Professor shines a light on American history in award-winning “Up From the Bottoms”

GVL / Eric Coulter
Professor Jim Schaub introduces his film Up From the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream

Eric Coulter

GVL / Eric Coulter Professor Jim Schaub introduces his film “Up From the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream”

Brian Ledtke

The locally-made documentary film “Up From the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream” by Grand Valley State University’s Jim Schaub will be aired Sunday on PBS at 8 p.m.

Schaub, a GVSU adjunct professor and technician for the School of Communications, co-produced the film with his brother Rod Schaub. Including the time spent fundraising and receiving grants, the production took two years from start to finish, Jim said.

“It’s a fantastic story, and it’s one that has never been told before,” Rod said.

The film tells the story of the massive migration of African Americans from the rural South to the prosperous North, which started during World War II. Due to the numerous factories in the North, there were more opportunities and better pay than in the South at the time.

Jim’s interest in filmmaking began when he was managing video store chains like Blockbuster and Family Video.

“We would get the worst movies in there and I would always find myself thinking (that) I could do a much better job than this,” Jim said. “So I started playing around with editing. One day my mom suggested I go back to school for film, so I did.”

“Up from the Bottoms” has won five awards since its premiere at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2009.

“It’s quite a prestigious festival,” Jim said. “They only accept about 300 films out of 4,000.”

The film has since been seen in 19 different film festivals, including one in Berlin. Now universities around the country have purchased it to use in classes.

“There really are no other films like it,” Jim said. “It’s unique.”

Jim wore many hats in the production, serving as the co-producer, director, co-writer and co-editor. He also scouted locations and hired crew. He said one of the hardest aspects about making this film were the interviews.

“One 94-year-old gentleman refused to talk to us at first because he was still afraid to speak up about what happened,” Jim said. “He was afraid people would come after him. His whole life he has lived in fear. It’s heavy stuff.”

Cinematographer Darius Mathis said that it was eye-opening to hear the similarity in the experiences of the people he interviewed and the stories his family shared with him in his youth, as both Mathis’ parents were from the South. Mathis graduated from GVSU in 1994 with a degree in film and video production.

“I was surprised by the connection that I felt with the people we interviewed,” Mathis said. “They walked into the interview as strangers but by the time they left, I had a better understanding of who they were and who I was.”

For Rod, he said one of the most exciting aspects of making this film was working with Emmy award-winning actress Cicely Tyson.

“Going into a recording studio with her and being able to give her direction was amazing,” Rod said. “She was a total professional, and she came prepared. She knew the movie almost as good as we did.”

Jim, Rod and Mathis all offered advice for aspiring filmmakers as well.

“Stay true to yourself,” Mathis said. “Keep shooting. Keep challenging yourself. Never get too comfortable.”

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