The ear-to-ear smile on the face of actor-producer James Black said it all. Black had flown in from Los Angeles to Berlin Jan. 19, joining his screenwriters Rob Thomas and Bobby Smith, Jr. in an effort to absorb all they could glean about Perry Reese, Jr.
Black is currently in the process of producing the unnamed Perry Reese, Jr. movie, and after a long struggle to find funding for the movie’s screen writing, Black finally received the backing to proceed with that portion of the movie. It marks a huge step in the process of bringing all of the elements together in this journey to tell the story of coach Reese and his willingness to overcome so much before passing away from a brain tumor in 2000.
As a black Catholic single man in a very white Amish-Mennonite community, Reese had to deal with hate and prejudice when he came to Hiland to coach the Hawks basketball team in 1984.
But his story of servanthood, faith, acceptance and overcoming the walls that are often built around anyone who is different was inspiring enough to catch Black’s eye as a story that needed to be told, and Black is certainly excited to delve further into the story.
His most recent venture was he and his screenwriters taking an opportunity to come to Amish Country to sit down and talk with a number of people whom knew Reese very well, right up until his passing in 2000.
“Everybody was so amazing,” Black said of the people the writing team interviewed. “I got off the airplane, and everyone I met was so enthused about the project. There was so much energy. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way things went.”
Black said since the two-day interview period a number of other people have reached out and volunteered stories and anecdotes, should they want more information.
Black said that while they felt like they received a lot of great input, they will continue to seek input from those who knew Reese intimately.
“We’d love to sit down with more people,” Black said. “The writers felt that they got a lot of information, but I don’t think you can ever have too much information. It’s all about moments in Perry’s life, and someone might share that perfect story or moment in his life that would be a meaningful part in the movie.”
In talking with those who knew Reese, the hope was that they could gain insight into who Reese was. Thomas said they wanted to get beyond the game of basketball and delve into the story of a man who was a servant, a man who gave so much to so many yet was very private about his own personal life.
The screenwriters are seeking to formulate a story that not only tells the story of Reese as a basketball coach, but also one that is multifaceted as they peel back the many layers of Reese’s life.
Smith was impressed that Reese chose to teach history at Hiland High and Middle School, noting that history is all about great accomplishments that people have achieved and the mark they have made on the world around them. Now as they work on writing the script of a man who made his own indelible mark on the world, he sees the similarities.
“There is a connective tissue there in terms of what one teaches and how a person sees life,” Smith said. “History is all about legacy and about what memory will you leave this world with, and Perry certainly left quite a memory. If Perry is trying to infuse those same kind of ideals in the students and athletes, it becomes very heroic.”
Black said it has been nearly two years since he began to explore the Perry Reese project, and he can’t believe how quickly time has flown. But over that time span his passion for the project has seeped into others, and his writing team is now more ready than ever to get the script written and into the hands of some companies that can take it to the next level.
“[Smith and Thomas] have already written a treatment for the pitch, and they want to take it out and pitch it as soon as possible,” Black said. “They can’t wait. I think everyone is really excited to see the process moving forward.”
Smith and Thomas have been writing together for the past four years and have a good feel for what they want to see in the script and how they want it to flow.
“What makes this movie worthy is the symbiotic nature of things,” Smith said. “It’s like a circle of life, and the end of this journey … It’s like ‘Brian’s Song.’”
“Brian’s Song” is the story of Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and the bond of friendship they forged before Piccolo died of a brain tumor. That movie, directed by Buzz Kulik and starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, became a staple of 1970s and 1980s television and showed how love and acceptance can overcome boundaries.
Smith said Reese’s untimely death created the scenario for a story to be told that goes above and beyond the “against all odds” story of a black man coming into a conservative Amish-Mennonite area and winning a state championship.
Smith added that Reese’s death allowed the community that had gone from suspicion and prejudice toward their new head coach to one of admiration and love to reciprocate the joy Reese had brought into their lives.
Smith said Reese’s untimely passing allowed the community to show the full extent of the impact of Reese’s life, and his willingness to serve others had transformed so many.
“Had he died a normal, quiet death, he would have a nice memory of what he did for the team,” Smith said. “Then his story would be about a guy who comes in and makes a winning team. I think him fulfilling his purpose, that gave the community an opportunity to show them at their best.”
If anyone would like to contribute financially to the movie, they may do so at www.theperryreeseproject.com.