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Disability history REVEALS HER STORY as a human rights pioneer.
Everyone knows her name, the legend, the jokes. Helen Keller is often a staple of grade-school women's history projects. But most Americans—even many teachers—are unclear about her real place in history. What was her role? Why is she so often considered one of America’s most remarkable women?
Without historical context Keller's story becomes a folktale about a "wild child". Or she's a by-passed celeb in a funny hat, or a saintly icon. More recently South Park took aim at the cliches with "Helen Keller: The Musical". Not long ago she was name-checked in a dance-floor hip-hop hit!
BECOMING HELEN KELLER, our two-hour documentary film in-progress, takes a truly new approach. We invite you to be part of placing Keller's life within the documented experiences of people with disabilities in her time. When finished, it will be broadcast on the prestigious PBS series AMERICAN MASTERS.
I’m Laurie Block. I've been working on disability history stories for public audiences for nearly 30 years—in radio, in film, with K-12 teachers and on the web as the founder of www.disabilitymuseum.org. I belong to the first generation of women to know their child would be born with a disability. What first drew my interest to Keller was that her life might provide a way to explore disability history and social justice advocacy – because Keller was above all an advocate–before the disability rights movement of our era. What was that earlier period like if you were disabled? If you were a disability advocate? Beginning more than 12 years ago, I began to shape a film with a co-script writer—my husband and fellow parent, John Crowley.
"I HAVE DEPARTED FROM THE TRADITIONS OF MY FOREBEARS, MALE AND FEMALE, IN THE ESPOUSAL OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE. ... I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT ANY SEX, CLASS, OR RACE CAN SAFELY TRUST ITS PROTECTION IN ANY HANDS BUT ITS OWN." Helen Keller
Born in 1880, Keller graduated from Radcliffe/Harvard University in 1904, the same year as Franklin Roosevelt, the other most famous person with a disability in the 20th century. Since the 1990s, disability rights advocates and historians have changed our vision of FDR by making visible how his disability, which had been largely kept private, affected his life and world view. Helen Keller’s disabilities were very public, and much of her fame was due to her supposed “overcoming” them. Yet being deaf-blind was central to her identity, her work, and the daily details of her life.
BECOMING HELEN KELLER will bring her agency forward. It will focus on how she made choices about her education, how she earned a living, what was important to her and why, how advocacy work was done in her time, where she succeeded in her goals, and where she failed.
Like Malala Yousafszai, the Nobel Prize winning young advocate from Pakistan, speaking about the need to educate all women from all cultures, Helen Keller embodied the issues she addressed. Above all she was a messenger, and part of her message was expressed full-frontal with her disability quite visible. She appeared before legislators in more than 25 states, arguing the importance of investing in people with disabilities. She encouraged government leaders to pass laws and appropriate funds for the purpose of improving the lives and independence of people with disabilities. These policies were something entirely new, and the messenger was a woman with disabilities! By the 1930s, Keller was speaking to Congress. After WWII, her audiences included dignitaries and ordinary folk in 37 countries around the globe.
Crowds flocked to her, but she always drew their attention to the needs of others, not to herself. Her advocacy mantra was about education for blind and deaf children and adults, women and the poor, investments in public health and assistive technology, employment for all. And there was more. The evidence in the archives makes clear how Keller’s commitment to social justice led her to the struggle for women's rights, race relations in the American South, labor and free speech issues, the needs of disabled veterans wounded by two World Wars.
We loved discovering Keller’s adventures in Hollywood. She starred in a truly wacky biopic called Deliverance, but it failed at the box office. Then she and Anne Sullivan (best known as Teacher) strategized a method to charm audiences in Vaudeville performances. There were significant personal struggles –and defeats. There's a single brief love affair that failed. Keller was often accused of being manipulated by others, her competence was doubted publicly. Keller had several long friendships, with men and women, and a few of them shared her journey for several decades. We’ve chosen to bring some of these figures to life in the film.
When we put Keller's story into its true historical context, it’s experienced differently. She spoke everywhere for HUMAN rights, but her advocacy makes clear the need for the disability CIVIL rights movement of the late 20th century. Her achievements and public stature defied the period's hostility to people with disabilities and its dominant eugenic ideology. In her arguments for women’s rights, the needs of laboring men and women, and above all people with disabilities, she understood she could bring attention to the issues she cared about just by showing up, by being there, by saying something--and that's what she did for nearly seven decades. She died June 1, 1968.
Innovating to tell a tale: Work In Progress
Representing HELEN KELLER required imagination. We've worked hard to bring Keller's llife to the screen in a fresh way--not only with content and characters likely to be new to you, but also in our film's presentation style. We didn't believe that an actor performing a deaf/blind person from the late 19th century could be credible or respectful. Further, Keller's speaking voice was difficult to understand--only those who knew her intimately could follow her conversation easily. But Keller's voice on the written page is clear. So we asked award-winning actor Cherry Jones to take on the task of reading Keller's written words to camera. Her marvelous performance allows the audience to hear directly what Keller thought and said.
To anchor our story to the present-day Deaf and Deaf-Blind communities, we asked Howie Seago to be our on-camera host-narrator. A renowned actor with deep roots in the National Theater of the Deaf community, Seago will address the audience with interpreted American Sign Language, and also comment as a Deaf individual.
The voices of many characters in Keller's life persist in correspondence, books, and newspaper accounts. We've selected some of them to provide eye witness, in costumes and theatrical setting, speaking their own opinions as the record gives them. Our cast delivers some great performances.
We’ve also asked disability scholars and advocates to provide commentary and interpretation. And finally, across the whole two hours, the work stitches hundreds of rarely-seen photographs and film clips (Helen Keller starring in that 1919 biopic!) documenting not only Keller's story but the context of her life: the experiences of people with disabilities.
WHAT PEOPLE SAID IN FEEDBACK SCREENINGS FOR HOUR ONE:
"This is excellent work!" Beth Haller, Professor of Journalism & New Media, Towson University
“It was so surprising, genuinely refreshing. This work is breaking some boundaries, not only with Keller’s story, but by bringing new life to the genre of the historical documentary!” Anne Marie Stein, Dean, MASS College of Art & Design
“This is important work that you are doing with this story. Keller's adult life gives us a new lens through which to see history. The post-miracle story is full of unexpected engaging encounters for the viewer.” Jean Bergey, Gallaudet University
OUR KICKSTARTER GOALS:
We've gotten this far because we received significant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and American Masters, the award-winning PBS biography series that is committed to broadcast the work when it is completed. Several smaller grants came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mathews & Hayes Charitable Trust, The Gibney Family Foundation, the Massachusetts and Alabama Humanities Councils, and individual donations.
WE set our first KICKSTARTER GOAL at $45,000, enough to complete the first task described in the graph above. We don't believe in counting our chickens before they hatch, but we've indicated what each level of the funds in our completion budget would accomplish.
Your donations will be TAX DEDUCTIBLE for the "net" value of each award level. Straight Ahead Pictures, Inc. is the 501(c)3 company that has sponsored the Disability History Museum @ www.disabilitymuseum.org and this project for many years.
THE PROJECT's TEAM:
LAURIE BLOCK, Producer, Director, Co-Scriptwriter: Questions about who is thought to be “fit” in American society and who is not and why are central to her award-winning documentaries FIT: Episodes in the History of the Body (PBS) and her NPR series Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project. Block directs www.disabilitymuseum.org.
JOHN CROWLEY, Co-Scriptwriter: Crowley’s script credits include The World of Tomorrow (1939 World’s Fair), The Restless Conscience (Academy Award nomination) and The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Square). He’s written a dozen novels, teaches at Yale, is married to Block, and they've worked together on many projects.
MICHAEL PRESSMAN, Director-Drama: Pressman’s credits as writer and/or director include the films Those Lips, Those Eyes, Frankie and Johnny are Married, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, and To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday. His TV work ranges from Blue Bloods, Picket Fences, Law and Order, and Chicago Hope, and includes many Emmy Awards and nominations.
BOYD ESTUS, Director of Cinematograhy: Estus’s recent projects include Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Woody Guthrie: I Ain’t Got No Home (American Masters), Murder at Harvard, and Houdini (American Experience). His work has won Academy and Emmy Award nominations.
CARL SPRAGUE, Art Director, has worked with Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence), Steven Spielberg (Amistad), David Fincher (The Social Network), and Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums (Art Director's Guild Award nomination). His films have 29 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (12 Years a Slave).
PETER NIGRINI, Projections, is a three-time Drama Desk Award winner for production design. His innovative projection system heightened Bill T. Jones Fela!, 9 to 5 – The Musical, An Act of God, Julie Taymore’s Grounded, and Grace Jones’ Hurricane World Tour.
ROB ISSEN, Post Production Editor: Rob’s work has appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS, HBO and in numerous PBS documentaries including Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years, LBJ: The West, James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, and Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time. Awards include two Emmys .
THE REWARDS (some displayed above)
HERE"S WHAT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SAYING ABOUT HOUR ONE
“...Keller was, for me growing up, one of those almost fictional characters, and I think this was in part because I was never taught to think about her life within the context of a larger disabilities rights movement. Hers was instead a story of personal triumph over adversity that did not have any larger historical import. Needless to say, this differed dramatically from the way I was taught about, say, Rosa Parks, who seemed very much a real person in history to me, though she was no less historically remote than Keller. All to say that I was quite edified by what I saw of your film.” Chris Beha, novelist, former editor Harper’s magazine
“The characters were so engaging, I was totally absorbed. I thought I knew this story, but clearly not!” Oce Harrison, New England ADA Center
Risks and challenges
This project is guaranteed to broadcast, and we will continue focusing on what it takes to complete the work when the Kickstarter is over.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (33 days)