Tom Eblen: Documentary tells colorful life of Cassius Marcellus Clay

Mel Hankla, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, in front of Clay's home, White Hall
Mel Hankla, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, in front of Clay's home, White Hall

Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding knew that the life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of the most colorful characters in Kentucky history, would make a great hourlong documentary. But how could he do it on a shoestring budget?

There are only a handful of images of Clay, so Breeding couldn't do it Ken Burns-style. He certainly didn't have enough money to hire actors, costume designers and set designers to re-create all of the necessary scenes from Clay's life.

Then Breeding remembered Kentucky Chautauqua, a Kentucky Humanities Council program in which amateur actors dress up as historic figures and tell their stories.

The result of Breeding's two-year project is Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, a fast-paced film that combines still images and monologue performances by 13 actors, including six from Kentucky Chautauqua. Lexington author Betty Boles Ellison wrote the script. The only non-Kentuckian in the production is the main narrator, Peter Thomas, one of television's most recognizable voices.

"I needed characters, and the Humanities Council had a bunch of them," Breeding said. "I like this format."

The documentary will have a gala premiere Sept. 27, complete with Civil War musicians and a 15-minute performance by Kentucky Chautauquan Obadiah Ewing-Roush. He will portray abolitionist John G. Fee, who founded Berea College on 10 acres that Clay gave him.

The documentary was filmed in high-definition video at Clay's mansion, White Hall, now a state historic site in Madison County. With a budget of about $38,000, from a KET production grant and money raised from eight private sponsors, Breeding and his friends did much of the work themselves. But what they lacked in production resources was more than made up for in story material.

Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) was a son of Green Clay, Kentucky's largest owner of land and slaves, and a cousin to statesman Henry Clay. While a student at Yale University, Cassius Clay heard social reformer William Lloyd Garrison preach against slavery and was converted.

Clay returned to Lexington as a fiery emancipationist. He published an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, that was highly unpopular in slave-holding Lexington. Clay always carried a pistol and knife, which he used against attackers on several occasions. He guarded his newspaper office near Main and Mill streets with a cannon.

Rich, handsome and arrogant, Clay served in the General Assembly and the Mexican War. Although commissioned a major general during the Civil War, he spent most of that time as Abraham Lincoln's ambassador to Russia. Clay urged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and he dreamed of one day becoming president.

Clay was a lover as well as a fighter. He had 10 children during a stormy 45-year marriage to Mary Jane Warfield that ended in divorce, plus an adopted son he apparently conceived during an affair while in Russia. At age 84, Clay married a 15-year-old girl, who also divorced him.

Virginia Carter, executive director of the Humanities Council, said she hopes Breeding's film will draw more attention to the 20-year-old Kentucky Chautauqua program and its performers, who last year did 507 performances in 102 counties.

Clay is portrayed in Breeding's documentary by Mel Hankla, a teacher who for 17 years has performed the roles of frontiersmen George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton for Kentucky Chautauqua.

"I did a lot of reading to get inside Clay's head," he said. "It was a lot of fun."

It is ironic, Hankla said, that when he first decided to develop a Chautauqua character two decades ago, his friend, former Gov. Louie Nunn, urged him to do Cassius Clay. Nunn was an admirer of Clay, and Nunn's wife, Beulah Nunn, was instrumental in the restoration of White Hall during the 1960s.

"He told me that Cassius Clay's life ought to be a movie," Hankla said of Nunn. "He said, 'This story has it all!'"