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Local author turns debut novel into film

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When Delores Thornton published her first novel, “Ida Mae,” in 1997, she drew inspiration from people and events in her own life to create the fictional world. In the back of her mind, Thornton, 71, knew she wanted to turn the book into a movie, but never felt comfortable tackling the project. 

“I never felt like I could do the book justice,” Thornton, an Indianapolis native, said. “It was my debut novel, and when the story came to me, it consumed me and took over my entire life for a while. … I promised myself I would do something for her [Ida Mae] in 2019, because that’s the year she died.”

Thornton and a small cast and crew began filming “Ida Mae” in August, taking many precautions in the wake of COVID-19. To limit the amount of interaction between actors, much of the film consists of narration by Thornton. Kelah McKee, who plays Ida Mae, had to get used to COVID precautions on the set. 

“Ms. Delores has our safety as her top priority,” McKee, 25, said. “If we were ever in a closed space filming, she had her windows open and had masks for us. We were never really filming with more than a few people in a scene.”

McKee was in Thornton’s previous film production, “Airing Dirty Laundry,” also based on a novel by Thornton. Though she hasn’t had a chance to read “Ida Mae” yet, McKee said the story, though set decades ago, will resonate with audiences today.

The story is set in a small Georgia town in the 1950s. Ida Mae, an African American girl, is adopted by a white family after her parents die. The story grapples with one’s experiences of race and racism, as well as what it means to be a family. 

While Thornton, who comes from a family of 13 children, can’t relate to Ida Mae’s experiences with adoption, she said the idea for placing the character in a white environment stemmed from her own experiences with feeling out of place. 

“We only had one radio growing up, so we all had to take turns listening to what we wanted,” Thornton said. “My brother liked jazz; I had a sister that liked big bands. I was exposed to all types of music, and the only one that I had to explain was country and western. I felt the need to explain why I, as a Black person, love people like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. So, I decided I was going to set this girl in a white environment.”

In the novel and film adaptation, Ida Mae goes on to defy the expectations of race and becomes a country and western disc jockey at a Tennessee radio station. 

“She broke a lot of barriers, and I see a lot of myself in Ida Mae,” Thornton said. 

While Thornton still has a few scenes to finish filming, she expects the movie to be completed, and released, by the end of February 2021. Normally, she said she would plan on releasing it in theaters. With the uncertainties of COVID, however, she plans on having smaller screenings in various places throughout the city. 

Even though filming in the middle of a global pandemic was a bit of a hassle, Thornton said it’s important to continue to create and share art to bring some light into these dark times. 

“It gives people something else to think about,” Thornton said. “People want to see something other than daily news reports and negativity. Art is really soothing, and for such a time as this, people need to see something like this and be moved by it.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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