Based on a true story, AN ACT OF TERROR explores the ongoing oppression of the African American community at the hands of the criminal justice system. In the Jim Crow South, Virginia Christian, a 16-year-old African American maid, dreams of a better life for herself. Those dreams are shattered when she is attacked by her white employer setting off a series of tragic events that end in Virginia being tried for murder.
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An Act of Terror
An Act of Terror
AN ACT OF TERROR is a short film based on the true story of Virginia Christian, a 16-year-old African American girl who was accused of murdering the white woman she worked for in Hampton, Virginia in 1912. I encountered Virginia Christian’s story around the same time #sayhername and #findourgirls were trending on social media. Sandra Bland. Tarika Wilson. Korryn Gaines. Name by name my eyes were opened to the violent oppression and silencing of black women in my country. AN ACT OF TERROR is about sacrifice, injustice, and having a voice.
Fearing her testimony before an all white jury would cost Christian her life, her lawyers refused her the opportunity to speak in her defense. Using court documents and newspaper articles, including two jailhouse interviews Christian gave while she waited to learn her fate, my writing partner and I have reconstructed her version of March 18, 1912. When these events are shown through Christian’s eyes, we viscerally experience how easily a racially biased culture can use their institutions to intimidate and disenfranchise an entire community.
Although the story takes place in 1912, it was important for the film to have a somewhat “timeless” quality. We achieved this with a handheld camera that places the audience in Christian’s point of view, simple costuming and production design, and by collapsing the narrative with quick intercuts that create an impressionistic whole that feels like a memory–simultaneously of the present and the past.
The flashes in the film’s final sequence are a call to confront the narrative of racial difference that sanctioned slavery, allowed thousands of African Americans to be lynched, and stubbornly persists in our criminal justice system today. Racial injustice endures because white Americans seem determined to remain blind to its presence in the bedrock of our institutions. Once you encounter a story like Virginia Christian’s, that truth is impossible to ignore.
Telling this story not only gave me the opportunity to work with a predominantly African American cast–including the incredible Olivia Washington and Tony-winning actor Tonya Pinkins–but also a diverse team of filmmakers behind the camera. I was determined to collaborate on the story with an African American woman and feel very fortunate that I was able to work with Rachel Rush on the script. Our team is 50% female, 20% people of color, and 68% of our department heads are women. Together, we created 1912 in the middle of downtown Charlotte, fully dressed completely empty locations, and laughed hysterically when we realized the planes that just wouldn’t clear were for skydiving–they’d be there all day. My crew begged, borrowed, and used up hard-earned favors to make this film. I am so proud to have shared in their work.
History repeats itself because stories like Virginia Christian’s disappear. Through AN ACT OF TERROR, I hope we’re able to more closely examine America’s failure to address its legacy of racial inequality and the centuries of racial terror that legacy has wrought. Until we find the courage to do so, we are bound to the ugly history we have inherited and the lies we’ve told ourselves to live with it.
Ashley Paige Brim
Director/Co-writer, An Act of Terror