CEDAR FALLS – With a single click, consumers can purchase or download a movie or music video from Amazon.com. It’s not so easy when you’re trying to get the world’s largest online retailer to sell your documentary.
University of Northern Iowa English professor and author Jeff Copeland discovered “there are a surprising number of hoops to jump through, and the odds of getting on Amazon are really miniscule.”
“The Story of Shelley v. Kraemer” is based on Copeland’s critically-acclaimed literary nonfiction book, “Olivia’s Story: The Conspiracy of Heroes Behind Shelley vs. Kraemer.” The film describes what lead up to the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court landmark civil rights ruling that ended real estate covenants dictating where people could and could not purchase property based on race, color, creed, religion and national origin.
In 1945, the J.D. Shelley family attempted to purchase a home in St. Louis. They were denied the purchase because they were African-American. Five individuals bravely banded together to purchase the home for Shelley through a clever ruse. Olivia Perkins, a subject of an earlier Copeland book, “Inman’s War: A Soldier’s Story in a Colored Battalion in WWII,” was one of those individuals. When Shelley was caught, he found himself embroiled in a legal battle the author says laid the foundation for “Brown v. Board of Education” and subsequent civil rights cases.
The Missouri History Museum asked Copeland to make the documentary released as a featured attraction for the museum’s year-long exhibit, “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle.” Nearly three-quarters of a million people from the U.S. and around the world viewed the film since its 2017 release.
“I’m so excited about having the film available through Amazon that I can barely sit still. It’s the culmination of a dream because I wanted to get this story out to kids and into schools. This was one of the most important civil rights rulings in our country,” said Copeland.
Preparing the documentary for release on Amazon was time-consuming. “The film had to be in a specific format, and we worked day and night to get it into the right format and close-captioned, too. After the film was uploaded to Amazon, we got error messages — little red checkmarks — for things that needed to be corrected to pass muster. At every turn, you’re told, ‘you’re wrong, Mister,’ but we persisted and got it successfully uploaded.”
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An Amazon review board spent a week vetting the documentary before its official release. It took nearly six months to bring the film to Amazon customers.
“We kept the price at 99 cents on Amazon video so that schools all across the country and the world would actually be able to afford it and be able to show it to their students. Also people who have Amazon Prime membership can view it for free as part of their subscription service,” Copeland explains.
The documentary’s running time is 15 minutes, a shortened version of the original documentary, which allows time for classroom discussion. The original full-length version clocked in at about 90 minutes.
Copeland’s uncle, professional photographer Douglas Hartley, helped film the documentary. Laney Kraus-Taddeo, a digital media student at UNI and Joe Marchesani, coordinator of UNI’s audio/video services, were involved in the production. Kraus-Taddeo served as producer. UNI colleagues and local community members did voiceovers. John Vallentine, UNI associate provost for faculty and former UNI School of Music director, wrote the music score.
Copeland filmed on location in St. Louis’ Ville neighborhood, as well as other locations. He interviewed survivors involved in the 1940s case, now in their 80s and 90s, and surviving Shelley family members, including the Shelley’s only surviving child who was 9 when the events occurred.
“Her memories of that time were burned into her memory. The hate and violence the family went through was staggering, and at one point, I started crying as she told of being pulled into an alley and being attacked. At the end of our interview, I just hugged her and thanked her for all she did to change the color and face of our nation,” he said.
Copeland was allowed to film inside the Shelley home, a privately owned home that also is a registered National Historic Landmark. “I swear I felt the presence of the Shelley family and others associated with this case while I was seated by the front window. It was a soulful experience, one I’ll never forget,” he said.