EXT. BO PEEP CROSSROADS, HAMPTON COUNTY, SC – 1937 – NIGHT Cricket sounds and the flickers of light from the small homestead contrast with the otherwise dark, silent, rural landscape, but not as much as the piercing sounds of CLARA SMART, giving birth to twins. INT. KITCHEN, SMART HOME – NIGHT Father ROBERT SMART and grandmother, SULA RITTER, pensively await the news. Finally the MIDWIFE emerges, her voice thick and flat with a heavy Geechee accent: “Da boy da weight like little ov’r a five-pound bag gah sugar. The gal da weight like a five pound bag gah sugar little ov’r half full. The boy dead and the gal ‘bout ta dead.” Grandma Sula springs into action. She wraps the three-pound baby girl in a blanket, places her in a pasteboard shoe box, places the box on two slats of the oven of the wood-burning kitchen oven, creating a makeshift incubator to keep the child warm without scorching the box on the wood-burning kitchen stove. As the dramatized scene continues, Vertamae, in her unique storytelling style, completes the account in voice over, then on camera…how family and neighbors came to visit Clara and the baby in the shoebox; how the baby was fed goat’s milk through a sterilized glass eye dropper because Clara had birthing fever, how with her short body and long limbs, someone remarked that the baby looked like a kuta(turtle), a name that stuck with her to this day. The resilient infant, Vertamae Smart, survived! The tall figure of the now elder Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor casts long shadows on the cobblestone pavement of the Rue Git-le-Coeur as she moves deliberately, if slowly, toward the infamous Hotel du Vieux Paris, once known as the Beat Hotel. It was here, in 1958, that the not yet-of-age young woman who would call herself Verta “Kali”, landed in Paris to face yet another test of resiliency. She was armed with a small suitcase, her dreams and imagination, and a basic command of food preparation and cooking skills gleaned from the traditions of her grandmothers and parents. It had already been an eventful journey for the Gullah-Geechee girl who had been born“‘bout ta dead.”
When she was 10, her family moved to Philadelphia where her paternal grandmother, Estella Smart, had migrated years before. Vertamae recalls how she was teased and taunted because of her Gullah dialect and country mannerisms. To protect her from being tormented, her parents sheltered her. She was not allowed to have visitors or to socialize with other children. She was allowed to go the library where she read stories about far away places and times, developing a keen imagination as a means of escape. Paris captured her imagination. Through recollections of her life in Philadelphia, the film begins to reveal a portrait of a fiercely creative, determined young woman drawn to the bohemian life style of coffee houses, fascinated by the poetry and intellectual conversation that marked the Beat literary movement of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka); a woman for whom there were no obstacles that could not be overcome; a woman who would reinvent herself many times over while holding fast to her cultural roots; a woman who often broke, blurred or transcended boundaries. Travel notes of a Geechee Girl deftly blends dramatic sequences, contemporary location and verite footage, archival footage and stills with the on-camera accounts of Vertamae Grosvenor and those of the people who have known her, studied her or been inspired by her. At the heart of the story are Vertamae’s own fist person accounts, garnered from on-camera interviews.
We will film her in South Carolina, Paris, and in London where she will talk with Harold Chapman, one of the first photographers to document her work as a journalist and chef. The Chapman collection includes early photos of Vertamae and Robert Grosvenor at the Beat Hotel, before their marriage and the birth of their daughter Kali. These photos will be licensed for use in the documentary. Locations in the Netherlands, Sweden, Barcelona, New York City, Atlantic City and Hoboken, New Jersey will also inform the visual narrative. We will develop the film’s narrative trajectory and establish a timeline of events through the creation of a dynamic, compelling visual style that references the respective visual styles of each era of her life, creating animated world maps that chart her journeys, infusing the sumptuous food she prepared along the way. Short readings from her published works, audio selections from Grosvenor’s NPR radio broadcasts (1983-1995), and limited excerpts of footage from her appearance in motion pictures and television will heighten the narration, as will insights and reflections from her colleagues and contemporaries of the Beat Art Movement, the Black Power movement and the Black Film Movement. Among those we plan to interview are Charles Fuller, Maya Angelou, Sam Waymon (Nina Simone’s brother), Robert Grosvernor, Amiri Baraka, Hettie Jones, Julie Dash, Hugh Masekala, LouisGossett, Jr., A.B. Spelman, Oprah Winfrey, Nikki Giovanni, Ed Bullins, Sonia Sanchez, and Woodie King, Jr. Dramatic re-enactments will be used to capture specific moments within Grosvernor’s life, effectively conveying the diverse experiences of this world-travelling Gullah-Geechee woman.
These brief dramatic moments, will allow us to depict the way Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor uniquely experienced the world and interacted with influential people in her life, such as late grandmother Estella Smart, Bill Gunn, James Baldwin, Romeare Bearden, Billie Holiday, Larry Neal, Nina Simone, Madam Rachou (proprietor of the Beat Hotel), Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, Ted Jones, Sun Ra, Calvin Lockhart, John Langston Gwaltney, Elaine de Koonig, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 2012, Julie Dash began recording preliminary interviews with Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor, gathering more than four hours of videotaped materials and transcripts that have informed the research for this film. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor offers her full support and permissions access for the film. Our budget request to NEA includes funds to finalize written agreements for story rights.