Ava Thompson Greenwell

Ava Thompson Greenwell is a journalism professor at Northwestern as well as a film documentarian, producer, editor, and fundraiser. On Dec. 11, as part of the Levy Lecture Series, she shared an excerpt from her first film with an eager audience at the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave. The working title of the film is “Mission Possible:” Chicago’s Free South Africa Movement.

Dr. Greenwell began working on this project in 2016. She has long been interested in South Africa, traveling there at least once a year for her work with journalism students who do immersive reporting projects in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Her research on this project uncovers the various Chicago organizations involved in the anti-apartheid movement from 1980-1994.  Dr. Greenwell has already conducted more than 20 interviews on the topic, including some in South Africa.

In addition to individual recollections on various points of view and archival footage, Dr. Greenwell obtained video of Nelson Mandela’s 1993 speech to Chicago’s labor community.  Eventually she had enough information to outline a first draft and start editing the filmed interviews and research together. That first draft, or rough cut in cinematography parlance, was shown to the Levy Lecture audience.

Under apartheid, black South Africans were not permitted to vote, take advanced classes, pursue certain careers or own land – only white South Africans enjoyed those privileges. Chicagoans helped draw attention to black South Africans suffering under apartheid in three ways: consciousness-raising, fundraising, and legislation.Three well-known people who were instrumental in these efforts, and whose interviews with Greenwell are included in the film, proudly sat on the front row in the Linden Room at the Levy Senior Center: Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Prexy Nesbit and Basil Clunie.

Ms. Johnson-Odim was a doctoral student at Northwestern University when she drew attention and greater awareness to the injustices of apartheid, and was a founding member of the Free South Africa Movement in 1984. Prexy Nesbit was one of the leaders in the American Committee on Africa and in 1984 he was a labor organizer in Chicago.  South African trade union members bore the brunt of the government’s oppression. In solidarity, the United States’ labor movement was very supportive of the anti-apartheid campaign and donated much of the money used to pay for activists’ legal counsel.

Basil Clunie had a leadership role in the Chicago Committee in Solidarity with South Africa. Most of its members were also active in the Coalition for Illinois’ Divestment from South Africa. Additionally, former Senator Carol Moseley Braun, also interviewed for the film, helped bring to the floor of the Illinois House several divestment bills that prohibited future investments in corporations doing business in South Africa.

Eventually the culmination of protests, divestment of funds and public support helped pressure the South African government to free Nelson Mandela, which they did in 1990. In 1993 Nelson Mandela came to Chicago and spoke of Chicago’s “vital contribution to our struggle” in at several planned appearances. The following year, South Africans enjoyed their first multiracial general election. Mr. Mandela led the African National Party to victory and became president. 

But the work is not finished. As Dr. Greenwell reminded the crowd, “South Africa is a young democracy. Its next election is scheduled for 2019, which will be only the sixth time all races were permitted to vote.” It is her hope that her film will be used for educational purposes and shown in schools, community centers and on public television. Her goal is to finish the film sometime next year, hopefully early enough to enter it in several film festivals.

There were numerous questions after the lecture and many audience members shared personal recollections about some of the people and incidents mentioned in the film. Dr. Greenwell took notes and offered some context, and was clearly happy with the positive reception. Based on the crowd’s reaction to the rough cut, many are looking forward to seeing the finished documentary.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...