The Origin of The Groveland Four
By Keith Salkowski
When I came across the story of “the Groveland rape case” in September, 2015, I knew almost instantly that it had everything a storyteller could want: life and death stakes, larger-than-life characters and more plot twists than an Agatha Christie novel. I also discovered that it was a huge national story when it unfolded, so I was astounded to learn that it had never been told on film. I knew I had to make this movie.
I had arrived at WUCF TV about a year earlier, and was looking for a story that lent itself to the long-form documentary format. While we were in a top-20 television market, WUCF was a very new organization, having been started just two years earlier; we were growing, and part of that growth was looking for opportunities to provide content for the PBS system as a whole. We are here primarily to serve our local Central Florida audience, so I wanted a tale that was rooted in our local community. But I also wanted a story that would resonate with audiences across the country. The Groveland case had that and a lot more.
By profession I’m a television producer, but I’m also a student of history. I feel strongly that we can’t know who we are and where we need to go unless we understand how we got here. That applies to individuals as well as nations. It’s a common trope that race is a difficult topic for Americans. Perhaps paradoxically, it’s vital that given our history we must engage in that discussion. But the discussion can’t be useful unless we acknowledge and understand our history as it relates to race and race relations. Egregious cases like Groveland are, sadly, an important and all too common part of that history. And as one of the historians in the film says, we can’t understand how African-Americans see current incidents that involve unequal treatment by law enforcement and the justice system unless we remember and understand cases like The Groveland Four. We must know our common history in order to experience a shared society.
It is my greatest hope that The Groveland Four will do two things. One is to contribute to an understanding of the societal norms that allowed abuses like those seen in the Groveland case to not only occur, but to be supported by the communities in which they occurred. The second is to stimulate discussion about race relations in today’s America. Only by acknowledging that there is a common thread stretching across time from slavery through the Jim Crow system to today’s lingering unequal treatment of the races will we be empowered to make progress toward our “more perfect union.”