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Living, Leading and Filming with Purpose in the Delta

October 6, 2023
In the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, filmmaker Nolan Dean tells stories that empower communities and people whose voices are often unheard

The first time Nolan Dean journeyed into the Arkansas Delta, he felt an immediate connection.

To the fields that stretch to the horizon. To the stands of cypress and the heavy stillness of the evening air. To the generosity of the people.

“It just seemed very welcoming, even though I had never been to this part of the country before,” he says. “I just took to the place.”

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Nolan Dean is a filmmaker based in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Nolan was running a film production company in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he decided to reconnect with a former college classmate living two hours away in the Delta.

She was living in Helena-West Helena, a city on the west bank of the Mississippi River steeped in the history of cotton and the culture of the Blues, and teaching in Marianna. Nolan fell in love – with the girl, and the region.

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“I'm trying to empower this region with quality storytelling and I'm trying to enrich the world with stories from this place," says Nolan Dean.

“I like to tell people that the Delta is rich in the things that really matter,” says Nolan.

“The geographic isolation really filters out the things that create distractions in life. It's much more simple – more community oriented – than bigger cities. It's not a difficult place to live with purpose. It's actually very hard to not live with purpose in this place.”

Exactly one year after his first trip, Nolan put down roots in the Delta soil. He married his college classmate, Jackie, in December, 2014.

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Of living in the Delta, Nolan says: “The geographic isolation really filters out the things that create distractions in life."

He also committed himself to lifting up the region’s communities and people through his filmmaking.

Today, he’s one of the Delta’s emerging leaders, elevating the voices of people whose stories of hardship and hope often go unheard.

The Delta is a region ripe with potential that has been largely overlooked by the outside world. The foundation is committed to supporting a new generation of leaders in the region who are helping transform their communities through positive narratives to make an inclusive, equitable and thriving Delta a reality.

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Nolan films the sun setting over a field of cotton in the Mississippi Delta.

The foundation is partnering with Nolan on a forthcoming project to share the stories of people and communities in the Delta working to reshape the region’s economic, educational and creative landscape.

Through Cherry Street Productions, Nolan creates films that showcase community-led change. He chronicles the work of companies striving to create economic growth and employment in a historically impoverished region. He creates educational and instructional videos for students and schools.

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His greatest passion is telling authentic human stories that share truths and break down racial and societal barriers that divide communities. He seeks to dispel the image many have of the Delta as depressed and oppressive, while showing the ways the region is changing and innovating.

“I'm trying to empower this region with quality storytelling and I'm trying to enrich the world with stories from this place,” Nolan says. “Because while the Delta is poor economically, it is rich in a separate set of values – like charity towards each other – that the country at large can benefit from.”

Nolan often embraces difficult stories that challenge the status quo and focuses on protagonists who seek solutions that bring people together.

“In order to become more united, we have to love one another. In order to love one another, we have to get to know one another.
Nolan Dean, Delta filmmaker

The award-winning documentary "Rap Squad" follows a group of high school musicians who use hip hop to advocate for a new high school and for healing in their community.

He’s also working on a series of documentaries about the history of Black Americans in Phillips County, from their fight for freedom in the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, which he calls "Valley of Dry Bones: The Resurrection of Phillips County."

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Nolan Dean films on location in Elaine, Arkansas with Lisa Hicks, the subject of an upcoming documentary about the Elaine Massacre of 1919.

This series puts a special emphasis on both the national and local legacies of the Elaine Massacre of 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas. In his next film in the series, “Silent No More,” Nolan is featuring efforts by descendants of the massacre, like Lisa Hicks, to tell the suppressed stories of their families, reclaim their histories and recover from trauma.

“In order to become more united, we have to love one another. In order to love one another, we have to get to know one another. We can't love what we don't know. And a lot of people don't really know their whole community,” Nolan says.

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Nolan is working on a feature film set in the Delta called Bluestown, a suspense drama to begin production in 2025.

A passionate fan of the Blues, Nolan says some of his most meaningful work are films about legendary local musicians like Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Lucius Spiller and Anthony "Big A" Sherrod.

He’s currently working on a documentary about a collaboration between Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and an orchestra in Ireland on a new sound called “symphonic blues.”

“For us to instigate community-based change, we have to continually seek to build friendships with each other,” Nolan says. “For me as a storyteller, what I can do is give megaphones to people who are doing that with their life.”

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Nolan is giving back to his community in other ways. His long-term goal is to help the Delta become a filmmaking hub and source of economic growth. Through Film Delta, Nolan will provide on-the-job training for students in film production.

“I want to make films in the Delta that are incubators for job training programs teaching young people how to join the production industry,” he says.

“The hope is that we can start crewing out movies and shows with Delta residents and create this flywheel for a very powerful economic engine.”

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Nolan’s biggest project to date is a feature film set in the Delta, a suspense drama called "Bluestown." Principal photography is scheduled for February 2025. Nolan expects about a half dozen Film Delta students will work with him on the project.

“The biggest artistic challenge for me has been adapting my screenwriting process to tell Delta stories in which I'm seeing the Delta with both insider’s and outsider’s eyes and capturing what is attractive and mysterious about the Delta,” he says. “'Bluestown' is a crime story, but it’s also an exploration of the question, ‘Who is my neighbor, and how can we be neighbors to one another in a fractured society like the one we live in?’”

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