Sadly the sugar cane market has gone way down and the
towns' economies have suffered. Unemployment, poverty and crime
numbers have exploded in recent years. The area was quickly
becoming living ghost towns.
Patterson first learned about the area through his
own charitable work, and upon visiting the area he was strongly
reminded of his own hometown of Newburgh, New York. On the news, he
saw Malloy doing stories about the problems of the area, so the two
met up to discuss their mutual desire to shine a spotlight on the
problems and the great potential of the people of Belle Glade and
This collaboration led to the one-hour labor-of-love
documentary Murder in a Small Town, which is currently
available On Demand and through iTunes and other content providers.
It will also be on Netflix soon.
There have been some people who have made it out of
the Muck Cities to become wildly successful in the world, mostly
current and past star football players like Anquan Boldin, Deonte
Thompson, Rickey Jackson, Santonio Holmes, Andre Waters, Antone
Smith and others. However, you rarely hear stories of people who
make it out of the area which are not superstar athletes. Strangely
enough, stuttering country musician and comedian Mel Tillis also
grew up in Pahokee, but he had left the area by the 1950s, long
before the town's economic downturn.
Patterson and Malloy have captured the highs and lows
of life in these two small towns in their movie. These are places
where it sometimes seems that the world is passing them by, but at
the same time it shows the great joy, pride and hope that still
thrives in the people of the two towns.
We recently sat down with Patterson and Malloy to
discuss the making of their labor of love,
Murder in a Small Town.
What was it that first got you interested in Belle
Glade and Pahokee? They are pretty long drive inland from the beach
areas of Palm Beach county. How did they cross your radar?
James Patterson: A couple
of things. Tim, he can tell you, he has been a journalist in Palm
Beach for years.
Tim Malloy: I had covered a
lot of bad things that happened out there over the years. I got in
touch with Mr. Patterson when I found out that he was intrigued by
the area as well. He had gone out and brought books out to kids,
and had been quietly going out there for years. So we just said,
"Let's collaborate on a unique look at the place."
James Patterson: Yeah, I
give away a lot of books, in places like Palm Beach County
being one of them. I went to these schools and the kids are
amazing. They're engaged, they're smart. But, that environment out
there... Belle Glade is 45% unemployment. It's the most violent
small town in America. Newburgh (NY), where I grew up, is one of
the most violent small towns in America. Tim and I just wanted to
correct the caricature of these towns. There are a lot of really
good people in these towns.
You are an example of the “American Dream,” that you
can raise yourself out of poverty and eventually own a beautiful
home in Palm Beach. When you brought the kids of the Muck Cities to
visit your home, were you trying to inspire them that anything is
possible in the country?
James Patterson: I think
there was a little piece of that. I thought it would be a treat for
them. For the kids, Palm Beach is Disneyland. They got a kick out
of it. We try to keep some perspective, but I've got to tell you, I
was lucky to get out of that situation. A lot of people don't have
the luck that I had. I was a very lucky guy.
Did you think that if things had broken differently
in your life, your existence may have been somewhat similar to what
these people were experiencing?
James Patterson: Well, I
would have gotten out, but yes, it would have been very different.
At one point, I thought I would be a teacher. It would have been a
lot different. I wouldn't have been living at Pahokee, but.... I'd
be somewhere else.
I thought possibly the most interesting part of the
documentary was the part that may have in some ways been the most
similar to your day job – talking about the murder of the grocer
Jimmy McMillan and how it affected the community. You said in the
film that the grocery store was so vital to the community that there
was a sort of unstated agreement not to rob it. How did the loss of
McMillan and the sale of the store change the area?
James Patterson: Tim knew
the store and the owner for a bit, and the reputation.
Tim Malloy: Yeah, he was a
white man in a black community, who cashed checks and was trusted.
A respected, nice family. The father had the store before [him].
So when he was taken, it was felt greatly by the black community.
James Patterson: Yeah. I
mean, it was a triple tragedy. It was a tragedy for the town. It
was a tragedy for the McMillan family. And it was a tragedy for the
family of the shooter.
It was sad, because Corey Graham, Jr., who had been a
football player who had never been in trouble, ended up robbing and
James Patterson: I think
the murder was an accident.
Well, he certainly wasn't planning on it.
James Patterson: The thing
about this film is that people that watch it, they are riveted,
which is a little unusual for a documentary. People usually tear up
during this thing. It's a very emotional film.
How can people see it?
James Patterson: It's going
to be available on Video On Demand, I guess September 9. iTunes,
and Google Play. And then on Netflix, I think, on October 15.
Did Corey Graham, Jr. ever explain why he decided to
rob the store?
James Patterson: Corey
hadn't been interviewed during the trial. Then, Tim actually met
Corey's dad and his grandmother. There was a little relationship
that was formed, but Corey hadn't spoken to anybody. I sent a
letter to the prison. Much to my surprise, I got a letter back from
Corey. "Dear Mr. Patterson, I wouldn't mind talking to you..." So
we went to the prison. You know this whole thing was shot for
nothing. We edited it in a strip mall. We made this movie for
$40,000 or $50,000. But up we went with the cameraman to the
prison, and Corey was.... You interview a kid like that and you
go, no record beforehand. He'll never get out of prison.
Do you think the desperate straits of the towns and
the lack of jobs almost makes crime seem a reasonable option to some
James Patterson: Yeah.
It's mainly young males. In a lot of cases, drugs become part of
the problem. It's different in Newburgh than in Belle Glade and in
Pahokee. In Newburgh, it's also gang wars.
The scene where you walked through the crack den
seemed like something out of your fiction – but it was in real
life. What was it like seeing how the drug problem was decimating
the town and literally experiencing how they lived?
James Patterson: Well, like
I say in the film, I write about Alex Cross, and I write about The
Women's Murder Club, but Alex Cross is not going to come in and
solve this problem. It's a lot scarier than certainly the fiction
that I write. On the other hand, when we were filming this, we had
nothing but cooperation from people.
Were there any people that you interviewed or talked
to in the film that you had particularly high hopes for – that they
would break free of this world?
James Patterson: Yeah, and
that's what got me doing it in the first place. I went out to some
of the grade schools there, and I just found the kids to be
terrific. They were sharp. And I go into a lot of schools. I go
into big schools in rich neighborhoods. These kids were just as
sharp, just as quick. When we asked them questions during the
filming, they ran right with it. No hesitating, no shyness.
Poised. You look at these kids and go their situation is very
tough, because of the poverty in these towns.
One thing is that the film shows football stardom as
just about the only way of getting out of the Muck Cities. While it
is certainly a lovely dream, maybe one in a million will get the
chance to play in the pros.
Tim Malloy: The serious
side is that you either go to prison or you go to the NFL.
What do you think are some more realistic ways for
citizens of Belle Glade and Pahokee to make it out of poverty?
Tim Malloy: It needs an
industry. It doesn't have one. When the sugar companies automated,
jobs went away. Unemployment is 40-50%. No one invests. It's a
drive-around and fly-over community. Nobody stays.
James Patterson: And
education. The state can do a little. The county is actually
working on it. It's just hard. You've had four generations of
people living a certain way out there. It's hard to change that.
It's hard to get the kids going. The kids are bright, and the kids
are resourceful, but they fall into a pattern, or a lot of them do.
Or they get out of there.
The film is called Murder
of a Small Town, but unlike real murders,
do you think that the small town can actually be revived?
James Patterson: Yeah, but
we have to pay more attention to it. The government has to pay more
attention to it. You watch all the debates right now, and the poor,
tragically, aren't in the discussion very much.
In this election year, the whole idea of income
inequality is a huge concern, and it’s basically a lot of what the
film is about. What do you think that it says about Palm Beach
County – or even the US in general – that in the same county that a
Presidential candidate has an estate that is essentially a monument
to conspicuous consumption that there is such desperate poverty?
Will the people of Belle Glade and Pahokee ever be welcome at Mar-a-Lago,
or The Breakers or Worth Avenue?
James Patterson: I don't
know if that's the relevant thing, but I think that the big thing
here is that it's the richest country in the world, and we're doing
very little to help people who are not making it, at all. There are
45 million Americans living below the poverty line. Many are
children. And we're not dealing with it.
How do you think people can help to deal with it?
James Patterson: The first
thing we have to do is just raise the consciousness. It's like
anything you try to attack. A long time ago people started raising
the consciousness about the dangers of smoking. Eventually, you get
to a point where things change. Hopefully this kind of film will
start to raise the consciousness. I will say, people watch this
movie and they go: "How can I help?" So that's a start.
You are not only shining a light on the problems of
the Muck Cities, you are putting your money where your mouth is.
Tell me a bit more about the charitable foundations you have set up
for the people of Belle Glade and Pahokee.
James Patterson: We have
scholarships for the high schools in Belle Glade, Pahokee and
Newburgh. There's a choir out there that we hope will be famous,
like the Harlem Boys Choir, (laughs) which we are helping
out. It's something we do. There's also a grammar school for
Hispanic kids that we are helping out with scholarships. So, we're
doing some of those things. Sometimes it's hard to help. I went up
to Newburgh and met with the mayor, said how can I help? It isn't
as easy to help as you'd like it to be, sometimes. Beyond that, I
have scholarships, or my family does, at 28 universities around the
country. I forget, there's like 400 funds for teachers we have
right now. So, we're doing a lot of things. But more than anything
else, and that's what the film does, we're drawing attention,
shining a spotlight on it. We have a thing with school libraries
where we give away almost two million a year. But more important,
it shines a light on it. When we announced that we try to help
school libraries, we got 28,000 pleas for help in ten days. That
demonstrates how enormous the need is. And then you get a lot of
stories on it, like you'll do a story. That's helpful.
You’re a writer, which is general sort of a solitary
process. Although obviously films have been made of some of your
books, this was a more hands-on labor of love for you. How was the
idea of making a film an intriguing proposition for you? Did you
enjoy the process of getting out there and meeting all these people
and experiencing their lives?
James Patterson: Working
with Tim, it was a pleasure. (laughs) I've been involved
with films before. The nice thing here was we weren't working for
anybody. Nobody could tell us what to do. We went out and priced
this thing initially and filmmakers put a price of like a half a
million, $600,000. We went out and shot it for $40,000. It was
a labor of love. We just kept shooting it until we got it
Obviously you are a very busy man, putting your books
together and releasing several books a year. How important was it
to you to make time for the documentary, and do you ever get to
James Patterson: We just
made the time. Like I said, we edited it at a strip mall.
Tim Malloy: He's a one-take
guy. He doesn't sit around. He does it.
James Patterson: Yeah, when
you watch the film, we shot in Newburgh for three hours. Seven
set-ups and my wife did all the stills for three hours.
You have obviously created a publishing empire with
your books. Looking back on your career, are you ever amazed at how
far you have come?
James Patterson: Yeah. I
don't think about it, but when you ask me the question, yeah. It's
pretty stunning. I mean, I'm not impressed with myself, but it is
kind of a heady.