In 1962, 15-year-old JoAnna LeNoir took her mother, Rasheeda, and her siblings from an abusive household and settled in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. Since then, her family has celebrated “Rasheeda’s Freedom Day” in the neighborhood to celebrate freedom, family and community.
Filmmaker Dija Henry learned of LeNoir’s story while volunteering in Martindale-Brightwood. When workers at the Harrison Center approached her about making a short film about Rasheeda’s story, she jumped at the chance.
“Rasheeda’s Freedom Day,” a 30-minute look at Rasheeda’s story and lasting impact in Martindale-Brightwood, premieres at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at The Toby theater in Newfields.
The film is an adaptation of a play of the same name, written by Ruthie Buescher just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The play told the story of four Greatriarchs — longtime residents of Martindale-Brightwood who have helped to preserve the history of the neighborhood — and was commissioned by the Harrison Center. When the pandemic made it impossible to share the story onstage, Joanna Taft, executive director of the Harrison Center, knew the organization had to find a different way to serve the community. A film focused on LeNoir and Rasheeda, she said, would be a great way to elevate the story of Martindale-Brightwood.
“We saw some of [Henry’s] films and we really wanted to partner with a female film director of color,” Taft said. “We thought that would be an amazing opportunity to tell a story of a long-term resident of Martindale-Brightwood with that perspective. It’s been amazing to work with her, and we hope to do more work together in the future.”
While Henry didn’t grow up in Martindale-Brightwood, the Chicago native has worked in the neighborhood for 20 years through the Felege Hiywot Center. In that time, she’s developed an appreciation for the area and its residents. However, it wasn’t until filming “Rasheeda’s Freedom Day” that she had an opportunity to work with the Greatriarchs.
“I had learned a lot about the history of the community, but I didn’t have a relationship with any of the Greatriarchs,” Henry said. “I’ve always had a deep respect for Martindale-Brightwood, and that love and respect continued to grow while working on the movie.”
Henry attended her first Freedom Day last summer. Held annually, the community event brings together generations of LeNoir’s family, as well as neighbors and other neighborhood residents. Children play, food is served, and the community celebrates.
“It’s about celebrating family,” Henry said, “and celebrating freedom.”
As for the film premiere, having a movie screened at The Toby is a dream come true for Henry. At the beginning of the filmmaking process, Taft asked Henry to share her dreams with the Harrison Center team. Henry has long admired The Toby, and having a screening there was at the top of the Purdue University alum’s list. After a few calls, Taft was able to make it happen. At the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion, Henry hopes LeNoir’s story resonates with audiences.
“The theme is freedom and telling your story,” Henry said. “It’s about courage and taking steps to change your life and move forward from trauma. These themes are definitely relatable today, even if the film is set 60 years ago.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.