And a little child shall lead them: Rusty Cundieff’s new feature film, “White Water”

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By: Vernon Nickerson

Perhaps the most powerful thing about Director Rusty Cundieff’s film, “White Water” is its ability to tell a based-upon-real-events story of the segregated community of Opelika, Alabama in 1963 to a new generation of children and their parents. The screen play, written by the team of Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein, is an adaptation of the childrens’ book of the same name (and authors) and tells the story of a 7 year old boy’s obsession with finding out what the water from one of the town’s “whites only” public fountains really tastes like. Events actually experienced by co-writer Michael S. Bandy form the basis of the story which is told from 7 year-old Michael’s perspective.

Young Michael is played by twins Amir and Amari O’Neill. The twins are solidly supported with performances from a stellar cast which includes Sharon Neal as Annie, mother  to Michael and her nephew Red, played by Zhane Hall.  A mature Larenz Tate plays Terrance, Michaels ne’er-do-well father.  Michaels’ immediate circle of family and friends is rounded out by veteran actor Barry Shabaka Henley as the well meaning Rev. Stokes, Leon Lamar as Michaels’ Grandpa, Storm Reid as Cassandra and Brody Rose as Tommy. Michael and Red launch ever more screwball plans to sneak away from Annie and the rest of the adults to finally taste that White Water.

Because I am from that generation who grew up making annual pilgrimages to my mother’s home in Bessemer, Alabama and my father’s home in Hartselle, Alabama. I totally empathized with Annie’s making Michael go and get the switch that she would use to punish him for his transgressions.  I smile at the memory of one particular cousin who would always get whipped twice because he brought back the tiniest switch he could find on the first try and had to go back and get a “better sized” switch.  Writers Bandy and Stein deftly and skilfully combine church music (a particularly mournful “Come to Jesus”), the switch and a comically morphing picture of the face of Jesus to lighten the mood of the film.  By the time of a potentially life changing climax, the audience genuinely cares for Michael and his friends.

In fact (hint to writers) I think audiences would be very interested in a sequel just to find out how Michael transitions into adulthood.  How will his children make history and be impacted by history?  Perhaps any sequel can give the cast more acting work to do and get rid of the narrator.  I would like to thank Miss Shelby Mumford, the teenage daughter of one of my good friends who watched the film with me, for inspiring me (to offer this hint) with her comment that the narration took her back in time to “Everybody Hates Chris” when she would have preferred NOT to have gone back in time in that way.

One of my favorite graduate school professors would always write “Excellent Beginning!” on all of our Systematic Theology papers in the hope that we would continue to document how we put our ideas into practice, in order to pay-it-forward.  One can only hope Michael Bandy, Eric Stein and Rusty Cundieff are similarly inclined. As it is, White Water is a perfect entertainment work that can be a catalyst for parents, their children and communities to have much needed conversations about race in America today.

White Water
Director: Rusty Cundieff