A few years ago, maybe ten, I had an idea that downtown Baldwyn could become a “destination community.” Excited by my own idea – which happens a lot, by the way – I asked to be included on the agenda of the next board of aldermen meeting, and they graciously allowed me to speak to their group.
I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I presented each of them with a copy of a drawing that I had recently made, a hand-sketch showing Baldwyn’s historic Main Street populated with stores and restaurants which, at the time, didn’t even exist. The sketch I shared was the cleaned-up version of an earlier original that I had doodled out one late night, with a red pen and a highlighter, on the back of a napkin.
(To be completely correct, the first drawing was actually on a “paper towel,” which in the South is, of course, the same thing as a napkin.)
The aldermen looked at my sketch that night, presumptuously entitled “Destination: Baldwyn,” and they listened politely to what I believed was a great epiphany. I believed then, and still do, that Baldwyn could become a center for entertainment of many types, for the arts in a variety of disciplines, and for destination dining and shopping. My sketch included a re-built railroad depot at the corner of Front and Water Street (the original Baldwyn Depot location) and our own new train, which would bring shoppers and visitors on day-long excursions from Corinth and Tupelo.
I told the aldermen all this … with great enthusiasm. I probably sounded completely insane.
Fortunately, insanity is not a significant impediment to taking action in pursuit of a goal, and for a decade now, we – certainly not me alone, but a group of many motivated and enthusiastic Baldwyn-ites – have built new businesses which have filled in our blanks. We’ve invested in renovations and refurbishments that have made our town a more beautiful place. And we’ve consistently persuaded and encouraged artistic endeavors to take center stage in our everyday downtown operations and especially at our festivals.
We have a long way to go still, but we have come many, many miles in the right direction.
Today, this spring, we are extremely close to having a substantial motion picture filmed in Baldwyn, Mississippi. Other Side of the River Productions and Hostage Films are setting up to shoot “Mississippi Scholar” in this town in May. They are raising final funds now for the project, which is already cast with Emmy-winners (Obba Babatunde, best known for How High and That Thing You Do) and Broadway performers (Capathia Jenkins). An incredible New York cinematographer Ruben Latre is set to direct the film, and New Jersey-based writer/producer P.J. Leonard is the chief facilitator of the production. But, several Mississippi personalities and groups are also attached to the project, including former football star Marcus Dupree, Itawamba Community College Films, Tupelo actress Amye Gousset, Fulton producer Morgan Cutturini and … Baldwyn’s Six Shooter Studios (more on that later).
Promotions for the film describe “Mississippi Scholar” as the story of how one underprivileged intellectual must overcome tremendous impediments to realize his dreams of the future. The screenplay is based loosely on a commencement speech by Mahdi Hemingway, delivered in May of 2017 at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School graduation. Hemingway, who rose from a crime-ridden housing site in Jersey City, New Jersey, had crossed paths with Leonard in 2005, and they built a close friendship over time. After hearing his friend’s heartwarming graduation speech, an inspired Leonard wrote and developed the story.
“’Mississippi Scholar’ reveals that there are lights at the end of some tunnels,” Leonard says in summary of his take on Hemingway’s Cinderella story.
Leonard wrote the screenplay with the struggles Hemingway overcame in mind, but he re-set the story from New Jersey to Mississippi to take advantage of Mississippi locations and the available personnel and talent he knew existed here.
So, how did a New Jersey film producer end up in North Mississippi?
Leonard, it seems, visits Fulton each year, helping ICC Films with their annual student film project. That’s how he knew this place existed.
This year, the stars aligned, and Six Shooter Studios general manager Amye Gousset was playing a role in the ICC student-made film. An out of town actor had to back out at the last minute, and Gousset suggested to ICC producer Cutturini that I fill in. Likely out of dire necessity, they invited me over to be in their picture. There I met P.J. Leonard, we liked each other, and soon I was giving him a grand tour of Baldwyn.
He loved it, and here we are … one step closer to “Destination: Baldwyn.”
I’m going to speak to the board of aldermen about it Tuesday.
Talk of the Town is sponsored by Six Shooter Studios. Follow us at Facebook.com/sixshooterstudios