Nellie Jackson documentary debuts at Oxford Film Festival

Published 12:02 am Monday, December 18, 2017

NATCHEZ — Nellie Jackson was a black bordello-owner in the height of the Civil Rights Era in Natchez, but she was also an avid philanthropist, a staple in the Catholic church and a well-loved citizen.
As filmmakers Mark Brockway and Tim Givens put it: Nellie was human.
The duality between brothel-owner and caregiver, hardened businesswoman and generous benefactress is exactly what Brockway and Givens worked to highlight in the last four years working on a documentary about Jackson’s life.
All that work will come to fruition on Feb. 10, at the Oxford Film Festival, where Brockway and Givens will premiere the final cut of “Mississippi Madame: The Life of Nellie Jackson.”
Though a version of the film debuted earlier this year in Natchez, Givens said this is the first showing of the final version.
“I wanted this story to be told the right way,” Givens said. “No film is perfect. but we got it as close to perfect as a product can be.”
Givens said he grew up hearing about Nellie’s, the bordello at the corner of Rankin and Monroe streets.
“Growing up in Natchez, Nellie, to me, was this myth, this person you heard about in secrecy,” Givens said. “Whispers and stuff. My mother drove me by her house when I was a kid and vaguely hinted at her ending in the fire.”
When Givens returned to Natchez as an adult, he said he became more interested in the truth of all the whispers surrounding Nellie Jackson.
“I realized no one had ever done anything on Nellie to my knowledge,” Givens said. “There had never been a movie.”
Brockway did not grow up in Natchez, but said he first became interested in Nellie’s in approximately 2002.
“The whole idea when you first hear about it seems kind of far-fetched,” Brockway said. “But sometimes life is stranger than fiction. She was special, as a person.”
Givens and Brockway teamed up in 2013, and the fog surrounding Jackson’s human side began to shift.
After more than 80 interviews and speaking with more than 100 people who knew Jackson directly or indirectly, Givens said he began to feel the audience would truly understand the character.
“Her generosity was endless,” Givens said. “But she also had that clenched fist, don’t cross the line with me attitude. She was running a business. She had to run her business in the heights of the Civil Rights Era. It was her way.”
Brockway said the little details, such as Jackson’s love of poodles, her Cadillac and baseball, filled the gaps in Jackson’s character.
“That was the most interesting part of this whole process, finding people who knew little tidbits about her,” Brockway said. “If we had gone another route, we wouldn’t have such a complete picture of her.”
Givens said he and Brockway began to understand the depths of Jackson’s business acumen — how a fifth of Jack Daniel’s could buy silence or a generous donation could purchase the town’s favor.
“Her duality, that was the center of it all,” Givens said. “I think that goes with just how smart she was … She knew the game she was in, and she knew exactly how to play.”
Brockway said coincidences followed the filmmakers— from his meeting Givens to the pieces that seemed to fall into place almost too easily.
“In hindsight, looking back on the whole process, there were certain people we bumped into along the way, I’ve always had this feeling that somebody was guiding us,” Brockway said. “Maybe Nellie.”
Though the majority of Given’s and Brockway’s subjects were fond of Jackson, the film broaches several grisly subjects, such as the murder of a Texas woman in 1957 in Jackson’s home and, of course, the eventual, fiery death of Nellie herself.
“Like everybody else, you hear this and you think ‘There’s no way. This didn’t happen,’” Brockway said.  “But it sure did.”
With each version of the film, Givens said the story has evolved. The edition that will show in Oxford this February, he said, differs greatly from the film that played in Natchez in 2017.
“The ending is a big surprise,” Givens said. “No one expects the ending. I pitched it to Mark, and I said ‘We have to leave some mystery to this character.’”
Givens said the unresolved ending in some ways represents Jackson — a puzzle that will never be complete.
“I feel like I’m walking in a dream some days, to complete this project,” Givens said. “There were some people who thought this would never be completed.”
Givens said he hopes Natchez residents will make the four-hour drive this February to see the final cut. The showing will be at 2:30 p.m., Feb. 10, and at a Sunday matinee at 10 a.m. the following day.
Brockway said he thinks the story will resonate will a larger audience, too.
“I always felt like the story could play in other parts of the country; this story has some legs to it,” Brockway said.
Givens, who graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2011, said he used to attend the Oxford Film Festival often as a student.
When he got the notification that he would be returning to the festival not as a patron, but as a filmmaker, Givens said he was elated.
“They said you’re in,” Givens said. “I couldn’t believe it. The Oxford Film Fest is a huge film festival. I can’t thank them enough, and I’m just kind of nervous to see what happens.”

“Mississippi Madame: The Life of Nellie Jackson” will play at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Oxford Conference Center and again at 10 a.m. Feb. 11 at the Malco Theater Screen 1.

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