Jay Sowers/The Natchez Democrat — Documentarian Mark Brockway stands in front of the former home of madam Nellie Jackson, at the corner of Rankin Street and Monroe Street in Natchez. Brockway is developing a documentary about the woman known throughout Natchez as “Miss Nellie.”  Trees and overgrown bushes, at right, nearly cover the street signs on the corner of the street next to Jackson’s former home.
Jay Sowers/The Natchez Democrat — Documentarian Mark Brockway stands in front of the former home of madam Nellie Jackson, at the corner of Rankin Street and Monroe Street in Natchez. Brockway is developing a documentary about the woman known throughout Natchez as “Miss Nellie.” Trees and overgrown bushes, at right, nearly cover the street signs on the corner of the street next to Jackson’s former home.

Local filmmakers seek to document the many dimensions of a Natchez madam

Published 12:04am Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It’s been 23 years since Nellie Jackson died and her locally legendary house of pleasure closed, and when most folks talk about her legacy these days, it’s usually in polite, cloaked terms about the house at the corner of Rankin and Monroe streets that you always entered through the back door.

But two documentary film makers say Jackson was a madam with a heart of gold, a complex, three-dimensional character whose life and influence through the community extended much further than the work for which she’s best known.

Now, those documentarians — Mark Brockway and Lauren Jones — want to tell that story, and the two area residents have set out to tell the story of the woman some people around Natchez still refer to as “Miss Nellie.”

Brockway said before he ever located to Natchez, Jackson’s reputation had preceded her and — after recently completing his first feature-length documentary about Delta blues musicians — he knew she would be a worthy subject for his second project. When Brockway consulted those with historical and political knowledge of the town, he said they agreed it was a worthy topic.

“Everyone knows what Miss Jackson’s business was there on Rankin Street — it is well documented — but what we hope to do is trace her life from her birth in Woodville to her tragic death here in July of 1990,” he said. “There will be some anecdotes and stories and some humorous events of what took place at he house.”

“Her story is kind of one-dimensional right now; this is a lady who ran a house of ill repute, but there is so much more to her than that”

Jackson died a week after a neighbor allegedly doused her in gasoline and set her afire, reportedly angered because she had turned him away from the bordello for being drunk. She had operated the house since the 1930s, and one of her rules was that clients had to show up sober.

Brockway described Jackson as a “uniquely Natchez” institution who not only knew many people’s more carnal proclivities, but who was a force for charity and was a quiet civil rights activist, bailing out those who had been arrested.

“There were several organizations that she contributed to on a regular basis, and there were several families that she reached out to and helped around town very clandestinely,” Brockway said. “There was a quote I read from a former alderman who said ‘We are all imperfect and we all straddle good and bad, and perhaps nobody in town straddled that better than Miss Nellie.”

That’s the paradox that Jones said she wants to see fully explored in the documentary.

“She ran this house of ill-repute for so long, but (Jackson) was such a powerful woman here in an undercover manner, being a black female she had a hand of power in a way,” Jones said. “She had a crazy business people would normally look down on, but she was so charitable and giving and kind, and she was your normal, friendly, everyday neighborhood person. It was fun getting to know the person behind (the house) instead of getting into who was visiting this whorehouse.”

But of course who was visiting the house is something that inevitably comes up in such interviews, and Brockway said that question initially had some people hesitant to talk about what they knew.

“One of the hurdles we had as we were getting into this is that people were a little hesitant, saying. ‘You are not trying to say that I used to frequent this place, are you?’” he said.

But as the project has continued, Brockway said he has been able to do two interviews with people who frequented the establishment, and others — who may or may not maintain they had no connection to the business — have opened up as well.

“I have spoken with a couple of old shopkeepers around town who spoke to what kind of lady she was, her eccentricities in terms of spending and how they would see her come into the shop dressed to the nines with her poodles and her Cadillac,” he said.

“A lot of information is coming forward, people who remember brief encounters with her and talks with her.”

Those subjects include a doctor and an attorney, and Brockway said he has reached out to local law enforcement officials for their perspective.

The other thing he has done is reach out on social media, creating a page for the project on Facebook — and the response has been overwhelming, Brockway said.

“The thing that has stuck out at me the most is the overwhelming response that it has been so positive,” he said. “Twenty-three years after her death, people still care about this person and are still very interested in this person and are willing to share what they know, and I think it speaks highly of Miss Jackson that that is the case.”

Brockway said he hopes the project — which he said will likely take a “Ken Burns-esque” format of using photos and interview voice overs — can be completed for Natchez’s tricentennial.

Jones said she hopes to have a formal website for the project up soon, as well as an online Kickstarter campaign.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/MississippiMadameTheLifeOfNellieJackson or e-mail Brockway at taildraggerpro@gmail.com.