Columbus will be featured in an HBO documentary premiering April 13.
“Our Towns” revisits eight of the communities included in the bestselling book, “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” penned by journalists James and Deborah Fallows. The feature-length documentary debuts at 8 p.m. on HBO and will be available for streaming on HBO Max.
New York-based marketing firm Falco Ink released a trailer for the film on YouTube last week.
Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan traveled with the authors, beginning in 2018, on a coast-to-coast journey that included stops from San Bernardino, California (with a population of more than 200,000), to the smallest community in the film, Eastport, Maine (population about 1,300).
“We picked places that were geographically diverse, diverse in size and population, and we also looked at where they are in their histories,” Ascher told The Dispatch in a phone interview Friday.
Filmmakers came to Columbus in 2019, capturing among other things the Eighth of May Emancipation Day program. The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science’s African American history class puts on the program at Sandfield Cemetery to tell stories of notable Black people in the city’s history and celebrate the May 8, 1865, emancipation of slaves in Columbus after the Civil War.
Ascher said that program helps show how Columbus has embraced its past, its diversity and is teaching a new generation how to do the same.
Chuck Yarborough, who teaches the MSMS African American history course and spearheads the Eighth of May program, said only 35 people came to his students’ first presentation at the cemetery in 2006. Now, Eighth of May draws hundreds each year.
National attention brought to the program, from HBO and publications like The Atlantic, shows how “transformative” it has become.
“This really began as a way to explore parts of our history that hadn’t really been expressed because the more we know, the more power we have to shape our futures,” Yarborough said. “It’s an honor for the program to be appreciated on the national stage. (As a teacher), I’m trying to empower young people to shape their communities. Anything that helps me make that point, I appreciate.”
The film also looks at the impact East Mississippi Community College and the Golden Triangle Development LINK have on revitalizing and innovating industrial development in the area, Ascher said. Especially as so many communities across the country have lost traditional manufacturing jobs and suffered stifling unemployment, he said he was impressed with how The LINK had led successful industrial recruitment efforts in the region.
“It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen,” Ascher said. “The LINK is a wonderful example of a group that is forging a new way to change the story.”
In a text to The Dispatch on Friday, LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said he is “looking forward” to seeing the film.
“We’re expecting a first-class production and looking forward to seeing what the other towns featured are doing to make their place better,” Higgins wrote. “Maybe we can get some new ideas!”
Ascher said he was struck by Columbus’ beauty and its people.
“You really get a sense of a strong community, and it seems like a wonderful place to live,” he said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.