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Writer-Director-Producer and Artivist Felicia D. Henderson is the creator of Showtime’s Emmy Award-nominated and three-time NAACP Image Award Best Drama winner, Soul Food, television’s first successful African American one-hour drama.

THE REBEL GIRLS is Felicia's first film. Most recently, she completed showrunning, head writing, and executive producing duties on the Netflix vampire hunter drama, First Kill. She co-created and executive produced The Quad, a one-hour drama set on the campus of a fictional HBCU, co-executive produced Marvel’s The Punisher, and Empire.

She has written and produced high-profile shows such as Gossip Girl and Fringe. The lifelong comic book fan has also written several monthly DC Comics titles, including Teen Titans, Justice Society of America, and Static Shock.

Felicia earned her B.A. and M.F.A at UCLA. She is committed to race, thought, and gender equality and provides arts and education opportunities to teens in underserved communities. She also supports survivors of domestic violence through free writing workshops at shelter support sites in Los Angeles, CA.

Although she owes her warrior spirit and love of candied yams and banana pudding to her mother’s Mississippi roots, Felicia was born and raised in Pasadena, CA.

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Felicia D. Henderson

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The Director & The Film

Director Statement

 

It has always been the youth who are the lifeblood of history-altering change. The young activists at the center of THE REBEL GIRLS are proof of that. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is proof of the same. Through this film, I can tell the story of the fight for freedom through the eyes of those who’ve never had their cinematic due – the children who saved the Civil Rights Movement when national interest was waning.

In the summer of 1963, approximately 200 children, some as young as 10-years-old, were arrested for protesting at the segregated Martin Theater in Americus, GA. The goal was to replicate the success of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, where Civil Rights leaders strategically packed the jails with children to garner national attention for their fight for equality. It worked. Over 1,000 children were jailed, and President Kennedy was forced to take a stand.

On the day of the Martin Theater protest in Americus, more than 15 girls "disappeared." Never charged with any crimes, they sat in a Civil War-era stockade for 45 days without their families being informed of their whereabouts. The goal was to break their spirits, to punish them for fighting for their rights. Their captives did not anticipate their courage, faith, and resolve. Nor did they know that the girls had made a pact. They’d all walk out of that stockade one day, and they’d walk out together.

I’m a television drama writer and have been for twenty years. The same question I have asked myself for my entire television career is the question I asked myself when I sat down to write THE REBEL GIRLS, my first film, which I’d also direct -- What story do I feel I must tell? The second most important question was who would I entrust with bringing the words to life. To this end, and much to the chagrin of the networks and studios that have employed me, I’ve never cared enough about hiring the "biggest names" for a role. But I care greatly about hiring the perfect actor for a role. This means I’ve worked with a lot of up-and-coming actors. Doing so is my sweet spot and my happy place. The third question, which is a little embarrassing, will my age hurt the story's chances of getting attention? In a business that still worships youth, I wasn't sure if helming it would prevent this story from getting traction. Ultimately, the answer was that my heart demanded I make it, and so I did.

I’ve always wanted my first film to honor Black girls' strength, ingenuity, and intellect. However, the right story was taking its time to find its way to me. Then, about three years ago, I came across an article about young girls in the Jim Crow South who were illegally imprisoned for protesting a segregated movie theater and how they survived the brutal treatment of their captors. I searched for and found two survivors of this traumatic experience, Lulu Westbrook and Carol Barner-Seay, gained their trust, and optioned their life rights.

It wasn’t the fact that this was a Civil Rights-era story that attracted me. There have been many films about this historically significant time. This story about young activists was an opportunity to honor and celebrate how Black people have always used creativity, ingenuity, and intellect to survive. I could shine a light on the brilliance of oppressed people from their own point of view. More specifically, I could tell the story of the children who saved the Movement. Given that the history of great men still dominate biographical filmmaking, I became passionate about and obsessed with speaking cinematic truth to power for the youngest warriors.

After deciding to write, direct, and produce a film based on the true story of the girls of Americus, I settled into my main narrative thrust – others may imprison your body, but they can never imprison your mind. Whether enslaved or free, disenfranchised people have survived, and even thrived, through our ability to imagine better days – a future that is more promising than today. This is how these girls survived their illegal imprisonment.

THE REBEL GIRLS is also a story about the resilience of family and the spiritual power of love that connects us in magical ways. Ella Mae Brown will never give up on finding her missing daughters because they are her everything. I created Ella Mae (my mother’s name) because I wanted viewers who aren’t from traditional families to feel seen. I grew up in a household where my seven brothers, sisters, and I had multiple fathers. And like characters Myrna and Bee, we were asked why we had different last names, all the time. It was the seventies, and a mother, father, three kids, and white picket fence still defined a “normal” family. I hope this film reminds us that whatever your family looks like is “normal.”

After defining my narrative goals, I chose visual themes and a color palette that supported my story. For example, when the girls fantasized about what they’d do when they gained their freedom, the fantasy worlds they created were vibrant with saturated colors. The primary color in each fantasy is pink to remind us that the imprisoned were children – 10-16-year-old girls who were taken from their families and treated as if they were less than human. Those scenes were shot with a rich, filmic sensibility. However, when we are with the girls in the “prison camp,” the primary color is a muted, lifeless green, visually flat, and dark. All but one such scene takes place at night to remind us that the girls had to constantly struggle to find light and hope.

Additionally, a gentle handheld aesthetic is used in the prison camp scenes – another nod to the instability in this world. When we’re in the world of fantasy, dolly/dolly tracks are used for smooth moves that don’t distract from the shot/story, and simultaneously bring us inside the girls' minds. I also insisted that no 1960s “period wigs” be used. I have always felt that such wigs bring too much attention to themselves, and automatically tell the audience that they are looking back into history, at the experience of others. With this film, my goal was to place the audience in the experience. I don’t want them to be voyeurs. I want viewers to feel as if they are with the girls, in 1963, feeling what the girls feel right at this moment.

To further ground this period drama in authenticity, according to my casting director, I spent an inordinate amount of time casting the film. With the exception of Gussie Lee, who believes she will be a huge R&B star in the future, I wanted every actress to look like an ordinary girl, and I wanted the six main characters to be every hue of Black – from the very fair to the very dark-skinned black girl – girls who don’t regularly get the extreme close up.

Gussie Lee is supposed to have a Lena Horne kind of appeal, and we found an actress who exudes it! The rest of the girls, however, remind us that ordinary people accomplish extraordinary feats. THE REBEL GIRLS came of age during a time in history that needed their courage to secure the future of their people. And they answered the call. But I didn’t make this film simply to explore the world from a historical perspective.

THE REBEL GIRLS is for my teenage nieces and other girls, who aren’t necessarily Black, who need to see strong, Black girls on screen to know that they are also strong. I am also interrogating issues of class within the Black community with this film, to demonstrate that we are not a monolithic people. Every girl in this film is part of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (whether she intended to be or not), but each is a unique three-dimensional character. They come from various socioeconomic backgrounds and have dreams that are specific to each of them.

From a storytelling and production value point of view, I knew I wanted an impressive opening sequence – the bigger the opening, the bigger the surprise when you discover what the film is actually about. The line producer must have asked me a million times if I was sure I wanted to spend twenty-five percent of the budget on the first three minutes of a 20-minute film. And a million times, I responded: “I actually want to spend fifty percent of the budget on the opening, but I know that’s not smart.” I wrote the glitzy opening because I wanted to start inside the head and fantasy of one of the captives – the place the girls went whenever their ordeal threatened to break them. From the opening, we go directly into the “prison camp,” to immediately juxtapose the brilliant and imaginative worlds the girls concoct in their heads; with the stark reality of the world in which they were being held. Creating that contrast was among my chief narrative goals.

Personally, my goal is two-fold. First and foremost, I want to be worthy of the trust that survivors Ms. Westbrook and Ms. Barner-Seay, bestowed on me when they said yes. With the sixty-year-old trauma sometimes bubbling to the surface, the women were very courageous when sharing their stories with me. Also, I want to do right by the spirits of the Rebel Girls who have passed on. I truly feel they have been with me on this project, surrounding me with love and support. Secondly, I want to be worthy of the extreme support of my five investors – individuals who said yes they believe in me and they believe in the story. It has been a more nerve-racking process because of their unwavering support, but I couldn’t have told this story without them.

Every day that something didn’t go as planned, when I learned and had to accept that what I thought was a healthy budget wasn’t going to stretch any further, when a shot I’d planned and prepared for a month simply wasn’t nearly as cool as I thought it would be, I experienced anxiety levels I didn’t even know were possible. I feel a great deal of responsibility to make sure my investors know they were right to believe in me. I probably haven’t slept more than three or four hours from the day I decided I could write and direct this film in early June.

I’m very grateful that I can say I’m proud of this film. My investors didn’t waste their money. And I believe I did right by the young warriors who became a family and bravely fought for equality.

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