“Freedom. It’s so close, isn’t it? I can feel it.
We shall have it.”
Those 14 words provide the focus for a live-animated documentary about the family of Daniel and Mary Bell, enslaved in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., in the 19th century.
The nearly 90-minute film, “The Bell Affair,” premiered Thursday, June 1 at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, Maryland.
Screenings will be shown nationwide this year including virtually in the fall through the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System.
“What our project does is it expands the dialogue . . . and gives us other histories to talk about,” director Kwakiutl Dreher said Thursday before the film screening. “We’re dealing with details. We’re showing how enslaved people talked to each other, lived with each other.”
The Bells’ family history comes from one of several stories featured in a book written by William G. Thomas III, “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War.”
Various Prince George’s agencies and groups have committed to using the book as part of a multi-year project to produce programs and host virtual and in-person discussions and other events about families who lived in the county and fought for freedom through Maryland and federal courts starting in the late 1700s.
Joe’s Movement Emporium, a cultural arts center in Mount Rainier, plans to showcase a play based on the book through a “Freedom Stories” project led by award-winning playwright Psalmayene 24, née Gregory Morrison.
As for the Bell family film, April Green said it’s “overwhelming” to see her family’s history showcased for the nation to see. Green counts as a descendant of Daniel Bell, born in 1802 and died in 1877.
Green said Bell organized the largest attempted slave escape in history with 77 people, including four of Bell’s children, on a schooner called “The Pearl.” Unfortunately, they would be captured with most of them eventually sold to slave owners in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
“Which is where we live now. Same land. Our church is there. I was baptized there,” she said. “I have goosebumps. This is where my family lived. It’s unbelievable.”
Last week’s visit also served as a homecoming for Myeisha Essex, an actress and a 2013 graduate from Howard University in Northwest who portrayed Mary Bell in the film.
“This is a unique project for me because it was all virtually. I was setting up the camera, pressing play, recording and having to upload,” said Essex, who currently resides in Lincoln, Nebraska. “This is crazy this opportunity happened and even crazier [the film] will premier here. It’s amazing.”
A future goal will be to showcase similar but shorter films, 10 to 12 minutes in length, and incorporate them into the county’s public schools. One short film in production through Animating History Films, “The Diary of Michael Shiner,” could be completed next summer.
“We want to do a series of these shorter films focusing on an individual or a family,” said Thomas, who’s also a history professor at the University of Nebraska.
“They are meant to be used in classrooms with supporting documents online that will allow teachers to go deeper. It can be teachable for all ages and the live-action animation helps. We need to do better in teaching history,” he said.