“UNITED FRONT – The People’s Convention 1991 Memphis” reaped the Best Film Documentary Production Award at the 37th Annual Black International Cinema Berlin Film Festival.
Produced and directed by Memphis-based filmmaker and radio personality, Chuck O’Bannon, “United Front” beat out independent film entries from around the globe.
The festival was presented in November and December of 2022, broadcasting entries in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Award was announced earlier this month.
“I thought, ‘Wow, is this really happening?” said O’Bannon. “And my, what a wonderful surprise it was.”
“United Front” is the story of the 1991 People’s Convention, which led to Memphis’ first elected African-American Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton.
Executive Producer Anniece Robinson wrote the script and funded the project. The documentary features live footage from the actual convention, as well as present-day interviews of those who participated in the event, including Herenton, Dr. Bill Adkins, former City Councilman Shep Wilbun, and the late Tennessee State Rep. Barbara Cooper.
“Initially, we did not set out to make a full documentary,” said O’Bannon. “I got a call from Anniece in February of 2021 about producing some type of commemoration of the convention’s 30th anniversary.
“I had so many other projects already working, I told Anniece the only way I would even consider it is that someone wrote the script. Well, Anniece sent the script a few days later. It was so outstanding that I had to do this documentary.”
O’Bannon wanted to capture the drama and authentic spirit of the convention, which he said was not always pretty.
“It got pretty ugly,” said O’Bannon. “But when you look at the event as a whole, it is the story of how one day, Black leaders and community delegates got together and ironed out, hashed out, fought it out, until they came out on one accord. And Dr. Herenton was the consensus candidate.”
Robinson’s husband, Arthur Robinson, recorded hours, and hours of convention footage, which he now has in its entirety.
Anniece Robinson said the 2021 project was a divine mandate.
“As we were coming up on the 30th anniversary, the Lord gave me a spiritual assignment,” said Anniece Robinson. “Do something with this, God was telling me. So, when I asked Chuck to produce it, he wanted someone to write the script. I stayed up three days and nights writing that script in March.
Chuck loved it, but it was clear we were not going to have a project of that caliber finished by April. That’s how it became a much bigger project.”
Robinson said the idea of a People’s Convention came from (the later) Teddy Withers, a former Tennessee state representative and major figure in Memphis politics at that time.
“There were four of us meeting in my backyard in 1990,” said Anniece Robinson. “That was Teddy, Shep, (the late) Vernon Ash, and myself.
“Everyone had seen what happened to Teddy in the mayoral election. There were too many Black candidates dividing the Black vote, and the white candidate just slipped right through. We couldn’t get a Black mayor although there was a majority Black population. We were too divided.”
Everybody was talking about it, but no one was doing anything, Anniece Robinson said. Withers had been blackballed, so it was assumed he would not run.
“The planning of the convention continued, although the Ford political machine was against it,” said Anniece Robinson. “Even before getting to the actual convention, it got dirty with Teddy. And I mean knock-down, drag-out dirty.
“But Teddy continued planning behind the scenes, talking with different ones, including Dr. Herenton. The People’s Convention gathered steam, and on April 27, 1991, it happened.”
Various communities sent delegates to the People’s Convention, on the same order that the Democratic Convention is run, Anniece Robinson said. The Mid-South Coliseum was the setting. From about 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., the political wrangling went on. But in the end, strategists, activists, and delegates found a united voice.
“United Front” has been selected for showing at the Greenwood Film Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma in August.