After six years, our film, Ezra & Mike, is finally ready for a sneak preview. The documentary focuses on the family of Ezra Buckner purchasing a home here, only to be harassed for their skin color, and a stranger named Mike who came to their aid. The 22-minute documentary, subtitled, “Facing Racial Tension in Forest Park,” will be screened on the second floor of Slainte, 7505 Madison St., on July 29 at 7 p.m. The owner is graciously allowing the Forest Park Historical Society to use this space for free and they’re not charging admission. We’re hoping for feedback from the audience about the film. Ezra & Mike remains a work-in-progress.

If I had known how much work it was going to require, how difficult it would be to work in an unfamiliar art form, I might not have taken on the project. But I’m glad I did because of the people I met. 

The film wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without our original cameraman, Michael Wawzenek. Michael was my across-the-street neighbor. He had just finished a well-received film about Ed’s Way and won a cash prize for another documentary he made. Michael shot interviews with key principals. 

The first was Mike Chiappetta, who is one of the most entertaining people I have ever met. Mike’s colorful phrases and extravagant gestures cracked us up (which was not good for the audio track). Mike was equally compelling, however, when he talked about how painful it had been for the Buckners, whom he tried to protect.

We next interviewed Ezra Buckner. We didn’t catch him at the best time as he was busy promoting a day-long concert in Hyde Park. Ezra went off on a tangent about his career as a music promoter, but this relaxed him enough to talk about his family’s mistreatment in Forest Park. We later filmed interviews with Ezra’s daughters, Shanda and Tunyia, at the place where the mistreatment took place, 1001 Ferdinand. 

After that, Michael left the project to tour Southeast Asia. Deborah Harper stepped in as our new camera operator. She did a great job filming the final interviews. In the meantime, we spoke to many people off camera about the events in Forest Park but could not persuade them to participate in the project. We ended up with six hours of film but lacked the expertise to edit it. 

Fortunately, I was introduced to a Dominican University student named Melissa Tassone. Melissa was a photographer for the school and videographer for the sports teams. She agreed to edit the film for a modest fee. Melissa and I met weekly for two-hour editing sessions. It was grueling and we had to be ruthless about cutting footage. 

I learned from editing a novel that anything that doesn’t advance the story has to go. This meant cutting some compelling but slightly off-topic footage. We shortened the film to 28 minutes but some early critics complained it still felt like six hours. So we trimmed some repetition and a snippet the Buckner family objected to and got it down to its present length. 

It’s been a long journey but I’m thankful I got to meet Ezra and his family. I also enjoyed talking to the Lelivelts, who were so friendly to the Buckners when they were neighbors on Ferdinand. I spoke by telephone with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Ira Berkow, who wrote about Mike and the Forest Park incident. I’m thankful for meeting activist Dick Gregory and his best friend George O’Hara, who helped the Buckners in their time of need. That time was 1975. 

Isn’t it sad that the racial tension and violence they suffered is still rocking our country today?

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.