A Lakeland film company has landed the rights to produce a documentary on infamous Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.
Indie Atlantic Studios has optioned the rights to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King’s books “Devil In The Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America” and “Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.” Producer and director Katie McEntire Wiatt said they expect production to begin this year.
“Right now we’re in the development phase and so we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to wrap that up in the next several months and then start production as soon as that is over,” McEntire Wiatt said. “If everything went as planned, we would hope to start production later this year.”
McEntire Wiatt, 41, is best known for a film she directed, “Fly Like A Girl,” an award-winning documentary about female aviators. It features interviews with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, veteran NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, and U.S. National Aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff and is currently streaming on multiple platforms.
The Willis McCall film will be produced by Binta Niambi Brown, Matthew Wiatt, and Andy McEntire, with McEntire Wiatt set to direct. Gilbert King will also be working on the film as a producer and has opened his research files to the producers.
McCall was a violent sheriff during the Jim Crow era and beyond. He served eight terms in office from 1944 until 1972.
In the July 1949 Groveland case, four Black males — Ernest Thomas and Charles Greenlee, both 16, and Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin, both 22 —were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman and beating her husband. Thomas died later that month while trying to elude McCall’s posse, which shot him more than 400 times. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, while Greenlee received a life sentence.
McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd in November 1951 when he was transporting them to a new trial. Shepherd died and Irvin later told state and federal investigators that McCall shot them out of vengeance. McCall claimed self-defense and was not indicted.
He was also acquitted of the 1972 murder of Tommy Vickers, a mentally disabled black prisoner who died in his custody. McCall died in 1994.
The Groveland Four were pardoned posthumously by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019. The raped woman, who was then 86, told the clemency board that the men were guilty.
DeSantis has also crusaded against teaching about the systematic racism that was – and some say still is – pervasive in Florida.
“That is one of the huge reasons that we want to make this documentary,” McEntire Wiatt said. “Not everybody is going to necessarily pick up books, and especially books that heavy, and read them. And so, that’s our hope — that by doing a documentary, that it’s just a different medium to get the stories out. And I think it’s even more relevant in some ways to the current climate and what’s going on today.”
McEntire Wiatt said when she taught fourth grade several years ago, she incorporated history into her state-mandated reading lessons, utilizing resources and lesson plans from the University of South Florida. One plan covered the civil rights work of Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette.
Harry Moore had called for the new trial of Shepherd and Irvin, which the U.S. Supreme Court granted, saying no evidence had been presented at the first trial. Moore also called on Gov. Fuller Warren to suspend McCall and for McCall to be indicted for murder after the two defendants were shot in 1951.
The Moores were then murdered on Christmas Day 1951 – six weeks after he demanded McCall’s the suspension and indictment — when a bomb exploded under their bedroom.
Five investigations have been conducted regarding the Moores’ murders over the years, but no one was ever arrested. In 2004, then-Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist reopened an investigation and in 2006 named four known Ku Klux Klansmen from Orange County — Earl Brooklyn, Tillman Belvin, Joseph Cox and Edward Spivey — as the probable murderers. Brooklyn, Blevin and Cox died within a year of the bombing, while Spivey made a deathbed confession in 1978 and implicated Cox.
“When my students would read those stories, that particular story on him and his wife, they were just blown away and they have a lot of questions and it brought up a lot of great discussions,” McEntire Wiatt said. “And so I think that, for me, knowing that I didn’t know that story until I was in my 30s — and there’s a lot of people like us — I think it’s just even more important that this gets out there for people to see this in the medium of film.”
The McEntires grew up in various Florida towns and cities with their parents, David and Nancy McEntire. Their father recently retired as the longtime pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland. McEntire Wiatt said she other family members moved here so their film company would be centrally located, which also meant they would live close to their parents.
The film will also address Mabel Norris Reese, a journalist, editor and owner of the Mount Dora Topic newspaper. Norris Reese at first backed McCall in his run for sheriff. But following the Groveland shooting, she interviewed Irvin and began questioning McCall and his version of events. Following those stories, the family dog was poisoned, her house was firebombed twice and a cross was burned on her lawn.
A competing newspaper was started and her advertisers were told to switch to the other paper. She left Mount Dora, but continued her crusading reporting against McCall and the Ku Klux Klan.
“We are very much grateful that Gilbert King is allowing us to work with him on this and to be able to utilize his extensive research that he’s done on the topics and some of the papers and stuff that he has are things that we would not have access to otherwise,” McEntire Wiatt said, adding that Norris Reese’s papers are among those things. “A lot of that has not been kept in the way that some of her other writings has and so I think that if it wasn’t for those — her original writing that her daughter and then later granddaughter kept — we would not have access to that.”
McEntire Wiatt said reading “Devil In The Grove” and “Beneath A Ruthless Sun” were not the first time she came across Sheriff McCall’s name.
She was doing a documentary several years ago on the Methodist Youth Camp in Fruitland Park in Lake County, interviewing the son of the man who founded it, Warren Willis.
“One of the things he wanted to do was integrate the camp and McCall actually came to the camp and threatened to shut it down and chain the gates of the camp if he continued to do that,” McEntire Wiatt said.
“Thankfully, Warren was brave enough to not listen. But Fruitland Park plays a huge role in the story of ‘Beneath A Ruthless Sun,’ which, it’s interesting: When I read the book, and I read about a lot of the places that are very familiar to me growing up, having lived in Ocklawaha, but then also having grown up going to the Methodist Youth Camp and driving through a lot of those towns and knowing a lot of those places. There’s definitely, I think for us, there’s this real personal connection and this urgency to tell a story and making sure that people know it so that it doesn’t get lost. And I think we feel a particular responsibility because of having lived and grown up in that area.”
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