Elizabeth Spencer documentary debuts on UNC-TV

by Mark Burger

The award-winning documentary, Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story, will make its broadcast premiere 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25, on UNC-TV.

The film, which won Best Mississippi Documentary at the 2014 Oxford Film Festival and Best Documentary at the 2014 Magnolia Film Festival, was also screened at the 2014 RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem this past April with Spencer herself in attendance.

Landscapes of the Heart takes its title from Spencer’s 1998 memoir. Her first novel, Fire in the Morning, was published 50 years before, in 1948. Her 1956 novel The Voice at the Back Door, a powerful indictment of racism in America, was seemingly a shoo-in for the Pulitzer Prize, but that year none was awarded in her category “” a still-mystifying controversy addressed in the documentary.

Spencer’s best-known work is her 1960 novella, The Light in the Piazza, which was adapted into a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton, then later into a 2005 Broadway musical that earned 11 Tony nominations and won six, including Best Original Score and Leading Actress in a Musical (Victoria Clark).

Earlier this year, Spencer’s latest collection of short stories, Starting Over, was published to great acclaim. At age 93, she shows no signs of slowing down.

For director/producer/editor Rebecca Cerese, whose documentary February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four won the Human Rights Award at the 2004 River- Run Festival, Landscapes of the Heart was a project she joined in mid-stream. The original director/editor had departed the production, and Cerese lauds producer Sharon Swanson for her drive and tenacity to keep the film’s momentum going.

“Sharon and I collaborated on coming up with a direction and narrative arc for the film that we felt captured Elizabeth not just as a writer, but as a person,” Cerese said.

Cerese is grateful to have made Landscapes of the Heart because it exposed her to Spencer’s work, then to Spencer herself.

“The film really appealed to me because, like the February One story, Elizabeth is a lost treasure “” someone who made an impact on history but has not really been discussed or read at length “” although I think she deserves to be, especially for Voice at the Back Door, which is a great novel.”

But, Cerese notes, “it wasn’t until I met the woman herself that I really knew I wanted to work on this story. She is ‘Southern genteel’ on the outside, but smart as a whip and has all of these thoughts and ideas pouring out of her that, especially back in the day, were really challenging the status quo on issues of race and gender. And, she is ridiculously charming! I was hooked and knew I wanted to help Sharon finish the film.”

“Elizabeth is responsible for some of the most important work of that era to come from a woman author of the South,” said producer Swanson in an official statement. “Her story is filled with vivid memories and personal reflections about race, class, and the changing roles of women in society during a defining period in American history.”

“It took many years to finish,” Cerese explains. “We had a change of team and time-outs to raise money (for completion funding), but it was our ‘little film that could.’ We premiered it at UNC-Chapel Hill with 300 of Elizabeth’s closest friends, and it was really moving. She got a standing ovation, and then she got up and charmed the pants off everyone!” Born in Mississippi in 1921, Spencer’s writing was compared to fellow Southerners William Faulkner and Eudora Welty (who became a life-long friend). She wrote with passion and compassion about injustice and hypocrisy, the places she knew and the people she knew. Her works enlightened and inspired her readers, but also alienated her from family and friends.

The documentary, which Spencer narrates in her own words and through her writings, features a star-studded literary cast, including Craig Lucas and Adam Guettal (who adapted The Light in the Piazza for the stage), Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Blackmon, Randall Kenan, Lee Smith, Hodding Carter, Allan Gurganus and others “” all of whom express their respect and affection for Spencer and her work.

After nearly 50 years of living abroad in Rome and Montreal, Spencer would return home to Mississippi and later relocate to Chapel Hill, where she taught at the University of North Carolina. Her countless awards and accolades include a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, the William Faulkner Medal for Literary Excellence, the Thomas Wolfe Award for Literature, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship, and five O. Henry Awards for short fiction. In 2002 she was inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame. !