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Catching Up With Williams Cole

Mon, 11/13/2023 - 16:22
Williams Cole, right, has paired up again with his brother, Rossa Cole, left, on a new documentary based on the life of their great-grandmother.

Williams Cole, whose previous films, like "Rebel Rossa" and "Barney's Wall" (which he co-directed with Sandy Gotham Meehan), were well received, has some new projects available to view, or in the pipeline for later release.

"Gumbo Coalition," on which the East Hampton native was a producer from 2018 to 2022, is now streaming on Max. Directed by Barbara Kopple, the documentary follows Marc Morial of the National Urban League and Janet Murguia of UnidosUS and their work during the Trump administration to protect civil rights and end systemic racism. 

"This is an important film for our times," Mr. Cole said. The murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the administration's anti-immigration policies, and criminal justice reform are some of the topics it covers. The subjects' private lives are also examined. 

After working with Ms. Kopple from around 2006 to 2010 on an HBO film about guns in America, he said it was great to reunite on this project, which "began as a somewhat modest portrait of Mr. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans and president of the National Urban League." It then became about his relationship with Ms. Murguia.

"Then, of course, Covid highlighted the systemic inequalities that Black and Latino communities face, and Marc and Janet worked together for resources and myriad issues affecting both their communities and all underserved Americans." George Floyd's death soon followed.

"The issues Marc and Janet care about -- that all Americans should care about -- were in the forefront, emotional, powerful, and roiling, as we went through a nail-biting election and then the inevitable spasm of violence fueled by disinformation and white supremacy that was January 6th." He said he found their work inspirational. He worked producing the archival material used in the film. The title refers to a coming together of members of the Black, Hispanic, Asian, and white communities of New Orleans under Mr. Morial's leadership as mayor from 1994 to 2002.

On the heels of "Rebel Rossa," a documentary about the director's great-grandfather Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, a rebel who contributed to the Easter Rising in Ireland, is "Rebel Wife," a new film relating a previously unknown story about Mr. Cole's great-grandmother Mary Jane O'Donovan Rossa, who was also an Irish revolutionary. 

When he finished the earlier film in 2017, he immediately began working on the next one. "It's taken a while and was more of a challenge than I anticipated," he admitted. There were other obligations (see above) and funding challenges, "but mostly because I had to really dig for material." 

He couldn't draw on the reams of archival material that came with his great-grandfather, who was rather well known. There were no "big historical events being re-enacted to film, and less general knowledge. Of course, this was because she was a woman in the 19th and early 20th century."

But she was known through her travels in America after the Civil War, when she would talk about the need for a free Ireland and read poetry of her own and others. Yet, "in her own very determined and calculated way, she was as important to Irish freedom as her chaotic and somewhat unstable husband," Mr. Cole said, adding, "I guess it takes either an academic historian or a determined descendant to bring such a story to life."

He looks forward to taking the new film to the IndieCork Film Festival in Cork, Ireland, in December. Another Irish festival will screen it next year. Its GoFundMe effort is just shy of its $12,500 goal, and Mr. Cole is finalizing the credits at the end of this month, for anyone who might want to help out and be acknowledged. He said it would be much appreciated. "The journey of Mary Jane has finally begun in our modern world."

Mr. Cole has completed an artificial intelligence certificate at Cornell University, and is assessing how "generative A.I. tools will soon be able to create from scratch realistic-looking 'archival' clips" that could rewrite history. He is working on an academic article he hopes to publish soon. The issue of information manipulation is "increasingly complex and dire," he said.

"I think everyone should learn about it, as it will be entering our lives even more than it already has. A lot more," he said. "People have to start discussing how it has to be in the interest of humankind, rather than used solely for commercial, military, and other purposes. It could be an existential era in many ways, and there are tens of billions of dollars being invested in it."

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