Mark Lomax brings '400: An Afrikan Epic' to the big screen

A new documentary based on the drummer and composer's 12-album cycle on Black America's 400-year history premieres at the Ohio History Center on Wednesday

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Mark Lomax

400: An Afrikan Epic occupied about three and a half years of drummer and composer Mark Lomax’s life. The 12-album cycle traces Black America from the beginning of the slave trade in 1619 through today and into the future using a blend of classical, jazz, gospel and other music forms in solo, duo, trio, quartet and larger ensemble arrangements. The enormous undertaking is undoubtedly Lomax’s magnum opus.  

But as a new documentary reveals, much of the project’s success can be traced back to the bonds of friendship among a core group of musicians: Lomax, Edwin Bayard (soprano and tenor sax), William Menefield (piano) and Dean Hulett (bass). “It shows four African American men who love each other, and they love their people, and they do the work for the people, which I think runs counter to the prevailing narrative about Black masculinity and toxic masculinity,” Lomax said of the “400: An African Epic” documentary. “We're trying to be better examples of what better is, and using our artistic platform to share those values.”

Lomax first met the filmmaking team of Charles Hairston and Jason Wood while the pair were working on a documentary about Logan Rollins, a saxophonist who recorded multiple albums while imprisoned at the Ohio Penitentiary. The three developed a good working relationship that continued as Lomax began working on 400. Over time, Hairston and Wood filmed individual and group interviews, rehearsals and other sessions leading up to the 2019 premiere of the "400 Years Suite" at the Lincoln Theatre, a performance that anchors the film. 

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m., the filmmakers will screen the finished documentary for the first time at the Ohio History Center. A reception will precede the viewing, and after the 70-minute film, Lomax will engage in a Q&A session (register for free here). The film will also be simultaneously livestreamed to a national audience.  

Viewing the film in full was overwhelming, said Lomax, who’s still processing the aftershocks of the 400 project. “At that deeper spiritual level, I have the utmost confidence in being connected to something greater than me that inspires me to do things that I never thought I could ever or would ever do," he said. 

The project’s curriculum guide also made its way into local schools, and kids from Transit Arts, a citywide youth arts group featured in the film, are now “leading storytelling projects with elders in their communities as a means of closing the generation gap and making sure that their elders feel valued,” Lomax said. “Some of that is inspired by the 400, and I'm absolutely proud of that.” 

Lomax also spent a week bringing the work to the University of Central Oklahoma, which sparked many on- and off-campus conversations. “I had a woman there come to me and say, ‘I'm an ex-Marine. I'm as white as they come. But I learned so much from this work and from you being here that I've made the choice to connect with people that I never knew before,’” Lomax said.

Still, Lomax is eager for 400 to make more of an impact. “COVID notwithstanding, I did have expectations that doing a work of this magnitude would help me cut through the noise in the art world nationally and internationally,” he said. “I honestly don't feel like it's done that. So I don't know that the whole idea of what I thought it would be has been fully nourished.” 

Particularly in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests that sparked a revived racial justice movement across the globe, Lomax had hoped that the 400 project would position the musicians involved as resources to the country in terms of “understanding American history through the lens of the African American/African narrative, so we can get in the same space intellectually and maybe even emotionally, and then move forward and heal together,” he said. “It feels like the prevailing narrative has actually been the opposite. We've become more divisive. We've become more isolated, and maybe that's why it's been hard for me to feel like the work has met its full potential. … Maybe folks right now aren't ready to heal and come together and make the country what it can be.”

Divisive and inaccurate debates regarding critical race theory and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project have complicated the discussions, as well, though Lomax argues there’s an easy middle ground that tends to get overlooked. “Regardless of how people understand American history and American culture right now, we should agree on the very simple fact that we're all human beings, and as human beings, we have a story to tell,” he said.

More:The Other Columbus: Canceling critical race theory won’t make America great

If nothing else, though, the 400 film beautifully depicts diversity in harmony, not only with Lomax and his core group of Black musicians, but in participating ensembles such as UCelli, with Asian American and Canadian representation. And onstage at the Lincoln, Lomax and his fellow musicians display an ever-present melding of diverse musical styles.

“Those musics typically aren't supposed to go together. But now you have two ensembles from two different worlds playing the same music,” Lomax said. “I think that's a metaphor for how we can engage each other as human beings in American society and global society. … And it doesn't have to be disjointed or convoluted. Everybody has a place because we respect each other's voice.”