Royston Scott’s enlightening documentary film The Sara Spencer Washington Story Premieres at the New Jersey Film Festival on February 11!
Here is an interview I conducted with The Sara Spencer Washington Story Director Royston Scott:
Nigrin: Your film The Sara Spencer Washington Story is an inspiring documentary about the life of Sara Spencer Washington, a young black woman, who became a phenomenal success selling her line of hair products door to door in 1920's Atlantic City. Please tell us more about your film and why you made it.
Scott: The Sara Spencer Washington Story has been a labor of love. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts I have been making movies for the past twenty years in one capacity or another either as an actor, a writer, a director or a designer. This project however is my first documentary. Growing up I had heard my mother and her mother talk about “The Madame” as she was lovingly called amongst themselves yet the subject was never really discussed amongst us children. Sara Spencer Washington had passed away around the time my eldest sibling was born. We had a sense of her importance as vestiges of her legacy were all around us growing up.
She founded the Apex School of Scientific Beauty Culture in the late 1920s featuring her patented hair straightening process for black women. Apex eventually had over 70 hair and beauty products an over 35,000 sales agents nationwide. My mother was her niece and was adopted by The Madame so as to become the sole heir to the extremely lucrative Apex empire.
My mother was very ill the last years of her life just as I was becoming serious about filmmaking. After mother passed away, I was contacted by noted Atlantic City Historian Vicki Gold Levi who told me that Mrs. Washington had been inducted into the Atlantic County Women’s Hall of Fame. When Vicki learned that I was an “underground” filmmaker she suggested that I try something a bit more mainstream... a documentary about my relative whom she (and very many others I was to find out) held in high esteem. I agreed and promised her that I would do it. I was unprepared how emotionally taxing the process would be. My mother and I were very close and I was very angry at myself for not talking to my mother while she was alive about her important role in the company and her relationship with Sara Spencer Washington. I thought that making this documentary would be impossible.
While cleaning out mother’s basement I found a couple of old boxes that contained the impetus (and backbone) that I needed for the film. There were numerous 8x10 black and white promotional and personal photos for apex. Pictures of The Madame, pictures of my mother as a young girl, as the debutante and as the businesswoman, that brought me to tears. I found several crumbling scrapbooks full of newspaper articles from the 1940s – 1950s. I found sales brochures and catalogues. I also found a leather bound presentation copy of the Apex Hair and News, a monthly nationwide magazine for the year 1937.
Armed with this newfound wealth of material I tracked down distant family members all to willing to talk about their experiences working for Apex and The Madame and my mom. Vicki Gold Levi gave me other names of those that I should contact who might be willing to be interviewed for the doc. Each was truly an inspiration. I am also greatly indebted to Professor Jacob Buckhardt (teacher of film at NYC’s Cooper Union, The New School and Pratt) who has been a collaborator on our trilogy of slightly risqué comedic shorts entitled “BLACK MOMENTS IN GREAT HISTORY”. He has been a great friend since the 80’s and agreed to be my cameraperson and editor on this project. Little did we know that it would take us about SEVEN YEARS to complete! Like I said The Sara Spencer Washington Story has been a labor of love.
Nigrin: Your film is very uplifting as Ms. Washington was able to make it in a white world. Is this discussed in your film?
Scott: Mrs. Washington’s story is so uplifting not only to black women but to women in general. This fact is discussed by elderly Apex sales agents, Apex models, and customers in my film. I have been fortunate enough to interview New Jersey historian and founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey Ralph Hunter. Nelson Johnson the author of Boardwalk Empire also describes in great detail The Madame’s role in society in general. He felt so strongly about this that he wrote about her in his book about black life in Atlantic City called The Northside. (I provided him with some of my photos of Sara Spencer Washington for the book.) She understood what it took to create a successful business and to KEEP it successful. One of here mottos was “Now is the time to start a Depression-proof business”. An interviewee recalls The Madame telling her to always say to yourself “I am SOMEBODY!” to “hold your head high!” and to always “Be a lady!” These were important words to live by especially in the racially biased America of the times. Not only was she a philanthropist but the fact that she was one of America’s first black female millionaires made her hard to ignore. She was known by the Astors and the other wealthiest of the wealthy whites of the day. She was able to make a better life for blacks in general as witnessed by her breaking the “race ban” at Atlantic City’s famous Captain Starn’s restaurant. When they refused to serve her she rented out the whole establishment for the day and they HAD to serve her. The restaurant served EVERYONE after that. I have included footage of my original front page headline about this story from “The Telegram” in the documentary. When blacks were not allowed in the famous Easter Parade on the Boardwalk she founded the black version on The Northside. By the 1950’s Apex had the first black float in the “mainstream” Easter Parade. This photo is included as well.
Nigrin: Ms. Washington also started her own cosmetology schools. Is this also mentioned in your film?
Scott: A great portion of pictures in the documentary are of the dozen or so Beauty Colleges where black women could earn a cosmetology degree and become beauticians and even open their own salons using the complete line of Apex products and equipment. With the main offices, factories, and warehouses, drugstores and even a guest house in Atlantic City, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New York were just a few other cites with Apex concerns. You will also see images of The Apex branches in Cuba and Johannesburg, South Africa. At it’s height Apex boasted 3,000 graduates annually. It makes me proud every time that I see the images of hundreds of black women in their caps and gowns and knowing that my family had a great deal to do with their accomplishments.
Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you can rely to our readers?
Scott: Mrs. Washington went to Wanamaker’s department store in Philly to purchase a fur coat. The salesgirl ignored her and waited on several white women first. When the supervisor arrived and found Mrs. Washington being made to wait she sized up the situation and cordially greeted her and asked how she could be of assistance that day. The Madame stated that she wanted to buy ANOTHER new fur. The supervisor replied, “But of course, I will be happy to assist you with that AGAIN!” With that, The Madame bought not one but two new furs on the spot. The salesgirl lost a hefty commission but perhaps she found some compassion that day.
Here is the The Sara Spencer Washington Story Trailer:
The Sara Spencer Washington Story will be screened with two other wonderful documentaries. They are: St. Louis Cemetery Number One by Lewis Goldstein and
…With God Against Man… by Seymon Pinkahasov. Here is more info on this screening:
St. Louis Cemetery Number One - Lewis Goldstein (Cranford, New Jersey)
Filmmaker Lewis Goldstein travels from New Jersey to New Orleans to document one of the most storied cemeteries in America, where some of the most famous and controversial figures in American history have found their final resting place. 2016. 18 min. With an introduction and Q+A session by Director Lewis Goldstein!
The Sara Spencer Washington Story - Royston Scott (New York, New York)
An inspiring documentary about the life of Sara Spencer Washington, a young black woman, who became a phenomenal success selling her line of hair products door to door in 1920's Atlantic City. Her business lasted through the Great Depression, became a million-dollar empire, and gave tens of thousands of black women the opportunity to become self-sufficient. 2016; 28 min. With an introduction and Q+A session by Director Royston Scott!
…With God Against Man… - Seymon Pinkahasov (Brooklyn, New York)
A must-see documentary about the untold heroism of Sousa Mendes, who served as the Portuguese consul general in France between 1939-1940. As refugees began to flee into the South of France, where he was stationed, his government ordered him not to give visas to Jews or to anyone else from countries under German occupation. Mendes decided to act against the wishes of his government, and to help over 30,000 people to avoid certain death. In French and Portuguese, subtitled. 2017; 47 min. With an introduction and Q+A session by Director Seymon Pinkahasov! Co-sponsored by the Rutgers University Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA Centers)!
Saturday, February 11, 2017 at 7:00 p.m.
Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University
71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey
$12=General; $10=Students+Seniors; $9=Rutgers Film Co-op Friends
Information: (848) 932-8482; www.njfilmfest.com
Jimmy John’s of New Brunswick will be providing free food prior to all New Jersey Film Festival Screenings!