Sapelo is a movie as laid back in its style as the people it follows. This documentary takes us across rural Georgia, to the coastal Sapelo Island, for a glimpse into the lives of the Saltwater Geechee people. They’re a culturally rich lineage with roots in West Africa that span generations.
As is the case with many a relatively untouched piece of land, Sapelo Island doesn’t remain intact forever. Much of the Geechee territory encroachment, specifically the Hog Hammock community of the island, stems from outside developers. While this economic boon is, unquestionably, necessary, it’s not always welcome. When non-natives to Sapelo first began to snap up property on the island, we are told, “a little warning bell went off,” as if those Geechee who had made their ancestral homes on Sapelo Island could foretell that the days were numbered on their claim to their long-held land.
In part, Sapelo focuses on a kindly matriarch named Cornelia Walker Bailey, a ninth-generation Geechee whose mission in life has been to preserve her ancestors’ legacy. A title card informs us that for over two hundred years, Sapelo Island was the home of the Geechee. But as Cornelia relays in her writings, read in voiceover by Bahni Turpin, there is now only one community left on the island.
However, the film mostly follows her two grandsons, 11-year-old JerMarkest (Marcus) and his younger brother, 10-year-old Johnathan. While near in age, the boys couldn’t be further apart in temperament. Johnathan is a precocious but generally amenable kid, while Marcus is cultivating some behavioral problems that are, in my unprofessional opinion, exhibitive of someone with ADHD.
“…a glimpse into the lives of the Saltwater Geechee people…”
But their brotherly bond runs thick, and they pass their days playing, fishing, and connecting with nature and their island in the Geechee tradition of natural harmony. In this day and age, when pre-teens are so preoccupied with social media and seemingly thrust into the trials of adulthood earlier and earlier, it’s nothing short of refreshing to watch two children behave like such and do kid things. It is witnessing this “back-to-basics” aspect of Sapelo that is most engaging in the movie.
In addition to Cornelia, Marcus, and Johnathan, we also meet Janetta, Cornelia’s adopted daughter, and the boy’s biological mother. Janetta lives in Brunswick, on mainland Georgia. A worried Cornelia can see Marcus following in Janetta’s troubled footsteps. Further extending the family is the older brother, JJ, a 14-year-old who does his best to be a positive role model for his younger siblings.
The documentary, co-directed by Nick Brandestini and Taylor Segrest, takes a fly-on-the-wall approach. While there are the usual interviews, much of the film’s charm derives from Brandestini just hanging back and watching the subjects living their lives.
In an age when everyday life can become so overwhelming so quickly, and frustration and pain are, unfortunately, part of daily existence, it is wonderful to know that clans such as the Geechee of Sapelo Island still exist intent on surviving according to their established principles. Thanks to documentaries like Sapelo that tell these stories, we, through the filmmakers’ lens, are permitted a visit into a way of life that is so rare nowadays. Perhaps we can all be reminded from the Geechee to appreciate and enjoy what is important in life truly: establishing roots, our natural surroundings, and most important of all, family.
"…as laid back in its style as the people of whom it follows."