MLK Celebration: Film on Clinton 12 still touches director

Kingston native Keith McDaniel always knew something big related to the civil rights movement happened just up the road in Clinton, but he was never sure just what.

Then Clinton city manager Steve Jones called and asked the documentary filmmaker to produce a film about the integration of Clinton High School in 1956.

McDaniel came to Maryville last week as the guest of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration Committee to help introduce and celebrate his movie, “The Clinton 12.”

McDaniel had made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker and head of Secret City Films when he produced a documentary that told the story of Oak Ridge’s role in the Manhattan Project during World War II.

“I knew something had happened in Clinton, but never had any details,” McDaniel said. It wasn’t until Jones called in November of 2005 and asked McDaniel to do a documentary on the integration of Clinton High School in 1956 that those details came into focus.

On Jan. 16, he was on hand for the showing of his film, “The Clinton 12,” for a crowd gathered at The Palace Theater.

“Eleven of the 12 student were living,” McDaniel said. “One died at age 26 from a brain tumor. I was able to hear their stories but also was able to speak with townspeople and those involved who committed to the integration process,” he said.

A question many asked McDaniel was how he got legendary actor James Earl Jones to narrate the film. McDaniel told he audience that he normally takes 18 months to do a 90-minute documentary. When Jones called him in November of 2005, he wanted it in eight and a half months.

After getting advice from friend and Maryville actor David Dwyer, McDaniel said he realized he needed a person of stature to narrate the film. “I wanted an African-American in his 50s, 60s or 70s who was nationally recognized,” he said. “This was an important story, not just an African-American story, an important American story.”

McDaniel had the script finished in April of 2006 and began contacting agents in New York and Los Angeles looking for the right person to narrate the film. The spring became the summer, and he still didn’t have a narrator.

“Six weeks to the premier, and I didn’t have a narrator. So I thought, who would be my dream voice for this? Obviously James Earl Jones, the voice of God,” he said as the audience laughed.

He made contact with Jones’ agent and sent the script overnight.

“The next morning I got an email from Mr. Jones. He loved the script,” McDaniel said.

The director said Jones agreed to the deal but wanted twice what he was initially offered and wanted to record in New York City the next week. McDaniel laughed when he talked about calling his wife with the news and how she told their children.

“She said, ‘Guess who’s going to narrate Daddy’s movie - Darth Vader,” he said.

McDaniel said the film tells a wonderful story. “I feel honored to be able to tell this story. Not many had heard of the Clinton 12 until the last couple of years,” he said.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration Planning Committee members Adriel McCord and Christi Fightmaster were on hand for the film and were pleased with the good turnout.

“We felt a lot of people hadn’t heard the story,” McCord said.

Fightmaster said she enjoyed seeing so many people turn out for such a significant documentary. “It’s a story we could all be proud of and draw inspiration for the 12 individuals. I’m glad folks came out,” she said.

McDaniel said he’s seen the film many times since it premiered yet the message remains powerful. “I stood in the back tonight, and there were tears that welled up in my eyes,” he said. “I’m proud of that.”

McDaniel said doing this documentary reinforced his attitude that history isn’t just about what happened and when. “It’s been a great thing for me as a filmmaker,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel was also on hand for the MLK Celebration March from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center to Alcoa High School on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day to answer questions.

“Lots of people braved the weather (for the parade),” said Fightmaster. “It would have been easy for people to stay in their offices or stay home.”

Fightmaster said the large crowd appeared to be one of the biggest groups to attend the event in recent years. They took up two sections of gym and many asked questions of the director.

“I was real impressed with the overall dialogue. We had a lot of people participate,” she said.

Fightmaster said Clinton 12 member Anna Theresser Caswell attended and appeared shocked when the crowd gave her a standing ovation. “The look on her face showed, I think, that it was completely unexpected,” Fightmaster said.

After the event people lined up for her to sign their programs. “That was pretty remarkable,” Fightmaster said.

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