When he wrote the screenplay for “Deadline,” former newspaperman Mark Ethridge never expected the movie would mirror future headlines. The movie is based on the reporting he did more than 40 years ago about the unsolved murder of an African American teenager in rural South Carolina. Many elements parallel the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen whose case has sparked a national firestorm.
So I know that your movie “Deadline” is a derivative of your book “Grievances,” which is a derivative of the original news story you worked on during your time as a reporter at the Charlotte Observer. What was the original incident that inspired all of this?
The true story happened in 1970. Beekman Winthrop, a “Yankee blueblood” shows up and he says “. . . I kept hearing about this unsolved, uninvestigated murder of a 13-year-old kid,” and this was several years after the killing. He said he had started poking around and started to get some idea of what might have happened [but] the same time was running into a lot of opposition from his family and also from the local authorities. He said he didn’t know what to do, so he drove to the nearest newspaper that he could find that he thought had a positive orientation towards civil rights.
I’m a young reporter at the time, and I’m assigned to go down there with another reporter, and we poke around along with Beekman Winthrop, and write some stories, and a grand jury is impaneled, and there’s indictments and a trial. At the time, it attracted some notice. In fact, if you look back, People magazine actually wrote a piece about it. But the story sort of stuck with me. I had some time finally to write a novel inspired by that event, and it came out in 2006.
How much of your book will we see in the movie?
There’s the real event which happened, and then there’s the book, which is a novel — it is not a true book about the real event, it’s a novel, but it’s inspired by that event. What I’m fond of saying is that the facts have been changed but the story’s still true.
Your story’s premise bears strong parallels to the Trayvon Martin case that is being heavily discussed in the media right now.
Here’s the fundamental of the story for me — and it has regrettable echoes now: A young African-American kid is killed for being in the wrong place, and that’s the only reason. Here’s where, to me, the true evil is — officials didn’t care initially, in both cases — in Trayvon Martin’s case and in the case of Wallace Sampson, in the movie. It took the press and the public before officials took notice. Officials in the Trayvon Martin case started off by assuming that Trayvon was in the wrong.
They assumed that there was nothing to investigate, and it wasn’t until the press got involved and started asking questions. And at the same time, the public gets involved. In our case, it took years before the attention of the press and the public came about.
We live in a new era of social media and it was a lot quicker. I’m sort of of the opinion that probably there’s always going to always be some form of evil . . . you want to eliminate that, but the key thing is how do we respond as a society. And that’s what’s resonated about “Deadline” and about Trayvon Martin, is here was a story back in the 1970s where a young black kid died for being in the wrong place and officials didn’t care.
Do you think that it’s harder or easier for the media to give certain cases enough coverage in order to make an impact?
I think it’s harder. There’s no question that the financial pressures of recent years have taken a toll on the ability of some newsrooms to do this kind of story, but ironically this is the very kind of story that will keep newspapers in business.
The perfect newspaper story is a story that gets readers talking to non-readers, that makes people say “Did you see The Washington Post or The Root today?” and if the answer is no, then the [response] has to be “Well, you better go check it out!” It’s that classic word-of-mouth advertising, and what better story — not just for the social justice aspects, but for pure reader interest — is a story where you’ve broken an exclusive.
If the press is not there and if the press is not vigilant, wrongs go unrighted. Justice is denied — uninvestigated, unsolved, unpunished — until the press gets involved — that’s an important message for me. I think the other important message is this is a collection of individuals all trying to do the right thing.
It doesn’t start with the reporters. It actually starts with the community in this little town — the people who see this killing as an open wound. And it goes from there to sympathetic individuals with connections to power. And then it goes from there to the press, but in each case it’s an individual trying to do the right thing, and that’s not a bad message either.
“Deadline” will premiere in Washington on Sunday at a screening sponsored by and benefiting the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press at Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14. The screening begins at 7 p.m., with a question-and-answer session with the actors to follow. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at deadlinefilm.com/washingtondc.
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