This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
Some scenes of The Example are so tense that it seems like everyone in the theater is holding their breath. When the film ends and the lights come on, there’s barely an empty seat inside the theater at the Alamo Drafthouse in Katy.
The short film is a collaboration between Houston filmmaker Wyatt Cagle, Cleveland, Texas screenwriter Gordon Williams, and Houston producer Kenneth Dupuis. It’s based on a historical event in 1943 where a couple of black men were accused of raping white women. That led to an angry mob of white dock workers — reportedly in the thousands — burning the city’s predominantly black neighborhood to the ground on a hot June night. As a result, the city was put under martial law for about three days, though some reports say it was five.
The story line of the movie is a hypothetical setting of a black couple and their young son, who are trying to flee the riots. On a quiet country road after dark, they have an encounter with a couple of white policemen that nearly ends in tragedy. The two main characters, a white cop and a black business owner, are both fathers. During certain points in the movie, they’re confronted with difficult decisions that challenge their morals and manhood.
Cagle says the inspiration for the film came when Williams discovered a blurb in a book about the event, but with little information given. Both being from the area, their curiosity was piqued. “It was amazing that we had never heard of the story before,” Cagle says. “So we started researching it.”
It turns out the facts were a little murky. There were fact discrepancies between the “white” and the “black” newspapers as to how many people were hurt or killed.
Gordon Williams did as much research as he could before he started writing the script. I met up with him on an overcast March morning for a walking tour of where it all took place.
We started at the banks of the Neches River by the current City Hall, close to the spot where the mob departed and stormed up Forsythe Street. On that street alone, Williams says, more than 100 businesses and homes were burnt. Two white men and one black man were killed and hundreds more were reportedly injured.
Many of the buildings downtown are historic, dating back to the early 20th century when Beaumont was an oil boomtown. At one point, Williams stops and points to an elegant brick building that looks like a former church, where the riot eventually ended.
What may surprise some is that the city’s Chamber of Commerce supports Williams and Cagle, seeing it as a way to educate the community as to where the city has been, versus where they are now.
Williams says it’s still a sensitive topic for those who’ve been around long enough to remember it.
“There are some people that are willing to talk about it and there are others that don’t want to discuss it all,” he says. “We’ve had questions from people, both black and white, that have asked, ‘Why are you all doing this story? Why are you bringing this up?’”
Cagle and Williams developed the idea for The Example well over a decade ago, long before the subject of race and police relations became such a hot topic. The riots in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri over the past couple of years are still fresh in the memories of many.
“That kind of makes me take pause of like, ‘Have we learned our lesson? Have we grown past this?’” Cagle says, adding that he hopes the film will provoke people to ask those same questions.
The Example’s red carpet premiere takes place March 26th in downtown Beaumont’s historic Jefferson Theatre, just a few blocks from where the riots took place more than 70 years ago. After that, they plan to take it on the film festival circuit.