True Stories: Memphis as Seen Through Documentary Films

Craig Leake of The University of Memphis has been making documentaries since the 1960's. Photo by Linda Leake

This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Part 2 can be read here.

In Fall, 1988 Memphians got excited when Great Balls of Fire, a big budget bio-pic on Jerry Lee Lewis started filming in Memphis. Just few months earlier (but released later),  Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train was a love letter to the corner of GE Patterson and Main. They were not the first films shot in the Bluff City, but still something was different from earlier productions. Hollywood discovered the area for the classic Hallelujah  released in 1928. Decades later, the very forgettable Making the Grade was released in 1984 along with bits and pieces of other films. But in the late 1980’s Memphians were speculating now Hollywood was discovering the area and its look that was like no other.

Over the next twenty years or so Memphis and movies seemed unstoppable. Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman were in Memphis for The Firm and it was followed by many in the movie business who made Memphis home to many movies. By the Arcade Restaurant it was not uncommon to see trailers, lights, cameras. Was the area becoming Dixiewood? Tinsel-Tenn?  In Memphis in the 1990s and early 2000’s if you saw someone who looked like Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Reese Witherspoon or Francis Ford Copola there was a good chance you were NOT just seeing a celebrity look alike.

But in the last five years films began bypassing the state as other locations offered better benefits. The Blind Side was set in Memphis but filmed in Atlanta. Even Memphis Beat, a TV series, was shot in New Orleans.

But with much less fanfare, the Memphis area has become home to documentaries and the people that make them. One could say the modern documentary era in Greater Memphis began with a tragedy just across the river at the dead end of West McCauley Drive in West Memphis, Arkansas in May, 1993.


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Three boys were found murdered in a creek. After about a month three teenagers were arrested. But to some, something did not seem right. Almost exactly three years after their arrests, Paradise Lost was released, directed produced and edited by Joe Berlinger  and Bruce Sinofsky. Two sequels followed, creating one of the most talked about documentary series of recent times. In 2011,  fifteen years after the first film was released, so were the “West Memphis Three” and the highly viewed documentary very well may have been what kept them from spending more time in prison.

Memphis and documentaries made headlines again during the Academy Awards ceremony this year when Undefeated was awarded Best Documentary.  The story followed the Manasass High football team living in the one of the tougher neighborhoods in Memphis. It certainly was not the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau of the city, but the themes of hopes, dreams and passions are on display from a part of town many locals try to avoid. When we see the students planning for college and even in tears of joy celebrating the end of the season, it is enough to make the viewer think the city-and for that matter the world- is not totally hopeless.

Some of those who make documentaries are from here and or live here. Here are a few voices of those who communicate through documenting real life:

Craig Leake was doing documentaries in Memphis before most Memphians were alive. Back in the 1960’s Mori Greiner, station manager of WMC-TV, was giving a class on station management at Memphis State University ( now University of Memphis ).  “I was in the class and he said ‘let’s say you are programing the station and you want to do a documentary. What would you do?” Leake remembers.

He presented Greiner with twelve pages with a description of each idea on each page.

Greiner, a fan of documentaries, hired Leake in 1967 and for the next five years “We averaged one a month. It was me and another student who was part time. We had a one and a half person documentary unit” Leake says. And no, these were not run at midnight Sunday mornings to fill a FCC public service requirement. “They would preempt prime time programing and promote it.”

There was a piece on police brutality. A happier one showed off the park system. There was one on dangerous goods being transported through Memphis on untested rails. “That was one of my favorite titles ever. One of my mentors, Professor David Yellin, suggested it – Time Table for Disaster. And there was 1970’s film When Hair Came to Memphis.

Memphis State University received permission to produce the counterculture play “Hair” and it was the only college in the US at the time who had been given the rights to do so. More interesting is that MSU was not one of your more liberal colleges. Here was a Southern school where less than a decade earlier required women to wear long skirts even to gym class.   The film followed the late Dr Keith Kennedy from the announcement that permission was granted, through auditions, rehearsal and the last day of the performance. The film ended with Kennedy, dressed in his best Sonny Bono attire, reflecting just after the play ended. “For two weeks in March of 1970, a small group of students made love to eight thousand people in a very beautiful way.”  Looking at this film, “conservative” MSU looked more like UC Berkeley, albeit with a slight Southern drawl.

A few technical notes for younger filmmakers should be enough to add respect to what their forbearers went through to film a movie. Leake was using a 16milimeter film Éclair NPR camera with sound recorded on a Nagra 1Ž4 tape machine. “It was a great tool for hand-held, unpredictable kind of filming. It balanced well on the shoulder, and the rolls of film were loaded and threaded into snap-on magazines. We owned only two magazines, because they were expensive.” 16mm was standard TV news film before video tape began taking its place in the mid 1970’s. Readers over age thirty five perhaps best remember it from their classroom film projectors.

“We shot 400-foot rolls, which ran slightly over 10 minutes.” Leake remembers. “But of course unloading and reloading film into the magazines themselves had to be done blind, with one’s hands in a black changing bag, a portable darkroom. I hired a Memphis State Speech & Drama Department student, Ross Gilson, to reload magazines. He got very good at it,” Leake says. “He never ruined a roll, and never lost his cool, even at those times when he could see the footage counter on the camera passing 350 feet while he still had his hands in the black bag.”

In 1972 Leake went to New York to work with NBC TV, again working with the news department. It was a step up and in a big way. “There was something missing. There wasn’t that kind of immediate reaction by doing things here where people got upset. When one of our broadcasts went on the air the switch boards lit up by people saying ‘how can you say things about our city and airing out our dirty laundry!”

Leake returned to the University in August, 2004, now as a teacher.  He has continued with documentaries and this past decade this writer has seen two that are not readily available to the public: The Chemo Ate My Homework and Babyland.

Babyland was a feature ABC news ran in 2008. Photojournalist Richard Copley, also a WMC alum, Linda Vargas, ABC reporter and University of Memphis communications professor Dr. David Appleby worked together the show the high infant mortality rate in the Memphis area. There are areas in Memphis with babies dying at the rate seen in third world nations with a death rate averaging one baby every 43 hours. And they featured those trying to make a difference. Dr Linda Moses grew up in a high risk neighborhood and returns to help out. Dr Sheldon Korones is a Memphis pediatrician who began focusing on infant mortality in the 1960′s. Plus many volunteers are trying to save the lives of the littlest Memphians.   Babyland showed the best and worst of Memphis. They followed it with a sequel, Beyond Babyland, which was a local production.

The Chemo ate my Homework featured one of the city’s most beloved institutions- St Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Constantly one thinks of the doctors, nurses and researchers but this focused on unsung group- teachers.


The patients still have class while being treated for cancer and often the teachers need to head up to the hospital rooms to teach students. No, not all patients die. Saint Jude’s research has won many battles in the war on cancer and today some employees were once patients. But the film shows not all survive either.
In the half hour documentary we feel like we get to know the kids, and when at the end of the film they list the ones who did not survive, it hits hard as you feel a slight relationship with them. One thing teacher Dennis Medford says in the film: “I don’t go to their funerals. I always go to graduations and weddings and I am always glad I did.”


Alan Spearman at the Mississippi River at Memphis. He captured some of its mystique in his film "Nobody."

It is sometimes hard to believe Alan Spearman is not a native Memphian. THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL photojournalist’s still photos come from a person who seems to understand the city, doing some long term projects on things like the human and natural geography of the Mississippi River, Memphis music past and present, Memphis’ influence on the world among others.

The Georgia native began as an advertising major and picked up photojournalism at University of Georgia. After working at newspapers in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon and Florida, he moved to Memphis and The Commercial Appeal in 1997. And as an award-winning still photographer “I had ambitions to work at National Geographic and do photojournalism,” he remembers. That view was modified in 2000 when he went to the Indy Memphis film festival, the first film festival he had attended.

“I was thinking ‘whoa wait a minute.  Why aren’t newspapers doing this?’ So I had this massive epiphany, which was way before newspaper business was starting dabbling in Ipad based content. So being in Memphis I got to be one of the first visual journalists to think about video,” he said.

One of those films he admired was The Poor and Hungry, which was a feature film by Craig Brewer who went on to direct Black Snake Moan, Hustle and Flow and the 2011 version of Footloose.

“Memphis is where the degrees of separation are few so I could go up to Craig Brewer and say ‘hey I like your work.’ We started talking and we became friends and we became collaborators,” he remembers.

The collaboration would come years later, but a unique opportunity for filmmaking floated its way down the Mississippi River in an inflatable kayak patched together with a lot of duct tape shortly after Spearman attended his first film festival.


Jerry Bell was a drifter in the spirit of a hero from Western film. Think of characters like Shane, Ethan Edwards or Grizzly Adams and one could easily see him in their place. He was at home on the river, but had trouble fitting in anywhere else and was ultimately a tragic character. Along with fellow COMMERCIAL APPEAL photojournalist Lance Murphy, the two documented the trials of the man for a few years in Memphis in the film Nobody.


“Most of Nobody was a heavily directed film. It felt like a documentary but that was a decision we made creatively,” Spearman says. It was a far cry from their journalism backgrounds where manipulating a scene is seen as a breach of trust.   “That was a response to get away from journalism and have some creative freedom in storytelling. Is that a documentary or not a documentary? Documentary people will go around about that.”

But not all was directed. The cameras were rolling when Bell received some bad news. The camera kept rolling through his tears. Anyone could have stopped shooting at that point. Anyone could have kept shooting without compassion. But a good photojournalist can keep shooting while still showing compassion and dignity to the subject and that is obvious in the film.

Comparisons were made to director Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Herzog’s film is about a Tim Treadwell, a naturalist in Alaska who was at peace with the bears, while much of the rest of the world thought he had lost his sanity.

Spearman had not heard of Herzog when he was compared to him by COMMERCIAL APPEAL film critic John Beifus but later was picked by the director to attend his first Rouge Film School. Herzog, veteran of feature and documentary films, told Spearman  to “make a film you want to make. As long as you tell stories that relate to the heart of man and that are universal, then it is an interesting piece of work.”

“By scripting sometime you can get to a much deeper truth than just by bearing witness,” Spearman said he learned from Herzog. Another example is a short film “based on real things” he recently created about a girl in a dangerous neighborhood in Memphis who finds refuge by tree. He directed the girl how to narrate her story and what to do. “It is poetry it is writing it is painting it is all of those things. It is not journalism. There is a time and place for all those things and I like to work in both realms.”


One of the newest names in the world of Memphis and documentaries is filmmaker Jasmine “Jaz” Gray. The Memphis Native and Middle Tennessee State University graduate now is living in Los Angeles.

After getting her masters at Syracuse University in New York, Gray, who had ambitions for filmmaking found the documentary was a way to get her into cinema and tell a close, personal story.  “I did this to introduce myself to film and bring a passion in my life that is dear to my heart.” By documenting her story she may also be the witness and chronicler of a scientific breakthrough.

Jasmine "Jaz" Gray is documenting a story close to her

Arteriovenous Malformation is a condition that Gray was born with that slowly began to manifest itself . The rare condition gives an asymmetrical appearance to the face and can be both physically and psychologically damaging to those who affected. But Gray is an achiever and in her film More Than Skin Deep hopes to educate, inspire and chronicle a fellow achiever, Dr. James Suen of Little Rock, Arkansas who is working on a cure for the condition.

“I want to stay with this for two or three years to see where this goes,” Gray said from Los Angeles, California where she is now living and working on her film. An obvious drawback to documentaries is no one knows what happens next.  She says about every two weeks her story changes. When writing a feature film, even based on a true story, the writer decides when to end the movie but where does one stop when putting together an ongoing story?

“For me it was an opportunity to tell a nonfiction, true factually accurate story that would educate people  and make them feel in engaged,” Gray said. Gray has hired cinematographers and is the film’s producer, and as well as one of its featured subjects.  To fund it she went to and received donations to make the movie. One knows that investing in documentaries is not like investing in the latest summer blockbuster, so this site is there for those who wish to fund the arts more than make money. Gray had set a goal of $5,000. She raised $7,160 and she credits Memphians for raising the most money. Gray saw something of Memphis and documentary films in financial support in contributions. But all three filmmakers agree there is something special about Greater Memphis and filmmaking.

The filmmakers discuss their ideas on what makes Memphis and documentaries such a good match, their philosophy on what makes for a compelling true story plus a list of some memorable documentaries next week.

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About Devin Greaney
Publisher, Across Tennessee.

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