Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Jacqueline Jones's "Goddess of Anarchy"

Jacqueline Jones holds the Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women’s History and the Mastin Gentry White Professorship in Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of several books, including A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America (2013). That book and Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present (25th Anniversary Edition, 2010) were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize; Labor of Love won the Bancroft Prize for 1986.

Here Jones dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical:
If I were the casting director for Goddess of Anarchy: The Movie, my first priority would be to find an especially resilient, resourceful actress to play the leading role.  Lucy Parsons lived a long, turbulent life (1851 to 1942) spanning the end of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, World War I and the Red Scare, the 1920s, and the Great Depression. So the lead would have to age convincingly, Miss-Jane-Pittman style, over the course of the story.  During her career as an anarchist—as a public speaker, writer, and editor— Parsons became a celebrity; covered obsessively by radical and mainstream newspapers, she inspired fear in her critics and adoration in her supporters.  The lead would have to project Parsons’s haughty contempt for capitalists, her thrill at speechifying in front of large crowds, her love of fine clothes, and her vanity about her own good looks.

Lucy Parsons was born to an enslaved woman and a white man (possibly her owner or an overseer) on a Virginia plantation in 1851.  Nevertheless, she claimed that she was the daughter of Native American and Hispanic parents—presumably because she feared that her ideas would not receive a fair hearing if it were known that she was of African descent.  So I am thinking along the lines of Ruth Negga, Halle Berry, or Zoe Soldana to play Lucy.

When Lucy was growing up in Waco, Texas, as a teenager she became involved with an older black man, Oliver Benton, who bought her nice clothes and paid her tuition at the local school.  He claimed that a baby Lucy gave birth to (around 1868) was his, and that Lucy was his wife. (The exact nature of their relationship is unknown.)  He felt humiliated when a white man named Albert Parsons began an affair with Lucy. Jamie Foxx perhaps?

Lucy’s mother endured a great deal.  She was probably raped by Lucy’s father.  She watched over her daughter Lucy and her two young sons as the family was forcibly relocated from Virginia to Texas during the Civil War.  Immediately after the war, fearful for their safety on the violent Texas countryside, she moved her family to the town of Waco.  Oprah Winfrey or Octavia Spencer would be good in this role.

Albert and Lucy married in 1872.  He was a veteran of the Confederate army. Small, wiry and dapper, he had tremendous staying power as an orator promoting anarchism.  Eventually he paid the ultimate price for his provocative rhetoric and writings.  At a workers’ rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886, someone tossed a bomb into the ranks of a group of police officers, killing seven of them.  Although the identity of the bomb-thrower remains unknown to this day, Albert was convicted of murder and conspiracy and hanged in 1887.  The male lead should be charming, intense—perhaps Colin Farrell.

Other characters in Lucy’s life include the famous socialist Eugene Debs (a fierce John Lithgow?) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Meryl Streep could handle the Russian accent!). Particularly intriguing are August Spies, a German immigrant also hanged for his supposed role in the Haymarket bombing, and Nina Van Zandt, the wealthy young college-educated woman who fell in love with him after his arrest.  The dashing blond-haired Spies had a reputation as a “ladies man”; I’m channeling Matthew McConaughey here.  Van Zandt was a traitor to her class, intelligent if somewhat naïve.  After a proxy wedding with a stand-in for Spies, she believed the two were actually married, though observers at the time suggested that he considered the “marriage” a farce and a sham. Julia Stiles might be able to pull this off.
Learn more about Goddess of Anarchy at the Basic Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue