this particular era. So much is explored and shared of our experiences in this one narrative. Mary Bell is so strong, but it’s a kind of strength I cannot fathom. To fight for freedom and your survival and your family unit—and to do that all at once when you have so much coming against you “at every turn”—that’s a different kind of strength. At the end to be able to have that scene with her children knowing that she was leaving them in a hell, that’s what broke me.

I enjoy the Bells as a family unit, too. I love how Mary and Daniel have raised their children to be emotionally and psychologically free no matter what the world tells them. I like that Mary Bell is a voice in the family unit. There wasn’t a scene where Mary does not press Daniel to think about his every strategy and the other areas that needed to be thought out in freedom-making. She impacts his thinking. She asks questions to help Daniel figure out the full plan. At the dinner table, she’s not docile and quiet. No. She asks questions. I am so glad to be playing her.

— Myeisha Essex (Mary Bell)

Making a Feature Film in a Pandemic, 2020

At the beginning of 2020, The Bell Affair team was in full motion. We had major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce a feature-length live action animated film about an enslaved family who sued for their freedom in Washington, D.C. Over three hundred actors responded to our casting call, eager to read for a part. Our script captured the drama and nuance of Black life in ways we hoped would inspire audiences.

Then in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation, and our world stopped. The actors were under stay-at-home orders in various states. Our production contractors in Los Angeles and New York were hard hit, unsure how any filming would go forward. It became obvious we could not bring actors from all over the country to our studio in Nebraska for a shoot scheduled in June. Film and media projects shut down around the country. Actors and production companies had nowhere to turn.

At this critical moment, the fate of our film hanging in the balance, Director Kwakiutl Dreher and Senior Producer Michael Burton asked, “Can we produce the film another way?”

We looked for inspiration and found it in places both expected and unexpected. Saturday Night Live at Home debuted on April 11, 2020. And the next morning, Easter Sunday, as Americans turned to virtual church services, the National Cathedral choir and orchestra performed a stunning hymn with 600 participants live-streamed from their individual homes.

We met the next day by Zoom, Monday, April 13, 2020. Stirred by the creative talent at SNL and the National Cathedral, we decided we should try to figure out a way to produce the film in live action animated form without ever having actors be in the same place. Could we create a film entirely in a distributed manner? Would it be as compelling and seamless? Would it meet our expectations? We ran several tests, and after looking at the results, our team was confident we could do this.

So, we are not bringing actors to a studio. We cancelled the June studio time. We shipped all actors their costumes. Our costume designer developed style instructions and conducted virtual fittings with each actor who received a costume at their homes. We provided each actor for each scene a set of technical notes to guide their camera angles for filming themselves. With detailed instructions, actors will film themselves on an iPhone. We’ve provided equipment as necessary. These changes meant we would need more funds on post-production editing to get this right.

But during the pandemic, from March to August 2020, we have been able to pay our talent and production companies at a time when the industry has struggled.

Then the murders of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd cast the importance of our film in a new light. The summer of 2020 brought a wider American reckoning with the sickening callousness, cruelty, and violence against Black Americans extending back to slavery. The actors in The Bell Affair are well aware of the importance of this history in our current moment.

The Bell Affair Table Read, July 13, 2020

So the virtual table reads with our actors have taken on fresh urgency and meaning. Every table reading session, each directed by Kwakiutl Dreher, has produced dramatic moments of personal reflection. At one recent table read, the scene featured the discussion of the Bell family about how Daniel Bell should try to negotiate with a white slaveholder for the freedom of his wife Mary and their six children. The scene takes place around the dinner table. After the dramatic reading, Darla Davenport, playing Lucy Bell, Daniel’s mother, noted, “This is the kind of scene never shown in film. A Black family making a decision. Together. We need more of this.”

Storyboard for The Bell Affair, Act 1, Scene 3.