Index Page | Casting Page | Story Themes | Summary and Setting
SHANTY TOWN is based on an original screenplay Wm. Lee Carter
As we fade in, we see a black man wearily walking toward his ignoble home, from which he has been absent for four long years. Seeing the African-American community in the distance, his pace quickens a step or two. The year is 1891. The music swells as the voice of a black gospel singer is heard. The singer’s voice pulls the man like a magnet.
Home is “shanty town,” on the edge of Cassville, Georgia. Its beauty is found not in structure or form, but in the hearts of the community’s residents. The smell of home-cooked stew, the vigorous sound of impromptu singing, the sing-song give and take of Brother Cleave and his congregation - all give witness to a closely knit village of people whose aggregate life experiences have drawn them together as one large family.
At twilight the shanty town folk gather for a shared meal. Three young boys pull a prank on Miss Kylie, an unofficial leader of the black people. The man, a prodigal son come home, watches from the shadows before emerging and re-entering a world he thought he would never again experience. Quincy Woodrow, falsely accused of murdering a white man four years earlier, has come home.
In the same way that the original Prodigal Son received a mixed welcome, so too does Quincy. His estranged brother, Woody, questions his heretofore unexplained departure from home. Blind grandmother, Mama Drieka, is only happy that her child is alive. Her trembling hands feeling her grandson’s face, she weeps as she says, “Good Lawd, boy. I thought you was dead. Hold me tight and let me know it’s you.”
Clyde Rawlins, cousin-in-law to the deceased white man, views Quincy’s return to Cassville as an excuse to fight for all the wrong reasons. Woody’s wife, Ruby, accepts Quincy home and urges her husband to do the same. After Clyde Rawlins and others “welcome” Quincy home by burning his shack, the black community gathers to determine their collective response to the dominant culture’s bigotry. Most want to retaliate. Woody advocates a peaceful resistance, but after Ruby is assaulted by three townsmen, even she suggests a determined reaction. The tension wrought in the community of friends curiously resembles that of African-Americans of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
Torn by a long-standing disdain for Quincy and the reality of the black people’s limited choices, Woody turns to his employer, Mr. Guillebeau, a former abolitionist and quiet-spoken advocate for civility toward all people, for advice. When Mr. Guillebeau’s wife encourages him to force his will on the local bigots, he quietly assures her, “I’ll get my chance to stand up for what I think is right.”
Even beneath the foreboding threat of punishment by the white activists, the shanty town community maintains its distinctive, colorful gaiety as witnessed by the story telling of eighty year old Uncle Ike, spirited gatherings of the tightly knit community, and unrehearsed singing of local “maestro” Jojo. The audience is immersed in the rich cultural world of music, folklore, and tradition of the Post-Reconstruction ethnic group. We delight in the stories told, clap when the people sing, and lament when tragedy strikes.
Their relationships strained since childhood, Quincy and Woody cannot put personal differences behind them and fight to control one another. Ruby tells Woody she is pregnant with their first child. She worries aloud when she says to Woody, “I’m afraid to bring a child into this here world - it’s so mean.” Woody assures her that the child’s birth “will be the day when we get more love than we ever imagined.”
Held tightly in the grip of bitterness and acrimony, Clyde Rawlins refuses to let go of his personal hatred for the accused murderer and organizes a lynch mob to exercise back woods justice on Quincy. The mob’s emotions deadened by alcohol, the men overwhelm the shanty town inhabitants and take Quincy captive with the intention of hanging him from a tree along the river bank. We flash between the helpless black people and the gun-toting whites as each struggles to overcome fears of those who look and act differently than they do.
Goaded by his elderly grandmother to do something to save his brother, Woody races to find the only white man he trusts, Mr. Guillebeau. With an angle on Quincy as he struggles without success to free himself from the hangman’s noose, we suffer with him as he very nearly passes out from exhaustion. With the dizzy sound of his community friends’ shouts muffled in the background, Quincy is aroused by the familiar voice of Mr. Guillebeau screaming at Clyde Rawlins, pleading with him to follow through with the hanging. In his confusion, Quincy is aghast that even Mr. Guillebeau has joined the lynch mob. But as the camera focuses on the older white man we realize that he has taken the noose from Quincy’s neck and placed it on his own. With venom in his voice Mr. Guillebeau spits out a challenge to “Go ahead and kill this man, but you’ve got to hang me first because I’m just as guilty of murder as he is!” Gutless, Clyde Rawlins backs down and Quincy is set free. In the commotion that follows, Mr. Guillebeau slips away before Quincy can thank him.
The emotional response of those involved in the attempted hanging marks a reversal in roles. Clyde seeks relief from despair from the bottom of a wicked woman’s homemade brew and presumably drowns himself in a drunken stupor. Quincy confronts his own silent bigotry toward white people and turns to Mr. Guillebeau for understanding. In a poignant conversation he asks his unlikely defender, “Why’d you that for me - you’s white!” With the wisdom of one who knows personal tragedy, his brother’s employer encourages Quincy to turn tragedy into triumph. Resolved to reconcile with Woody, Quincy finds his younger brother less than receptive.
With an abrupt change of seasons, Ruby enters early labor. Woody fetches the local midwife, Miss Faye, and Mama Drieka and all brace for a long night as winter’s first storm bears down on them. Despite Miss Faye’s efforts, Ruby and the baby perish. With the sullen, wailing sound of Negro spirituals providing an emotional undercurrent, the shanty town community sends its loveliest resident to heaven long before God is prepared to receive her.
Grieved beyond expression, Woody has an ethereal experience as he trudges home one evening. Somehow Ruby appears to him and assures him of her comfort. She bids Woody to move on with his life. Through the experience Woody realizes that Ruby did give him all her love even as she died trying to deliver their child. He sees that to wallow in misery keeps him from extending to others the grace Ruby’s life had given him. Though it ended tragically, the night of failed childbirth indeed marked the climax of Ruby’s expression of her love to him. When he haltingly tells Quincy and Mama Drieka of his experience, Woody learns that Quincy, too, has had a inexplicable encounter with Ruby. Ruby’s death serves to reconcile the estranged brothers in a way that no other circumstance could have. Normally stoic, Mama Drieka tells her embracing grandsons, “I told myself a long time ago that I’m satisfied that I can’t see, but I’m gonna go back on that right now. I’d give anything if I could see you boys right now.”
At the dawn of a new spring, we join the shanty town community at another shared meal and fade out as Uncle Ike engages in another of his playful antics.