The angels of “Crossing the River”, Part 1

emilie mcdonald

emilie mcdonald


I first met Martha when I knocked on her door. We had never met before but by the end of our short visit she hugged me and told me “Please don’t let his memory die” about her father-in-law who I knew as a child and who I was writing a script about (co-written with my husband, Bruce Smolanoff). Over the following months she gave me information for dozens of people who had known him and I did many phone interviews and then made another trip to South Carolina to spend a week interviewing people who had known the doctor well. Martha was always hugely helpful, with an interesting story, a kind word, or a graham cracker for my then-1 year old daughter. I instantly felt comfortable around her and she has always been kind as well as honest. I feel blessed to know her.

I routinely visit South Carolina to see family as well, and during one of these visits Bruce, Miranda (our daughter) and I met up with Martha at a restaurant in Columbia. She asked if it was okay to bring her grandsons Tyler and Landon and I of course said yes. We ate Southern food at some lovely and delicious joint, and the boys spent the meal asking Bruce to do impersonations, which he gladly complied with. They were so excited to see acting and it was lovely to see their enthusiasm. They both were kind and respectful. There was something about them that stayed with me after meeting them, and I thought “I would love to put them in a short film.”

That thought was that. I continued to work on the feature script and I didn’t yet know what the short film would be. I did ask Martha if the boys would be interested, and she asked them and they said yes.

Soon after, I received an email update from longtime friend Monroe Gilmour who heads up WNCCEIB (Western North Carolina Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry) about a cross burning which had occurred in his area. Two white juvenile boys were the perpetrators with the help of an older white man. The 13 year old biracial girl who was one of the victims spoke to the newspapers and news teams about how she appreciated the people in town who had reached out to her and her family. She truly had an optimistic outlook towards life and people, despite her experience. This touched me. Then a follow-up article said that in court the boys turned to the family and apologized. This appealed to my sense of hope that people can change.

On an “artist date” where I went to see a movie, then allowed myself time to think creatively, the idea for “Crossing the River” came to me. I would put Tyler and Landon in a film about boys who were convinced to do a cross burning by an older man (played by Bruce), but who made amends to the young girl in the family at the end.

Emilie McDonald, writer/director, “Crossing the River”

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