Kentucky Arts and Culture
"Audacious American" Remembered on KET
It’s likely Kentuckians today will confuse Cassius Clay, the boxer who became Muhammed Ali, with Cassius Clay, the abolitionist. Before the Civil War, Clay, who made his home just south of Lexington in Madison County, was a national figure who took the fight for emancipation into backyards of Kentucky’s slave holders. Now, a film on the life of Cassius Clay hopes to revive his memory. WEKU’s Charles Compton reports.
Cassius Clay was an irritating man. He irritated his neighbors, he irritated his relatives and he irritated slave owners. He was so irritating that people repeatedly tried to kill him.
“He gave me no choice and on May 13th, 1841, a date which I shall always remember, we travelled to a dueling field just south of Louisville, along with our seconds. A large crowd had gathered. We both fired and missed. I wanted another firing, but out Seconds agreed the matter should be dropped. There was no apology from either side. No reconciliation. So left that field that day as we came, enemies,” said Clay in his memoirs.
Those memoirs are given voice in a new documentary featuring actor Mel Hankla. Hankla portrays the Clay in “Cassius Marcellus Clay: an Audacious American, which airs this month on Kentucky Educational Television. In recreating the abolitionist, Hankla found himself at White Hall, surrounded by Clay’s belongings.
“In a lot of ways it was easier to get into Cassius Clay’s head, because of us doing the filming at his home. For us to be able to sit, for me to be able to sit at his desk at his desk, in his office, in his house, with his bowie knife, with his presentation sword, with presentation gold mounted walking cane,” said Hankla
Hankle also revives historic Kentuckians like George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton.
“It was really fun finding the right wig for Mel,” said Michael Breeding, who’s the documentary’s director.
“We had to try a couple of wigs, one here in Lexington and then I eventually went to Louisville and found this terrific wig and had it trimmed by a very talented technician. And there are times that we even forget that Mel Hankla is Mel Hankla in this particular show. I think it’s a terrific transition,” said Breeding.
Breeding also uses actors to portray Clay’s wife, an African American servant who cared for Clay as a child, and his cousin, Henry Clay.
In his youth, Cassius Clay exemplified a southern gentleman. Well dressed, wealthy, well educated, and capable of violence. At over six-feet tall, he was physically intimidating.
On several occasions, Clay confronted pro-slavery mobs. When local newspapers refused to print his anti-slavery articles, Clay published a paper of his own, setting up an office in Lexington. A Lexington mob seized Clay’s printing press and shipped it to Cincinnati, where he continued publishing. Such stories were repeated by northern newspapers, making Clay into what many called the “southern face of emancipation.”
In the documentary, the story is told by an elderly Clay, quoting from his memoirs. Those memoirs solved a problem for director Breeding. He simply didn’t have enough authentic images to support an hour-long documentary. But, the memoirs provided him with the basis for a script.
“Because we have the memoirs of Cassius Clay, we could confidently pull from those memoirs quotes from people that he knew in his life. So there’s a lot written about him and it’s just a new technique that I think is very, very exciting,” said Breeding.
Besides his roles as agitator and publisher, Clay was also a politician. He served in the Kentucky General Assembly and helped launch the Republican Party. But short on cash, Clay suffered a setback in 1856, when he missed the Party’s very first convention.
Breeding also operated on a tight budget. The project won financial assistance from Kentucky Education Television, the Kentucky Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet, and Berea College. In producing the documentary, Breeding did much of the work himself. He was the sound man, the lighting director, camera man and costume designer...
“Certainly there were budgetary restraints. As you know, in Hollywood, Hollywood can do whatever they wish because they have unlimited funds, usually. I just had to be clever,” said Breeding.
In 1860, Clay was rejected as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate. Lincoln later named Clay as Ambassador to Russia, where he helped engineer the purchase of Alaska by the United States.
Instead of a comfortable life surrounded by friends and family at the top of Lexington’s social ladder, Clay ended his life in bankruptcy, estranged from his family and divorced from his wife. Actor Mel Hankla says it was a sad ending for a great man.
“You know, I’ve really tried to portray that sadness and the frustration of his life in everyone around him,” said Hankla.
Cassius Clay died in 1903 and is buried in Richmond Cemetery. His home is now “White Hall State Historic Site.”
Mel Hankla also wants to keep Clay’s memory alive and, from time to time, is willing to resurrect him.
Director Michael Breeding has done his part. His documentary recently premiered in Lexington and will have several screenings on Kentucky Educational Television, and perhaps at White Hall. Breeding has already moved-on, working now on a documentary about the farmers who grown dark-fired tobacco in far western Kentucky.