Florida on Film: The Highwaymen
When St. Petersburg Times writer Jim Fitch first sat down to tell the story of Florida’s “Highwaymen” in 1996, they weren’t yet known by that now-famous name. Fitch coined the term, referring to the group of African American painters working out of Fort Pierce starting in 1955 and continuing through the 1980s, whose vibrant Florida landscapes now often sell for thousands of dollars.
Living, working and creating in the Jim Crow-era South, however, meant they had to adopt nontraditional methods of creating and selling to make the same kind of living with their art that a white artist could make. Led by Alfred Hair and inspired by Harold Newton, the group adopted a signature style that allowed them to paint more quickly, and with materials like house paint and fiberboard. The Highwaymen — 25 men and one woman, altogether — would then pack the paintings in the trunks of their cars, sometimes before the paint was even dry, and sell them door to door and along the highways and interstates of Florida.
When Todd Thompson, who is the director, producer and cofounder of Central Florida-based production company Stars North, first heard the story 15 years ago, he knew he wanted to see it on the screen. Now, 25 years after Fitch’s article and 65 years after the first painting, a feature film and a six-part documentary series are slated to begin production in Central Florida. The film will be directed and produced by Thompson, along with partner Tim Franta and producers Kathryn Kelly and Joy Kigin.
The Making of a Movie
“I knew the type of story I wanted to tell was both a past and present-day one,” Thompson said. “If Jim Fitch hadn’t sat down in 1996 to write that article, they wouldn’t be identified as ‘The Highwaymen.’ But if this group of inspired artists hadn’t gotten together and painted every night in their backyards and carports, Fitch wouldn’t have had anything to write about. And all of it led to them being recognized and being inducted into the Artists Hall of Fame in Florida.”
Telling that story took years of research, collaboration and plenty of “pounding the pavement” for funding and partners, Thompson said. They delved into books, articles and documentaries. They took several trips to Fort Pierce for in-depth interviews with some of the Highwaymen themselves and others who played integral roles in their lives and careers. Sifting carefully though a room full of notes, Thompson found the “scenes, dialogue and story beats” that would eventually become the first draft of the screenplay. But they still needed writers to bring the script to life.
That’s where 89 Writers came in. The writing duo is made up of Lucien Adderly and Byrd Wilson, who were both raised in Florida and already had several impressive credits to their name, including the Oprah Winfrey Network’s “David Makes Man” series. Thompson crossed paths with the writing duo thanks to a rather serendipitous introduction by his son’s math tutor.
“We’re excited to be part of this project because of our desire to tell Florida stories and take responsibility for getting them out there on a level that exposes the world to black history in our home state,” Adderly and Wilson said in a press release.
Preserving a Legacy and a Future
Telling the story of The Highwaymen is the only way to preserve their integral part in art history, African American history and Florida history. The perseverance, talent and creativity of The Highwaymen, which led to their tremendous success even in the face of deeply rooted inequality and injustice, has inspired everyone who has heard and told the story since. Film offers a new way to tell their story, and a chance to ignite more interest in our past and more opportunities into our future.
“We’re dedicated to telling great stories and, any way possible, telling them in Florida. To rejuvenate the film industry, keep the creative legacy going and keep really talented people working down here is a big deal for me,” Thompson said.
In phase one of production, filming will take place in and around Central Florida. Phase two, focusing on the 1950s and 1960s, will be filmed in locations spread out around the state.
Partnering with organizations like Elevate Orlando, Thompson’s team is working around Parramore, Washington Square and Holden Heights to engage those downtown communities and their local businesses that are traditionally African American. Other partners like the Orlando Economic Partnership have helped with securing locations, identifying production partners and guiding the crew.
“We don’t hurt the environment or distribute waste — in fact, nine times out of 10 we leave a site cleaner than when we got there,” Thompson said. “And when the bigger studio projects come into town, hotel rooms are being rented, restaurants are patronized, rental car companies are being used, people are hired both behind and in front of the camera. It might not be permanent employment, but it is a big infusion of resources. Filmmaking in general is an amazing industry to have as part of your economic development and growth.”