Baltimore native and filmmaker Royston Scott says he had long heard about “Madame Washington” and her company Apex throughout his childhood, but it wasn’t until he was older that he learned that he was a descendant of black hair care royalty and decided to share his family history.
Scott created his first documentary, “The Sara Spencer Washington Story,” a half-hour, award-winning film that explores the legacy of his great-aunt Sara Spencer Washington, one of the first black female multi-millionaires and the Atlantic City, N.J., mogul behind beauty and hair care company Apex.
Washington, who created hair products and established hundreds of jobs for black women from the 1930s to the 1950s, later expanded Apex to own several beauty schools around the country that granted women cosmetology degrees, and went on to own an Apex golf course and resort, a hotel, and a publishing company with must-read periodicals about her company, its graduates, and beauty and health tips.
“That really blew my mind,” said Scott, whose mother, Joan Cross, became heiress of the company after Washington, who had no children, adopted her. “I thought this story has to be told.”
Scott’s film, which won best short documentary at the 2018 Newark Black Film Festival and the Garden State Film Festival, will screen at the Baltimore International Black Film Festival at the Charles Theatre Thursday. Scott will participate in a Q&A following the screening, but we caught up with the filmmaker beforehand to ask him some of the questions that might be on your mind.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you decide to start this documentary?
Apex wasn’t mentioned in the house when I was growing up. My mother, [the heiress of Apex], hadn't discussed Apex with us. She was divorced twice, and I think my father didn't want to hear about her past marriage because her husband was really involved in the business. Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi, who was inducted into the Atlantic County Women’s Hall of Fame along with Washington in 1997, asked if I would come down and collect the award, but I couldn’t make it. Levy mentioned Washington’s story would make a great documentary. Just when I decided to start making the documentary, my mother passed away. I lost a great opportunity of first-hand knowledge of Sara Spencer Washington, but I vowed to do this for my mom.
What was the process in making the documentary and how long did it take?
I've been waiting tables and bartending to pay the bill. I funded the whole thing myself. It took over six years to complete. Seeing footage of people talking about my mom was tough for me — especially when they had such nice things to say — because I miss her. I would take breaks, and my colleague Jacob Burckhardt and I would get back on it. We did everything ourselves — he did most of the filming and all the editing. It taught me a lot about the interview process and how different making a documentary is than making a short film. You have to figure out the essence of what people are saying and the point you’re trying to get across. The music was also a really important part of the process. My composer was well-versed in jazz of that era.
What was the most shocking thing you learned while making the documentary?
The most surprising thing for me was the reception. So many people have come up to me to say, “Thank you so much for telling me this story about this woman.” Some people say that they have heard of Apex or used their products growing up, but didn’t know it was a black woman. Seeing how it is touching people’s lives has just changed my life. It’s let me know that I’ve done a good job. My mother wasn’t here to see it, but I feel like she would say, “Good job, son.” And that’s the cherry on top. It really is.
What do you want people to take away from “The Sara Spencer Washington Story”?
Everyone has a history in their family, and a lot of times, people have said, “My predecessor did this or that, and I always wanted to document this” or “I thought this would make a great story.” You can actually do this on your own. It’s important to document your family’s stories and histories and pass them down not only to your family but people in the community because that’s how we learn — from the past. I can’t stress that enough. Keep these stories alive.
If you go
Filmmaker Royston Scott's documentary “The Sara Spencer Washington Story” will be screened at The Charles Theatre during the Baltimore International Black Film Festival, along with the film “Power to Heal.” 12:30 p.m. Thursday. 1711 N. Charles Street. $10. Tickets are available online at myevolutiontix.com. For more information, visit bibff.com.
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