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Berkshires-born Alethea Root, left, will direct the independent film 'Mumbet,' based on the life of Elizabeth Freeman, a former slave in Sheffield who sued for her freedom and won. Actress Octavia Spencer, right, will be executive producer for the film.

The saga of Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman, first slave to win her freedom in Massachusetts, being filmed in Sheffield

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By Saturday, Apr 14, 2018 Arts & Entertainment 3

Sheffield — When South Egremont residents Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes penned the story,  “A Free Woman on God’s Earth,” published in 2009, their intent was a juvenile biography aimed at telling the true story of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, the (local) slave who won her freedom. Today, nearly a decade later, the inspiring story of Mumbet, an enslaved African woman who lived in Sheffield during Revolutionary War times, is slated for the big screen. According to a press release from Wunderstar Productions in Los Angeles, Octavia Spencer has signed on as executive producer of the indie feature “Mumbet,” whose title character rose to fame — albeit largely posthumously — in the Berkshires.

Image courtesy janalaiz.com

“Mumbet” is the inspirational true story of a woman who could neither read nor write, but whose simple eloquence poses the question of America’s purpose better than anyone. Mumbet was the first enslaved African-American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts after hearing the words “All men are created free and equal” in the newly ratified state constitution. Owned by Col. John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, Mumbet served 11 patriots as they wrote impassioned letters to King George demanding freedom from the British. Mumbet, who could not help but overhear their conversations, took great interest in the Declaration of Grievances — which became the Sheffield Resolves, or the Sheffield Declaration, the precursor to the Declaration of Independence — a document whose sentiments, and their inherent irony, were not lost on Mumbet. After a particularly brutal incident where Mistress Hannah Ashley intended to strike a servant girl with a hot poker from the hearth, Mumbet put her own arm up to block the blow and was burned to the bone. When she finally healed, she realized she could no longer live enslaved and ultimately sued for her freedom; Mumbet became a free woman Aug. 21, 1781.

The film, one that chronicles Mumbet’s decision to challenge her enslaver in a court of law, will be directed by Alethea Root (“Part Time Fabulous”) of Truth 13 Productions and produced by Kim Waltrip (“Hit & Run”) of Wonderstar Productions. Mumbet’s story resulted in a case that effectively changed the course of history 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and tells the story of struggle, perseverance and the triumph of personal dignity. “This is a woman who risked her life to speak truth to injustice,” said Root. “The power of truth is paramount and the time is ripe for the world to be inspired and moved by Mumbet’s story,” she added.

Miniature portrait of Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman, age 67, oil pastel on ivory by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811.

Root’s own family roots run deep in the Berkshires: She attended the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School and went on to excel at Monument Mountain Regional High School where she was particularly drawn to the theater program. Root took part in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare while a student, and her involvement in the community spanned Railroad Street Youth Project, Shakespeare and Young Company and Barrington Stage Company. She graduated from Bennington College before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a film director. “It’s a really big deal,” said Root of her current project. “The world needs to know Mumbet’s story,” she added. “Her courage — her one act of bravery — changed the course of history not only in Massachusetts, [but also] the country.” Root spoke directly to “the power of one,” citing the importance of individuals who have changed their lives for the better and changed the world for the better as a result. “Mumbet signifies this on every level,” she concluded.

“I’m extremely proud to be a part of helping to tell such an important story. It’s time for everyone to know about Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman,” said Spencer. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is a champion of the project, said of Spencer’s involvement, “What an honor to have such an extraordinary artist join the effort to tell such a significant story.” Spencer received her third Academy Award nomination this year in the Best Supporting Actress category for “The Shape of Water” (2017). She won an Oscar for “The Help” (2011) and was nominated for “Hidden Figures” (2017).

The ‘Mumbet’ team with the film’s champions Smitty Pignatelli and Deval Patrick. Photos taken by Edward Acker at the historic Theodore Sedgwick House in Stockbridge Mass, where Mumbet lived as a free woman. From left, producer Kim Waltrip, Smitty Pignatelli, Executive Producer Jayne Atkinson Gill, Director Producer Alethea Root, Gov. Deval Patrick, Executive Producer Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Co-Producer Jana Laiz.

The script, written by award-winning screenwriter Stephen Glantz (“Wunderkinder”), is based on the book “A Free Woman on God’s Earth” by Laiz and Barnes. Glantz has written more than 10 feature films for major studios. Filming will take place in the area where the story unfolded in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Elizabeth Aspenlieder, “House of Cards” actress Jayne Atkinson, Glantz and Libby Heimark are also executive producing.

“Mumbet” has the support of State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who played a role in extending the state’s tax film incentives. “It’s hard to beat the architectural history and scenery we have here, and having the support of the state enables us to film in the very locations this historic event occurred,” Atkinson said. Casting has yet to be announced.

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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Erik Bruun says:

    This is great news. Congratulations to Alethea, whose participation with the Railroad Street Youth Project was much more than incidental. She was one of the founding young people of the organization, co-directing its original play Suburbia with BSC Julianne Boyd and then taking on other productions in its first year.

    Almost twenty years later Alethea is still breaking new ground, bringing stories to life of people who use their heart, will and intelligence to claim their voice and find dignity against the tide of society.

  2. David says:

    Brava! This important story needs to be known by all. This project will surely help realize this awareness. Very excited for all involved and eagerly await the film’s release!

  3. nancy vale says:

    …And a shout out to Jesse Waldinger, whose short play about Mumbet has had several outings in the Berkshire area, for calling attention to this brave woman’s quest, and for furthering the efforts of the Ellizabeth Freeman Center as well.

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