‘James Hemings’, ‘Hi I’m Blake’, ‘Shady Grove’, ‘The Willowbook’ Deals, More — Film Briefs – Deadline


EXCLUSIVE: Buffalo 8 has set a November 4 release date on Prime Video for James Hemings: Ghost In America’s Kitchen. The historical documentary follows the profound life of James Hemings, the first American to train as a chef in France, who at 8 years old was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson.

If you’ve ever eaten macaroni and cheese, French fries, crème brulée or ice cream you’ve enjoyed the contributions of Hemings, an older brother of Sally Hemings, who gave birth to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children. He also was a half-sibling of Jefferson’s wife Martha Jefferson, with whom he shared John Wayles as father.

When Jefferson was appointed Minister to France he selected, among others, Hemings to accompany him to Paris. There he trained to be a French chef and, in an era where enslaved people were purposefully kept illiterate, Chef Hemings learned to read, write and speak both English and French.

Through Interviews with food historians, celebrated chefs, experts on race and the African American diaspora, Chef Ashbell McElveen and filmmaker Anthony Werhun explore the life, contributions and erasure of James Hemings.

“Growing up a Black kid, the son of cooks in the segregated South, I had no idea that American cuisine was crafted by someone who looked like me,” McElveen said. “James Hemings is the most overlooked revolutionary figure in American history, and it’s time for his story to be told.”

James Hemings: Ghost In America’s Kitchen was directed by Werhun. McElveen produced, with executive producers including Werhun, Kelly Ryan, Dan Schwartz, Shannon LaNier, Esteban Granados, Greg Gertmenian, Jay Burnley, Nikki Stier Justice, Luke Taylor and Matthew Helderman.

The deal was negotiated by Buffalo 8 head of distribution Nikki Stiers Justice with Schwartz on behalf of S3 Productions and the filmmaking team.


EXCLUSIVE: Utopia has acquired North American rights to Hi I’m Blake and will debut the film on VOD platforms. The feature documentary, which inspired the Hi I’m documentary anthology series on Magnolia Network, follows Blake Hyland and his inspirational true story. 


Filming Hi I’m Blake began in 2014 following a life-altering gymnastics accident that left Hyland in a coma, and his friends and family clinging to hope for a miracle. After weeks of waiting, at last his eyes open, and his optimistic family refuses to believe in anything less than a full recovery. Hi I’m Blake follows the Hylands’ struggle to paint a new picture for their lives. As Blake attempts to reintegrate into society with a traumatic brain injury, it is a mystery whether he will ever walk again, gain an education, or return to his former life. The inspirational story captures the joy of a boy with profound hope, the sacrificial love of a family, and seeks to answer the question, “When will Blake fully recover?”

“The trust we shared made capturing the Hylands life organic and one of the greatest joys of my life. Although filming over six years and narrowing down the moments from their story to share was a challenge, the vulnerability and strength the Hylands showed throughout the ups and downs made it worth every moment.” said director Jon Michael Simpson. “Blake is someone I look up to immensely. In the film, he will continually draw you in with his charisma, humor, and care for others — making him impossible to divert your eyes from.”

“Hi I’m Blake is one of the rare documentaries that will connect with audiences on an emotional and educational level,” said Cole Harper, co-founder of Utopia. “Jon Michael and his team did a fantastic job covering the real-life events and recovery of Blake Hyland alongside his family over a six-year period. This is a special film that will resonate with families and individuals looking for inspiration or a heartwarming story. We can’t wait to hear people’s reactions after seeing the movie.”

Hi I’m Blake was produced by Simpson, Jeff McQuitty, Russell Wayne Groves and Lee Rothenflue, with original music by Hanan Townshend and McQuitty. 


EXCLUSIVE: Reciprocity Project, a collaboration between Nia Tero and Upstander Project in association with REI Co-op Studios, launches its first series of original short films made by Indigenous directors on their homelands. The films, previously released at film festivals, are now streaming at reciprocity.org and on REI’s YouTube channel for all to enjoy in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Reciprocity Project

Reciprocity Project season one celebrates cultures and learnings from Indigenous communities across Turtle Island in the U.S. and Colombia. The filmmakers worked alongside crucial community partners, infusing the films with their perspectives on reciprocity and their relationships to the land and animals around them. 

“Stories from Indigenous peoples about being in reciprocity with the Earth are essential in delivering messages of truth, healing, and transformative change,” said executive producer Tracy Rector, who is also Managing Director, Storytelling, at Nia Tero. “Our survival is the result of the efforts from many ancestors who came before us. With the Reciprocity Project films as a guide, we ask ourselves – and you: what does ‘reciprocity’ mean to your community, and what kind of ancestor do you want to be?” 

The Reciprocity Project season one films and filmmakers are: Diiyeghan naii Taii Tr’eedaa (We Will Walk the Trail of our Ancestors) by Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Alisha Carlson (Gwich’in); ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught) by Brit Hensel and Keli Gonzales (Cherokee Nation); SŪKŪJULA TEI (Stories of My Mother) by David Hernández Palmar and Flor Palmar (Wayuu Iipuana); Weckuwapasihtit (Those Yet to Come) by Geo Neptune and Brianna Smith (Passamaquoddy); Weckuwapok (The Approaching Dawn) by Jacob Bearchum, Taylor Hensel, Adam Mazo, Chris Newell, Roger Paul, Kavita Pillay, Tracy Rector, and Lauren Stevens; Ma’s House by Jeremy Dennis (Shinnecock Indian Nation); and Pili Ka Moʻo by Justyn Ah Chong and Malia Akutagawa (Kanaka Maoli). The producers of Reciprocity Project are Taylor Hensel, Adam Mazo, and Kavita Pillay. The executive producers are Tracy Rector of Nia Tero and Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby of REI Co-op Studios. Cristina Mittermeier, Hindou Imbrahim, and Yo-Yo Ma are co-executive producers. 

“These seven remarkable films are an invitation to start a conversation about taking good care of each other, our families, neighbors and communities,” said Adam Mazo, Reciprocity Project producer and creative director at Upstander Project. “As the world navigates an escalating climate crisis, these films are designed to uplift Indigenous value systems that have steered and bolstered communities since time immemorial.” 

“We believe stories can inspire a more equitable, empathetic outdoor community, and we are committed to elevating diversity and representation in the storytellers we partner with,” says Paolo Mottola, REI Co-op Director of Content and Media. “We are inspired by the Reciprocity Project filmmakers and believe audiences will appreciate the perspectives and creative excellence in their films.”  

The Reciprocity Project is in production for its second season with a new cohort of Indigenous filmmakers from Kenya, Finland, Sierra Leone, Rotuma, Taiwan, the United States and beyond.


EXCLUSIVE: Gravitas Ventures has acquired worldwide distribution rights to the horror thriller Shady Grove. The film is slated to be released October 25 on digital platforms.

‘Shady Grove’

Gravitas Ventures

Directed by Dale Resteghini, Shady Grove tells the story of a young African-American couple, Shaina (Niki McElroy) and Mark (Todd Anthony), as they leave behind their party lifestyle to find tranquility in an isolated rental cabin with their friend, Elijah (Juhahn Jones). It doesn’t take long for them to realize they have checked into a sinister nightmare as the locals reveal the true reason for their solitude. Shady Grove is a fictional story that incorporates the role of women in Greek mythology and sets them in our current and controversial Roe v Wade world.

Nathan Dalton and McElroy scripted and produced the movie with Bernard Chong and Solomon Mercado executive producing. 

“Nathan and I wrote this script well before the current state of our fight for women’s rights, and yet we hope it serves as a reminder that a group of intelligent and fed up women can be extremely powerful and mighty scary. I am thrilled that Gravitas understood what we were trying to accomplish with our film, and agreed to become our champion and distributor,” said McElroy.

Shady Grove was financed by Bren Investments. The deal was negotiated by Brett Rogalsky and Brendan Gallagher at Gravitas Ventures.


EXCLUSIVE: Kuhoo Verma is set to star in the feature Space Cadet opposite Emma Roberts, Gabrielle Union and Poppy Liu. Verma most recently starred in Hulu’s Plan B and is a Lucille Lortel winner for her performance in Dave Malloy’s musical Octet.

Kuhoo Verma

Space Cadet follows Florida party girl Rex (Roberts), who turns out to be the only hope for the NASA space program after a fluke puts her in training with other candidates who may have better resumes, but don’t have her smarts, heart and moxie.

Verma will star as Violet Marie, one of the candidates selected to join the Astronaut Training Program at the Johnson Space Center. Filled with self-doubt, she’s convinced she’s not going to make it. She’s got asthma, migraines, acid reflux, insomnia, rosacea and anxiety galore. Rex’s roommate, she arrives with a fridge-sized suitcase in hand, and immediately states she knows at least six other people who applied “who’d be way better than me.” However, despite her self-doubts, Violet Marie is highly accomplished. She’s an astrophysicist who works at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource lab — and she self-publishes romance novels that are all set in space.

Kuhoo is represented by Innovative Artists and Namoff & Co.


EXCLUSIVE: Gravitas Ventures has acquired worldwide distribution rights for the social thriller The Willowbrook. The film is slated to be released November 8 on digital platforms.

Gravitas Ventures

Written and Directed by Zach Koepp, it tells the story of a renowned wellness influencer who invites one of her recently overdosed followers to seek recovery at her small-town manor. Once the follower arrives, she realizes the dark world existing within the manor is not what she–nor millions of others–perceived from the internet.

With a gripping and fast-paced tone that adds a new element to the thriller genre, The Willowbrook explores the duplicitous side of social media and wellness.

“Telling the story of The Willowbrook was important to me because we’re in a digital age that blends wellness and social media. I’m an advocate for self-improvement and I’m an advocate for people thinking for themselves. This is a story about the abuse of power when vulnerability becomes so raw, an individual allows others to think for themselves instead. Since Gravitas is a leader in digital distribution and social media, and it felt like a perfect home for our film,” said Koepp.

The deal was negotiated with Glen Reynolds of Circus Road Films.


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