January 22, 2014 - Luke Jaden of Independence Township is the writer, producer, and director of a new documentary, "Madman or Martyr," and he's not yet old enough to vote.
Jaden, 17, a senior at Detroit County Day School, made the documentary about John Brown, militant abolitionist of the 1850s, along with the Abolitionist Movement, Underground Railroad, and Detroit's role in it from 1837-1859.
"My hope is the audience learns something from what they see in the film, about what really was the Underground Railroad," Jaden said. "The brutality of slavery, it's so sad you can't even hardly explain it. It's such a hard topic to talk about. But when you learn who John Brown was and how he helped slaves gain their freedom, he was an inspiration to others."
It's set to premier at 6 p.m., Jan. 31 in the GM Theater at The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. The five-month project started with an end-of-year assignment in his high school history teacher John Kenney's class.
"You could write a paper on Abraham Lincoln or make a documentary on the abolitionist movement," Jaden said. "I've written so many papers and I wanted to turn to producing and directing, so I decided to do the documentary."
A film buff his whole life, this was his first experience making a film himself.
"I was nervous, not knowing how it would turn out or what to expect," he said.
His research led him to John Brown, who led an armed raid on the Harper's Ferry federal armory in 1959. He spoke to historians at the University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit Historical Museum, Charles Wright Museum, and soon learned of Detroit's contribution to the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad – Brown helped lead escaped slaves through Detroit to Canada in the months before the raid, for which he was tried and executed.
Filming was in Detroit, with editing in Clarkston and Novi. Ed Kelly of "The Double" plays the lead role of John Brown, along with Phillip Edward Van Lear from the television series, "Prison Break," and Tim Holmes, who was in "Oz: The Great & Powerful."
"I could not have asked for better cast and crew – their work ethic was so good," Jaden said.
The Winans Family did the original musical score for the film along with Sky Hy, a Detroit band.
Kelly, a veteran voice actor based in Detroit, also does the narration.
"He did Belle Tire's voice, which was cool," Jaden said.
The young filmmaker invested his own money from acting jobs and gifts, saved up over many years. While working on the project, the cast, crew and community also helped out with favors and donations.
"It was crazy, seeing the whole puzzle come together, piece by piece," he said. "It's low budget, but I wanted to make it look like it had a bigger budget. The film turned out way bigger than what my expectations were."
Jaden has taken acting classes since he was 12 years old, and auditioned for parts in film and stage productions locally and across the country. He has landed rolls in commercials and films, including as an extra in "The Bully Chronicles."
He used these experiences to talk to actors and producers about filmmaking and build contacts.
"A lot of people are scared to talk to the higher-up people, the actors and producers, but you don't need to worry about it," he said. "You can just go up to them like any other people. They were really cool. They're just like us."
His inspiration comes from filmmakers of all sorts, especially documentary filmmakers Errol Morris, Ken Burns, and Adam Curtis.
"I'm a huge fan of indy films – they deserve more attention," he said. "It's incredible what they can do with little to no money."
He's working on new film projects for the film festival circuit, and goals include earning a degree, moving to Los Angeles to make films full-time, and winning a Golden Globe and Oscar for writing, acting, and producing.
"That would be a dream come true," he said.
Jaden, who got a 100 percent grade for the project, lives in Independence Township with his parents, Brad and Lana Sawicki of Independence Township, and brother Jonah.
"We are very proud of him," Lana said. "From the time he was born, we taught him that whatever he wants to be, he can be."
Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the film starts at 6 p.m., Jan. 31, followed by a Q&A with some of the cast and crew. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is at 315 East Warren Avenue, Detroit. The event is free and open to all.
Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.