The Making of “Spanish Lake”
A new documentary by Phillip Andrew Morton explores the racial tension in the eponymous town.
“THERE WAS A WIDE RANGE of emotions I experienced while making the film, everything from heartbreak to excitement to fear to closure,” says “Spanish Lake” director Phillip Andrew Morton. Inspired by his return to Spanish Lake after years in LA, the documentary centers on the titular town where he grew up, an unincorporated area north of the city proper. “When I went back in 2007 to see my old house, and saw the neighborhood and school vacant, it was one of the worst days of my life and eventually inspired me to make the film,” Morton explains.
Through both the camera’s lens and poignant interviews with current residents, Morton’s film puts faces, names and stories to what many now understand as a racially driven redistricting of St. Louis during the 1970s that continues to affect the area’s dynamics today. Morton’s documentary aims to initiate a difficult but necessary conversation about what became a phenomenon in not only St. Louis, but other US cities.
As the film documents, Spanish Lake in the mid-20th century was largely white and middle-class, populated by families who wanted to raise their kids in the suburbs. In the 1970s, the St. Louis city government moved Section 8 housing, comprised of mostly African-American households, out of the city and into Spanish Lake. Morton’s documentary shares the stories of residents, who recount how
certain real estate agents during that time worked middle-class neighborhoods for quick profit in a practice known as “blockbusting.” Preying upon socioeconomic fears and stoking bigotry by correlating the Section 8 housing with race, crime and lower land values, the agents encouraged fearful homeowners to sell their houses for a loss. Many of the houses were sold to other African-American families moving to the suburb, seeking better schools and less crime. A domino effect then played out, causing major shifts in the area’s demographics: According to US Census figures, the town was 99 percent white and 1 percent African-American in 1970; now, it’s 19 percent white and 77 percent African-American.
“It’s a sad chapter of American history that people are reluctant to talk about,” Morton says. “I want to lift the silence, not just for the people who have lived through it, but for their children, who hear the stories about it from their parents.”
The cross-section of residents captured represents various economic and racial backgrounds and lengths of residency. Their collection of memories is enhanced by their candor, especially when they reflect on the racial tensions that continue to permeate the town today.
“I had sensed this racial tension and the political divide in St. Louis for a long time, and I knew there was pressure building in the North County community,” Morton says. “I created the documentary to provide a forum for black and white residents to have a discussion.”
The phenomenon is not restricted to St. Louis, either: At a Dallas premiere of the film in late August, producer Matt Smith’s brother was on-site to witness the reaction of the audience after the screening. “My brother told me everyone stayed after and had conversations in the lobby area, trading phone numbers,” Smith says. “Both black and white residents were talking to each other and having conversations. It was great that outside of St. Louis we could have that discussion.”
The film ran at The Tivoli in June, but after Smith and Morton anticipated a wider screening in September, AMC and Wehrenberg Theatres both revoked offers to show the film. But viewers can catch “Spanish Lake” on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play, as well as (at press time) on Netflix and Hulu.
“I’m aware of how sensitive these conversations are, but my thought process has always been that staying silent won’t solve the problem,” Smith says. “It’s important and it’s needed. This is a complicated problem that is going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort, but it starts with eliminating fear and the silence and beginning the dialogue. And that is how you begin the steps toward change.”
Producer Matt Smith in action
Photo credit: Courtesy of cinematographer Alden Sargent