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Voices of Uganda & Hollywood, Part One

As anyone knows who has ever sung along to Pride (In the Name of Love) by U2, today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (“… Early morning, April 4, shots ring out in the Memphis sky … .”)

In remembrance of this man of peace, for the next two days we will honor another peacemaker by reprinting excerpts from an interview my wife Kimi and I conducted with actress Melissa Fitzgerald.  (This article was first published a couple of years ago in African Vibes Magazine.)

Melissa would never call herself a celebrity, but seven seasons playing Carol Fitzpatrick on the popular and critically acclaimed television series The West Wing made her one. But rather than simply trying to keep her face in the tabloids, Melissa uses her fame to help bring about peace in an overlooked area of the Third World.

After The West Wing ended its run in 2006, she journeyed to Africa and spent several weeks working in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in northern Uganda. Over a million refugees have been herded into these camps due to one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts – a 25-year struggle between government forces and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is led by religious leader Joseph Kony. Melissa later chronicled the plight of these refugees in a film called Voices of Uganda.

We spent part of a beautiful Santa Monica morning with Melissa discussing the problems of far-off Uganda over iced teas and Arnold Palmers. It’s hard to imagine a friendlier or more approachable person, or a more dedicated advocate for the Ugandans – a  people who pronounce her name “Militia,” a term with which they are sadly familiar.

DD: How did you first get involved with helping Africans?
MF: I was a volunteer with an AIDS organization a few years ago in South Africa and had been very moved by that experience. I think the thing that got me to want to do that was that I had just gone through a very painful divorce, and a friend suggested that I write down three things every night that I was grateful for; three simple things, like: I have a car, I have gas in my car, I have running water. And that exercise was really great for me in terms of having gratitude for what I did have, rather than for what I was losing. And I thought that I wanted to go where those simple things that we take for granted are not a given.

DD: Why did you choose Uganda?
MF: Uganda really spoke to me because of the situation there. At that time they were in the middle of a 20-year struggle in northern Uganda which was especially hard on children. As a matter of fact, the rebel army there is made up of between 80 and 90% abducted children, and this conflict has the highest rate of atrocities against children. And since I had worked with teenagers here in Los Angeles, this situation just spoke to me.

DD: When did you first go there?
MF: 2006. I was there for almost a month, mostly in northern Uganda. Then I went for a short time to a camp in the southwestern part of the country and worked on a sexual- and gender-based violence prevention program for the refugees there, who are mostly from the Congo.

DD: In 2007 you went back to Uganda to film “Voices of Uganda.” How did that come about?
MF: I think the situation in northern Uganda has been allowed to continue because of lack of knowledge in the West. Since it’s not an international conflict, and not in the news, it has been a forgotten war.

When I came back to America, I felt it would be great to go back over with a real camera crew, and not with just my own video camera that I had bought for a trip to Italy (laughter). So, I talked to a bunch of my friends who are actors and filmmakers, and we agreed that if we were to go back and do this, we wanted it to be used. We wanted to inform people about the situation there and to use the film to end the war.

DD: Was the situation in the camps better or worse than you imagined?
MF: Over a million people live in these camps, and over 1000 die every week. In the beginning, these camps were set up by the government to protect the people, but no one ever imagined that the war would be going on this long. They are overcrowded, unsanitary places that have themselves become a danger to these people’s lives.

Yet, in the face of these inhuman conditions, I also couldn’t imagine finding such hope, kindness, and generosity. It made me want to really do more on behalf of the people there.

(The article continues tomorrow.)

The Debut of “G-Dub-T-Dub”

While the opening months of World War II raged in Europe, in America it was the War Between the States that had everyone talking. On this date in 1939, Gone With the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, which young Jimmy Carter later remembered as the “biggest event to happen in the South in [my] lifetime.”

The celebrations surrounding the premiere of the film stretched over three days and were attended by most of the film’s stars, including Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, who were treated by Atlanta’s celebrity-starved hordes as visiting royalty. The celebration included motorcades, elegant balls, and trips around the city. Normal life in Atlanta shut down as Governor E.D. Rivers declared a three-day holiday, asking Atlanta’s citizens to dress in costumes from the antebellum era.

Since GWTW takes place in the Civil War, it was only fitting that the stars met with some of the last surviving Confederate Civil War veterans and took a tour of the Cyclorama – the 360-degree depiction of the Battle of Atlanta. Clark Gable joked with the museum curators that the battle scene needed a soldier who looked like Rhett Butler. When I was at the Cyclorama earlier this year during a visit to Atlanta, the tour guide made sure to point out the Clark Gable mannequin that was added after his comment.

Friday, December 15 was the night of the premiere at Atlanta’s majestic Loew’s Grand Theatre, whose marquee was remodeled for the occasion to look like the Tara plantation. 300,000 people lined the freezing streets to cheer the film’s stars, as well as local celebrity Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the book the film was based on.

The celebration had everything you would expect from a party in the Deep South. Everything, that is, but African-Americans. No blacks were allowed to attend the events, including the film’s stars Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen who were barred from the premiere at the all-white theater. Clark Gable hated the way his co-stars were treated and threatened to boycott the event, but was talked in to attending by his friend McDaniel. (Incidentally, a young Martin Luther King Jr. did make it to the ball, but not as a guest. He was a member of the “negro boys choir” that performed for the all-white attendees.)

There was an earlier premiere of the film, though not an official one. On September 9, producer David Selznick and three others dropped in on the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California with the unfinished reels of the film and asked the theater’s manager if he would host an impromptu test screening. He agreed, and after the scheduled evening’s program concluded, the audience was invited to stay for the screening, but no one was told what they were about to see. When the crowd saw the title for the film and realized they were getting a sneak peek at the much-anticipated Gone With the Wind, the roar was described as “thunderous.” Selznick would later describe the response as the “greatest moment of his life.”

The Loew’s Theatre was razed many years ago and its former site is now occupied by the Georgia-Pacific headquarters building. After a major renovation, the Fox Theatre reopened this year as a performance hall.

Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year for the role of “Mammy,” becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. After she died in 1952 from breast cancer at the age of 57, she suffered a final indignity because of her race when she was denied her last request to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which didn’t accept blacks. In 1999, after Tyler Cassity purchased the grounds, now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, he offered to have McDaniel’s body reburied at the cemetery, but her family chose not to disturb her remains. Instead, the cemetery erected a marker next to the lake to honor Ms. McDaniel, and to right an old wrong.

Hattie McDaniel's cenotaph at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.