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Auditions open for movie teaser on Duluth lynchings

It's a Sunday morning in June, 1920, inside a Duluth cafe where several white patrons are eating breakfast after church. In walk Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhee, two of the three black circus workers who would be dead two days later, the victims o...

Screenwriter Dale Botten hopes to produce a full-length feature film on the infamous 1920 Duluth lynchings. He's standing in front of the former Duluth police station and jail where an angry mob abducted three black circus workers before beating and hanging them. (Photo by Scott Tchida)

It's a Sunday morning in June, 1920, inside a Duluth cafe where several white patrons are eating breakfast after church.

In walk Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhee, two of the three black circus workers who would be dead two days later, the victims of a mob hate-crime of epic proportion.

The situation is fictional; there's no evidence it actually occurred. But filmmaker Dale Botten is using some artistic license, hoping to create a scene so compelling it will lead to a full-length feature film about Duluth's infamous 1920 lynchings that were all too real.

Botten, 69, a Superior native who now lives at Lake Nebagamon, has been working for a decade to turn Michael Fedo's 1979 book "The Lynchings in Duluth" into a full-length feature film. The effort, a screenplay for a proposed movie called "Hate Storm," so far has advanced at a snail's pace.

On Tuesday Botten is holding auditions for a "teaser scene" he hopes to film in late July. He needs local actors to come and give their best to create a few minutes on film that will turn heads and drop jaws.


"It's been baby steps for 10 years. Now, I guess this is a bigger step," Botten said of what has become his life's ambition.


Looking for investor

If the teaser is successful, and if the right people see it, "Hate Storm" could become a reality. (Unless they are really good, however, actors in the teaser probably won't be the actors in the actual movie.)

"Teasers are a scene from the screenplay that you hope are so compelling that they capture the essence of the whole script," Botten said. "You also hope they capture the attention of someone who feels compelled to invest in the film ... or a larger movie company who can take this on."

Botten read "The Lynchings in Duluth" and couldn't put it down. A lifelong film buff and part-time screenwriter and filmmaker, he says he knew the story needed to be told on film as well as in print.

"At first I saw it not so much as a big social statement but as a great, great story. Michael's book is so beautifully written," Botten said. "Eventually, I came to realize that his is a story that still needs to be told today."

The goal, Botten said, is a movie that helps heal the community - a move that brings white and blacks together, rather than further dividing us. That's why Alina Barnes, a local community activist, decided to get involved. She's working to include members of the Twin Ports black and white communities before, during and after the movie is made.


"We want to see this secret out there, not swept under the rug, so we can all heal from it,'' said Barnes, host of the local cable television show "The Truth in Duluth" and associate producer of the movie. "It's an amazing screenplay, but it's raw. It's going to be a raw movie. ... But the story needs to be out there. It's a story that our young people need to know."

The story - how three black circus workers were arrested for a rape that likely never occurred, were pulled from their jail cells by thousands of angry white Duluth residents and hanged on a downtown lightpole, murdered by a lynch mob - is ingrained in Duluth's history and psyche and memorialized by the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie memorial on First Street.

But the lynchings would become a national or even international story if Hollywood gets ahold of it, Botten said. So he took out a loan and purchased the movie rights to Fedo's book and has been working ever since to get the cameras rolling.

In 2006 he wrote a first-draft screenplay, then titled "Alamo-Duluth." In 2010, Botten won a $20,000 prize for creative screenwriting and one critic called the screenplay "potential Oscar bait." The work received other accolades and awards in 2011 and in 2015.

He's created a Go Fund Me site, a website and Facebook page. But recognition, and especially production money, have proven elusive.


Setting the scene

In the cafe encounter, Botten brings together truth and fiction. He sets the scene for Duluth Police Sgt. Oscar Olson to become the hero of the movie, the real-life police officer who worked valiantly but unsuccessfully to keep the three men safe from the mob.


Botten brings Jackson and McGhie into the cafe to be the targets of overt racism by another real character, Louis Dondino, the owner of a small Duluth trucking company who was a leading instigator of the mob that formed on Duluth streets. In Botten's screenplay, Dondino happens to be in the cafe that morning and spews his racist venom at the two black men. But Sgt. Olson also is in the cafe and stands up to Dondino, quashing any violence that might have happened then.

Dondino's hate in the cafe, however, portends the evil action to come.

"This isn't over," Dondino vows.

Indeed, it wasn't over. The lynchings occurred two days later. (Dondino, who reportedly used his truck to bring more people to the mob from across the city, was convicted of rioting and served a year in prison for his actions.)

Riki McManus, director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office, said the nation's current struggles with race and justice might help Botten sell his idea.

"The race issue is high on the board right now. The timing could be very right for Dale to find someone who sees this historical piece as a reflection of what people are talking about today," McManus said.

Barnes agreed.

"Back then, black lives didn't matter," she said. "But this story also has heroes - people who tried to step in and stop the violence. ... It teaches our youth to stand up for what is right, no matter how many people are against you," Barnes said. "It also teaches that there is strength in numbers. Back then (the lynchings) it was used in bad way. Now, we can use it in a positive way."

McManus, whose office would step in to help if the region is in the running for production of the actual film, said Botten has a passion to make the film a reality.

"He keeps plugging away, trying to find the right person who can make it happen," she said, noting Botten may have to decide between being involved personally and seeing a big company take the project over.

Botten expects to spend just a few thousand dollars making the teaser scene. The hardest part is finding a cafe location or set that is authentic to 1920. To replicate that for a whole movie - where wardrobe and cars and street scenes and buildings are all authentic to the period - will probably push a real move into the $10-$15 million range, he said.

"I had a company out of Los Angeles figure it a few years ago and they came up with $26 million. But that was California dollars ... and I think it could be done for about half that," Botten said.

If all goes well, Botten hopes the full movie will make its debut in 2019 or 2020 at the latest - the 100 year anniversary of the lynchings.

Botten, who is a Marine Corp veteran and spent 19 years training soldiers for the Wisconsin National Guard, said he will keep trying until the move is made.

"I remember something our drill sergeant said in boot camp. Never give up. Never quit," he said. "That still sticks with me today."


If you go

  • Auditions for "teaser scene" for "Hate Storm,'' a movie about Duluth's 1920 lynchings.
  • Tuesday, 1 to 4 p.m.
  • Duluth Community Center, 2424 West Fifth St.
  • Actors needed: Up to 20 people, including seven with speaking roles, including two black males to play Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, four white males and a white female. About a dozen people will be needed for nonspeaking background roles.
  • Scene shooting is scheduled for late July in Duluth.
  • For more information call Dale Botten (218) 343-9792.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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