Dunnavant opens up about career, new film
by Bradley Hartsell
'As a journalist, you get a story that gets under your skin, and you need to tell it,' Keith Dunnavant explains in his secluded office on Jackson Street in downtown Newnan.
Dunnavant is the writer and director of 'Three Days at Foster,' a documentary film about the integration of sports at the University of Alabama. On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace stood at the front of the schoolhouse in protest of allowing two black students into the University of Alabama. After Wallace's standoff with federal authorities, Vivian Moore and James Hood entered and registered for classes. In the wake of Moore and Hood, athletes began pioneering a new era of Alabama athletics. 'Three Days at Foster' focuses on those pioneers of sport, some of whom have never spoken publicly about their experiences.
Dunnavant says he's had the story in his head since 1999, when he interviewed Wilbur Jackson, the first African-American scholarship athlete at the University of Alabama. Jackson told Dunnavant a story that happened to Jackson and his daughter, which deeply stirred Dunnavant.
'It was so profound,' says Dunnavant of Jackson's story. 'I kept thinking on the plane ride back to New York, 'Man this would make a great documentary.'' For 14 years, however, documentary filmmaking got put on hold. Dunnavant kept writing books, editing magazines and founding magazines of his own. But he kept wanting to try. After shooting some commercial documentaries with Coweta resident Jonathan Hickman, now the director of photography, Dunnavant decided to undertake the feature documentary he's always wanted to make. With the help of around $12,000 from a Kickstarter fund - plus Dunnavant funding from his backpocket - they began shooting more than a year ago.
Now, they stand on the verge of a world premiere in Birmingham on Aug. 25 at the Sidewalk Film Festival, and the film will also be screened in Newnan at 7 p.m. on Aug. 29 at Wadsworth Auditorium. Tickets - $15 for adults, $10 for students - can be purchased at several local businesses and at http://newnanculture. bpt.me/ Dunnavant began his career as a teenage sports writer. He was the college football writer at 'The National,' a highly popular and respected - but ultimately ill-fated - sports magazine in New York. After 'The National' went under, Dunnavant founded his own magazines, writing best-selling books, including the Paul 'Bear' Bryant biography, 'Coach,' and undertaking other business ventures. When the opportunity to finally dive into filmmaking became available, he knew it'd be a huge challenge, but his whole career has been about accepting challenges.
'I'm not afraid to fail. That's the connective tissue of my career. I want to take on things that are challenging me, both as a journalist and as a businessman.'
Having made the leap from sportswriter to magazine feature writer and from there to magazine editor and owner, in Dunnavant's mind, print to documentary filmmaking is just another jump, one that always seemed a natural extension for him.
As the world premiere nears, Dunnavant is proud of his team and eager for the world to see something he feels is important as a story of triumph and as a cautionary tale against political cynicism.
''Three Days at Foster' is about what happens for the athletic pioneers and the shadow of that day,' he said. Today, we'd agree almost universally that Wallace was wrong, but at the time, it was 'the debate.' 'It would have been more excusable if [Wallace] didn't know better. But he did know better,' says Dunnavant. 'Not only was integration the right thing to do but it was inevitable.'
However, Wallace kept using race for political gain, which to Dunnavant, is worse than racial ignorance.
'As a journalist [and a filmmaker], I'm trying to understand what motivates them. I try to get in somebody's head,' explains Dunnavant. As a result of this process, Dunnavant lets the audience get into the minds the 'great characters' tucked inside 'Three Days at Foster,' the lost stories of those who helped shape not just college athletics, but an evolving culture as a whole.