|2004, 20 mins. (Carnegie Mellon)
Director: Gregory Lehane
Writer: Lynne Kuemmel
Producer: Shirley J. Saldamarco
Production Designer: Cletus R. Anderson
Cast: Andrew Gehling, Laurie Klatscher, Ashley-Nicole Sherman, Demetrius Gross, Don Wadsworth.
|In screenwriter Lynne Kuemmel's The Work of 50 Men, the pure joy of discovery is tainted by the way the discovery is used by the forces of industry. Kuemmel's vehicle for this theme is the story of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin.
Kuemmel, who has made several films as a writer and director, was inspired by a desire to examine the intersection of technology, economics, and ethics--to show, in her words, "science interacting with the world, generating repercussions." As a native Southerner, she also set out to present a view of the South free of the prejudices often shown in depictions of the region. Says Kuemmel, "I hate how it is often misrepresented by media makers in New York and Los Angeles who are completely ignorant of what social mores and rituals are like there, and how people really talk." Though she did not direct The Work of 50 Men, "I did," she says, "get to research it and at least write something historically accurate that didn't portray all Southerners as slow-witted and silly."
Both those desires came together in the story of Eli Whitney, whose invention she calls "the most classically 'Southern' technological advance I could think of." The research Kuemmel conducted in preparation for writing the script included consulting the online archives of the Library of Congress, which contain a scanned version of Whitney's original patent application. She also read biographies of the inventor and works on plantation life, including "a compilation of plantation inventories from a parish in Louisiana."
The research even led to a discovery of Kuemmel's own. After she began researching, she says, "I came across the huge impact [the cotton gin] had had on the slave trade, which was shocking to me. That impact was something glossed over in my Southern public education. So I thought I'd do a little consciousness-raising by writing about it. And the material, by itself, was dramatic. I think enslavement for profit is pretty compelling stuff."
|The Cotton Gin, The Eli Whitney Museum|
History of Cotton, Slavery in America
Slavery Economics, National Geographic