Short film based on MarShawn McCarrel poem screens at the Wexner Center

Obituaries are chapbooks of the dead down south,

You would think R.I.P was our favorite team.

That our primary language was drunken eulogy on musty carpets

where we speak of heaven as if we've been there.

—MarShawn McCarrel

Words matter. MarShawn McCarrel knew this.

“One thing we always used to talk about was that your words live on. They live forever,” said MarShawn's twin brother, MarQuan. “It's really cool that [MarShawn] was able to complete this kind of project, something that will continue to affect people in a powerful and positive way.”

“This kind of project” refers to the short film “Down South,” based on a poem written by MarShawn, who also plays one of the two main characters in the film, which was produced by Sheila Fagan, a former high school teacher of MarShawn's, and directed by Bob Yothers. Filming was completed before MarShawn, a spoken-word artist and community activist, took his own life on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in February 2016.

When Fagan heard from her friend Yothers that he was looking for fresh approaches and young talent with which to work on a new film, she immediately recommended MarShawn.

“He had a presence,” Yothers recalled of his first meeting with the young man. “I asked him if he had some poetry he'd like to see turned into a film and he said, ‘Yeah I have just the thing.' I think he sent ‘Down South' to me within the hour.”

The poem is based on experiences MarShawn had spending time in the American South with his grandmother. “I'm from North Carolina,” said Leatha Wellington, MarShawn's mother. “We lived there for a little while, and they understood my main reason for wanting to move back to Columbus: for better opportunities. They heard from my mom the stories about how things used to be, and saw how things still are.”

The film features powerful and potentially uncomfortable images and scenes interspersed with MarShawn performing the poem. Yothers, openly acknowledging the challenges of working on the piece as a white filmmaker, sought near-constant feedback from MarShawn during filming, which was done at several Central Ohio locations.

“I wanted to be culturally sensitive, and I didn't want to come at it from a white perspective, so I worked with MarShawn to make sure I understand the meaning and slang and metaphor. I had him drill me on things. … As we got into production, I had some really strong imagery: a burning cross, nooses, a gunshot victim. At one point we have MarShawn in a coffin. We knew that was going to be strong, and he said, ‘Let's not pull any punches.'”

“Down South” will receive its second local screening during Saturday's Ohio Shorts film festival at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The film, Yothers said, is also in the running for inclusion on several notable film festivals. Yothers and Fagan both acknowledged an added responsibility to MarShawn's message of justice in the face of racial inequality following his death.

“MarShawn was speaking about these things with a vision and deeper understanding that Bob and I could never have,” Fagan said.

“MarShawn was always working on so many projects. I didn't always know what he was doing. I never talked to him about this film,” Wellington said. “I'm very grateful to Bob and Sheila for being able to capture some of MarShawn's talent, and thankful that this is another part of his legacy that will continue on.”