The Bell Affair

Daniel and Mary Bell sued for their freedom from slavery and won. After slaveholders threaten to re-enslave them and their children, the Bells led one of the largest escape attempts in American history. Their inspiring story is brought to cinema for the first time.

The film features first-time filmmaker and director Kwakiutl Dreher, first-time feature-length animator and artist Michael Burton, and prize-winning historian and Guggenheim Fellow William G. Thomas III.

Filmed and directed remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, the cast was never in the same room with each other or with the director at the same time.

  • Kwakiutl Dreher
    Anna, The Eyes of Isabelle
  • Kwakiutl L Dreher
  • William G Thomas, III
  • Michael Burton
    Anna, A Gold Slipper
  • Myeisha Essex
    Key Cast
    "Mary Bell"
    Eternal Night of the Dead
  • Anthony Wilcox
    Key Cast
    "Daniel Bell"
    Kismet, For My Memory, Water Helps the Blood Run, Last Shot,
  • Wayne Matychuk
    Key Cast
    "Francis Scott Key"
    Paralyzed, A Gold Slipper, Night Guard
  • Michael H Burton
    Art Direction
    Anna, A Gold Slipper
  • Project Type:
    Animation, Feature
  • Genres:
    Drama, Historical
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 22 minutes 33 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    December 13, 2021
  • Production Budget:
    210,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Kwakiutl Dreher

Kwakiutl L. Dreher is a screenwriter, actor, director, playwright, and author. A native of South Carolina, she writes about African American literature, film, visual, and popular culture. She is the author of Dancing on the White Page: Black Women Entertainers Writing Autobiography (SUNY Press) and numerous articles and essays. Dreher wrote and acted in Anna (2018). She has also played Mamie Till in Anne & Emmett, Mrs. Harriet Gottlieb in Dead Man's Cellphone, and Louise in the film The Eyes of Isabelle. Her one-woman show, In A Smoke-Filled Room, Color Matters, was a playlab selection at the Great Plains Theater Festival after its theatrical debut at The Haymarket Theater in Lincoln, Nebraska. A storyteller at heart, she has written and recorded stories for public radio. Dreher is currently at work on a murder mystery set in her hometown, Columbia, South Carolina. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

Born and raised in South Carolina, I am a filmmaker, writer, playwright, and director telling stories about how people navigated and negotiated life in the American South. The Bell Affair is my debut feature film.

Growing up I witnessed the legacies of slavery and segregation everywhere around me. My family traces its roots into the eighteenth century, and we have an intimate association with sharecropping, Jim Crow, lynching, civil rights, and integration. My family's experiences, their memory, their strength, their example, inspire my creative expressions.

The Bell Affair is the story of an enslaved family and the political and personal whirlwinds they battled as they sought freedom. In telling their story I hope Americans will see slavery in more personal terms. Too often slavery is depicted as nameless and faceless. Few enslaved families are mentioned in history textbooks. I want to move audiences to understand the experience of these families and see them in ways that they will never forget. I also want audiences to care about this history in ways that move them to reckon with the legacies of history in their own lives. I want the Bells, and other families like them, to be remembered.

Co-written with historian and Guggenheim Fellow, William G. Thomas III, The Bell Affair relies on what he calls "historical imagination"--the idea that we must use our imagination to illuminate the lives of people for whom there are few documentary records. We draw on an extensive and detailed analysis of the original archival documents about the Bell family, but we have written their dialogue around and through what can discern from these records.

We are trying in this film to move beyond the commonsense notions of enslavement depicted so often in film: the slave ship, the slaver’s whip, the chain, and the auction block. Slavery was brutal, violent, and dehumanizing, but too many have trafficked in its violence, perpetuated its trauma, and fed on its brutality. We need fresh stories, equally unflinching, but more attuned to the full range of human experience and emotion. These concerns are at the forefront of my directing: how might we articulate the inner or private selves of the enslaved, the white residents, and the politicians? In every scene I asked myself: what strategies would enslaved families deploy to steal joy and to make love a fugitive so it cannot be found to be disrupted by those juridical forces in place to maintain slavery’s status quo? What rhythms and cadences do we hear from the enslaved, the white residents, and the politicians?

We use live action animation because we want to move beyond the commonplace visual images of slavery. Michael Burton, Producer and Lead VFX Art Supervisor, adapts the style of recognizably 19th century etchings to live action film. The effect brings a visceral quality to The Bell Affair that makes dynamic the emotions of our characters as we witness them navigate through the uncertainty of their day-to-day lives.

The Bell Affair imagines day-to-day interactions with and conversations held by a community of enslaved individuals in 19th century Washington, D. C., negotiating time and resistance moves, as well as weighing out their thoughts and ideas. By putting an enslaved family at the center of this American story, I hope to inspire and guide the next generation.