By Shannon Sneed
The Eatonton Messenger
May 2, 2019
Creators of the Eatonton-filmed short “83 Days” captured the audience’s attention from the opening scene and held it through an emotional 29 minutes.
The award-winning score and masterful cinematography immediately draws you inside the screen and puts you on the southern dirt road with the young victims as they ride their bikes toward a horrible demise.
The audience held their breath, and tears flowed from the eyes of several moviegoers as the Stinney family stood helplessly while Junior was put into the back of a sheriff’s car at 14 years old, never to return home. The father chases the old patrol car down the dirt driveway as deputies drive away with his son.
After winning several awards at film festivals all over the world, the movie premiered in Eatonton on April 23 to a sparse crowd at The Plaza Arts Center.
Showing on opening day of the Milledgeville- Eatonton Film Festival, parts of Putnam County are recognizable throughout the movie.
Utilizing some of Eatonton’s well-preserved historical buildings for filming, one of the most powerful scenes in the movie was shot at The Eatonton Messenger.
During the 3-day shoot, filmmakers transformed the downtown newspaper office into a 1940s South Carolina sheriff’s office. During that scene, the sheriff confronts his deputy about whether the accused young black man really confessed to killing two young white girls.
The audience winced as the onscreen actors referred to Stinney by a racial slur instead of by his name, and light gasps could be heard when the deputy revealed he didn’t need a confession because he was convinced the boy committed the crime.
After the show ended, the movie’s writers and producers acknowledged that the narrative is disturbing but chose to remain true to the social environment of those years.
“Take a deep breath,” director/producer Andrew Paul Howell said. “I know it is an intense film.” Andrew told the audience that, when writer Ray Brown gave him the 118-page script, he initially passed it on to his wife, Summer Howell, co-writer and assistant director of the movie. “Then, I read it and wept,” Andrew said.
Meeting Brown at a coffee shop in Atlanta, Andrew asked him if he could cut the script down to 20 pages. Brown told him that he wanted a film, not a trailer, but decided to trust Summer anyway to help with the editing.
“He trusted me with his baby,” Summer said.
Deciding to take on the project, Andrew said they had heard about Eatonton and contacted local producer Jim Stone of Tytan Pictures. “We had no idea what was coming,” Andrew said. The town opened its arms and welcomed the production team by providing cast, crew and locations.
Sheriff Howard Sills, who portrays Judge Witherspoon in the production, provided several props for the film, including the sheriff’s car and original old black and white striped prison uniforms.
Brown noted that Summer did a phenomenal job condensing the pages to capture the poignancy of the story, but that “there is still so much to be told.” “We are going to expand on the story,” Brown said, noting the story has been picked up by an investor to make it into a full feature film. “There’s a lot that needs to be covered that speaks to the conspiracy and possibility of other options of who might be responsible for the crime.” Brown noted that the story went on for a span of decades. From the 83 days it took to accuse, arrest, convict and execute the young man to nearly 70 years later when he was exonerated from those crimes.