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The making of 'Rescue Men'

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Years before George Lucas snagged headlines with his film “Red Tails,” authors/producers David Wright and David Zoby set out to tell the story of another trailblazing group of African American service men.

In the book “Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers” (published in 2001) and in the film “Rescue Men: The Story of the Pea Island Life Savers” (released in 2010), Wright and Zoby chronicled the exploits a seemingly forgotten all-black unit of the United States Life-Saving Service (a precursor to the United States Coast Guard) who fought storms and saved lives off North Carolina's Outer Banks.

On Tuesday Feb. 28, both Wright and Zoby will be in town for a screening of “Rescue Men” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture. In preparation for the trip, Wright spoke with Qcitymetro last week and explained why, although he is a Texas native, he was drawn to the story.

“I didn’t even know where the Outer Banks were. But Zoby and I were first year grad students in Richmond at [Virginia Commonwealth University]. And Zoby had grown up in Newport News and Tidewater, and so he and his family spent a lot of time in the Outer Banks … Zoby knew about … the Life-Saving Service, but to his knowledge it was white like everything else,” said Wright, who currently teaches English at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. “Zoby came across the picture that’s on the cover of our book. He recognized it as the Life-saving Service, but an all-black station just jumped out to him. So [when] he came to school in the fall … he asked me if I knew anything about it … We just started poking around, thinking we might write something together.

“We started out thinking it would be a school assignment,” he added. “It just turned out that it was this great story on one hand, but also a story that had really not been told.”

According to Wright, early on in the long process of researching the history of the all-black unit, he and Zoby discovered that they wouldn’t be able to count on gleaning any pertinent data from established institutions — such as the Coast Guard.

 Author, producer David Wright

“When we first started working on this, the first thing we did … was contact the Coast Guard, thinking they would give us a lot of information. It turned out that, after just really superficial research, we knew more than the Coast Guard did,” he said. “They just kind of ignored that history.”

Not long after the publication of “Fire on the Beach,” the film industry showed interest in producing a film version. But when it came to actually turning an idea into reality, studios weren’t exactly quick on the draw.

“People were constantly in contact with us like, ‘This is a great story. It should be a movie.’ So, we optioned the rights to the movie several times, but the movie never got made,” said Wright. “And then in 2008, Allan Smith — who is the executive producer of this documentary — contacted us and was like, ‘I’d like to do this.’ Zoby and I were like: ‘Great, you’re about the umpteenth person.’ But he was just more serious.”

Don’t miss your chance to meet Wright and Zoby in person, see the fruits on their labor and learn about another untold gem of African American history this Tuesday at the Harvey Gantt Center (551 S. Tryon St.) from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. This event is free for Gantt Center members and $5 for non-members. RSVP is required. Visit www.ganttcenter.org for more information.



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December 17, 2014
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