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Big movie draws notice to small town of Idlewild

Thursday, August 24, 2006

By John Serba

The Grand Rapids Press

What does "Idlewild," the movie, have to do with Idlewild, the town?

Outside of the name, just a hair shy of diddly-squat. Which doesn't sit well with Coy W. Davis Jr.

"It's an insult," said Davis, a Grandville filmmaker who directed the historical documentary "Whatever Happened to Idlewild?"

As a child, Davis spent many summers, from the 1950s through the 1970s, in the Lake County town, where his family owned a cottage.

"They take something with such historical significance as Idlewild, take the peripheral aspects of it, and turn it into a shoot-'em-up, bang-bang minstrel show," he said. "It demeans me as an African-American.

"I understand, it's just entertainment," Davis added. "But call it 'Mishawaka,' call it 'Schenectady' -- don't call it 'Idlewild.' "

Idlewild, Mich., located east of Baldwin, was a haven for black entertainment during the segregation era. Its rich, storied history is remembered mostly in glowing nostalgic terms. It was a place where black professionals from all over the Midwest vacationed and saw performances by legendary entertainers such as Louis Armstrong and B.B. King.

The film, which opens nationally Friday and stars platinum-selling hip-hop artists Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin -- collectively known as OutKast -- transplants Idlewild to Georgia. It is a rambunctious musical about a Prohibition-era speakeasy, whose performers tangle with gun-toting mobsters and struggle with their precarious love lives.

The connection, according to star, co-producer and musical director Benjamin, is simple: director Brian Barber's in-laws live in Albion, and are familiar with Idlewild's status as a former entertainment mecca.

"It was kind of like the Hamptons but for black people. So we just took that name and took that sensibility and placed it in Georgia and called it Idlewild, Georgia," he told British Web site Video-C.

According to Ronald J. Stephens, a Detroit native and author of "Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan," the movie draws a few parallels to the real Idlewild, but nothing more. But he believes the film is likely to draw attention to the town's relatively overlooked history.

"Its biggest asset is, it puts the name in the public's imagination in ways the small town of Idlewild, Mich. couldn't do," said Stephens, the head of the Department of African-American Studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

John Meeks, owner of the Morton Motel in Idlewild, and the self-proclaimed "unpaid, unofficial Idlewild ambassador," said prospective filmmakers have been sniffing around the town for years, doing research for projects that have yet to reach fruition, but the makers of "Idlewild" never came by.

As a local businessman, Meeks is appreciative of the attention the town has been getting in conjunction with the film. But as a longtime resident, his response reflects the rest of the small community.

"A lot of people are disappointed when they find out it isn't about Idlewild at all," he said. "It's unfortunate that the name is being exploited, that it has no connection to the history of one of the most famous black resorts."

Some may argue that any attention for Idlewild is good attention, considering recent efforts to revitalize the town as a tourist stop.

Western Michigan University professor Lewis Walker, who co-authored "Black Eden: The Idlewild Community" with colleague Benjamin Wilson, has experienced the passionate reactions of those he helped educate about Idlewild.

"We did 15 or 16 lectures," Walker said. "We've seen the response, we've seen people purchasing land and asking about efforts to revitalize Idlewild."

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