When President Barack Obama speaks at Booker T. Washington High School’s commencement exercises in Memphis, Tenn., next week, Lauryn DuValle will be somewhere smiling. That’s because the University of Mississippi student helped members of the senior class direct the winning entry in a national film competition that led to their selection by the president himself.
The senior theatre arts major with an minor in screenwriting and production was overjoyed Tuesday afternoon at the news that BTW had won MTV-U’s “Race to the Top Commencement Challenge,” a nationwide search for a school deserving of the honor. The venue for the school’s May 16 commencement ceremony has yet to be determined.
“When I learned that we were among the top three finalists, I was in shock,” said DuValle, who served as the required college or university mentor for the high school. “But this announcement is overwhelming! I can hardly believe it’s true.”
DuValle’s participation in BTW’s phenomenal whirlwind journey to the national spotlight began in early April, right after her own first film, “Pickett,” was selected as a runner-up in the UM Cinema Competition on campus.
“‘Pickett’ is a short film about a young girl from a small town who wanted to become a movie star and thought the only way to do so was by riding the coattails of the only person ever to make it out of there,” DuValle said. “It’s a ‘dramedy’ filmed with a largely African-American cast and deals with race relations, rags-to-riches dreams and friendship.”
DuValle’s fictional tale captured the attention of Ryan Pierce, a senior religious studies major from Houston, Texas, and president of the Ole Miss Film Society. When someone with MTV-U contacted Pierce about the possibility of an UM student participating in the project, he recommended DuValle.
“I recommended Lauryn because she is one of two filmmakers I know and because I’d heard good things about her work,” Pierce said. “She’s dedicated to working toward a greater presence of racial minorities in American filmmaking, and I think this qualifies her as a mentor in the commencement challenge.”
The day after DuValle’s film premiered, an MTV-U representative called to tell her that she had been recommended to mentor Booker T. Washington students on their entry. “When they asked me if I would accept the offer, of course I said, ‘Yes!’”
Under the competition rules, all six high schools selected to participate were assigned a college or university mentor, a producer and an editor. With the assistance and supervision of their assigned teams, students at each school produced a short film that makes their case for why they should win the presidential visit. Each team was limited to 10 hours of pre-production and 10 hours of filming, and had to submit their entry by the end of the day filming was completed.
“Chad Denning of Gamma Blast Productions was the editor, and Ritch Sublett of Country Music Television was the producer on our project,” DuValle said. “Each of these men is absolutely brilliant at what he does.”
DuValle and her crew met with BTW students, who shared their own ideas and concepts for the film in pre-production. The exchange helped alleviate some of the pressure of having to finish the project in the brief amount of time allotted, she said.
“The day of filming itself was hectic,” DuValle said. “The hardest part was arranging 150 to 200 high school seniors into the shape of the number ’1′ inside a school hallway. It was a tedious process, but the results were amazing.
“Several students held the camera at various points during the filming. The film was for them, by them and about them.”
All were pleased with the results after the film was completed. “Apparently, enough of the online viewers were inspired to cast the number of votes needed to become a finalist,” DuValle said.
BTW Principal Alisha Kiner expressed her gratitude to DuValle for helping the school produce the winning short.[youtube]7gSYvnSOcwM[/youtube]
“I am so proud of the kids, teachers and all involved for them to have this validation of their hard work,” Kiner said. “This means ‘you’re important and that the work that you do matters to the entire nation.’ That’s a very important message to send to the kids.”
DuValle’s achievement and recognition is also appreciated by those within UM’s theatre arts department.
“Lauryn is the first person in our minor to have a major success outside of the university setting,” said Alan Arrivée, assistant professor and director of the cinema minor in the College of Liberal Arts, which officially begins in August. “Her goal is to help minority filmmakers realize their dreams, so she was a perfect fit for this particular endeavor.”
Set to complete her bachelor’s degree in August, DuValle has taken several undergraduate classes in cinema production under Arrivée.
“She’s a more mature, extremely creative student with a more-developed agenda than most of the other students,” he said. “After she accepted the invitation, I told her that I thought it sounded like a great opportunity for her.”
Perhaps the person proudest of DuValle’s achievement is her mother, Chris Jones, a staff judge advocate at the U.S. Naval Base in Millington, Tenn.
“I always knew that my child had something special, but it was Ole Miss that really brought it out of her,” Jones said. “To know that the skills she developed there helped my daughter to capture on film such a poignant story for these challenged yet deserving students is just wonderful.”
A graduate of White Station High School, DuValle earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Grambling State University. She chose to come to UM after learning of its fledgling cinema program and said she is honored to be a charter member.
“All of this success in such a relatively short amount of time is pretty awesome,” DuValle said. “I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that so far I’ve made the right choices. And that somebody up there really likes me.”
Other finalists in the competition were High Tech High International in San Diego and Bridgeport High School in Washington. Nearly 100,000 people participated online in ranking the schools’ video pitches for the presidential visit.
Booker T. Washington is Memphis’ oldest high school created for black students during segregation.
For more information about the Department of Theatre Arts, call 662-915-5816 or visit https://www.olemiss.edu/depts/theatre_arts/. For more information about Booker T. Washington High School, visit http://www.mcsk12.net/schools/btwashington.hs/site/index.shtml