Aaaaaannnnnd, action! Alto resident hits Hollywood in ‘Black Bones’

by By Cristin Parker

She may not be ready for her close-up – yet-- but Alto native Shanelle Gaddis has been bitten by the acting bug, thanks to the Nate Parker Foundation (NPF).

Gaddis, who graduated from Alto High School’s class of 2013 and is now a senior at Wiley College in Marshall, was recently cast in a role in the short film, ‘Black Bones,’ produced by the NPF; and filmed on the Wiley campus in July. The picture premiered at the college on July 21 but hasn’t been released yet.

“I’m going for cinematography, writing and directing for my mass communication degree,” said 23-year-old Gaddis, who also earned her associate degree in Arts from Southwest Christian College. “I really never wanted to be an actor – I want to direct and write.”

She said her first foray into the acting world was a bit of a bust, when she tried out for a part in a one-act play in high school.

“I didn’t get it,” she remembers with a laugh. “So, I thought ‘oh well, acting’s not for me then.’ But I always knew I wanted to be in filmmaking though, so I didn’t give up on the whole industry. This is huge for me, coming from such a small town. I got to channel a talent I didn’t even know I had.”

Gaddis and several other aspiring filmmakers were able to stretch their acting wings as part of the third annual Summer Film Institute, sponsored by the NPF, a not-for-profit corporation based in New York, NY is “dedicated to transforming the film industry by disrupting the established avenues towards production and by cultivating new voices to ultimately change the racial climate of this Nation,” the Foundation’s website,, states.

“In 2016, the NPF established its flagship Summer Film Institute at Wiley College,” the website states. “The first year the NPF brought 31 black students … to Wiley College for an intensive summer institute where students were taught by some of the top scholars of black history and film professionals. By the end of the institute the students wrote, directed, and produced a short film.”

The founder of the institute, Hollywood star and director Nate Parker started as an actor in 2004, before becoming a director. Projects he’s acted in or directed include The Birth of a Nation, Non-Stop, The Secret Life of Bees, The Great Debaters, Pride, Arbitrage and television series, including The Unit and Cold Case. He’s worked with such names as Denzel Washington, Julianne Moore, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Liam Neeson, Gabrielle Union and others.

Parker told a local ABC television affiliate in July that the film institute is all about learning and growing.

“The first two days are all about identity, building self-esteem, black identity, knowledge of self, knowledge of our position, and narrative of story-telling,” he said in the televised interview. “We ask them to show us different people who have contributed, and then once we feel that they have a culturally responsive education, then we introduce them to the film dynamic.”

Gaddis said she almost couldn’t believe it when she was cast as Ruth, the oldest sister in a family of five siblings of three boys and two girls.

“I literally cried when they announced my name,” she laughed. “I was so amazed – I mean, I’m just a country girl from Alto. I was so nervous – auditioning isn’t easy or even anything I’d even thought I’d be doing. But we got to work with a real Hollywood casting director, Tracy ‘Twinkie’ Byrd. So that was pretty exciting.

“It was easy to get into my character though, because my own family is large. So, I was able to get the vibe pretty quickly – and after two days of filming, it was really like we became siblings, because we’d get frustrated with each other or make each other laugh. It was a little intimidating to work with so many professionals, but they were really kind to the rookie and welcomed me so much.

“Acting, though, is not as easy as it looks. In the movie, we’re all sitting around the living room table, so I was sitting on my knees. I had to stay in that same position for nine hours straight as we filmed – I’ve still got bruises on my knees from that. It was totally worth it!”

Instructors this year included Byrd, as well as Breaking The Cycle Consulting Service co-founder Brian Favors; acting coach Cary Anderson; movie and television producer Darren Moorman; writer/director/producer and creator of Innervision Filmworks Inc Dwight Wilson II; make-up artist Abbie Alvarez; director of Sankofa Research Institute and University of Houston professor Assata Richards; writer and director Assia Lakhlif; radio personality and Beats 1 deejay Ebro Darden; cinematographer Kay Madsen; director/writer/producer and founder of Enchant TV Jackie Stone; writer/producer James Hadgis; and director of photography Keanan Nelson.

“We were able to work with all these professionals,” Gaddis said. “It was amazing. We truly, all of us, became a family over the few days we did the picture – the cast, the crew, everyone. It was such a great experience.”

‘Black Bones’ tells the story of the lynching of one family’s grandmother, as the siblings play a game of dominoes with the set their grandparents were playing when their grandmother was taken.

“The story comes out as we play,” Gaddis explained. “Every time one of us slaps a domino down to make a play, it takes us back to the time and circumstances of how or grandmother died. It’s almost like, the grandmother’s spirit is in the dominoes, and she wants her story to be heard, so we can give her peace finally.”

While the story is not based on any historical event, Gaddis said it’s still a powerful look at a tumultuous time in America’s history.

“It’s brilliant and I love the way it ends,” she said. “It’s very poignant.”

Gaddis said ‘Black Bones’ will be featured at the Pan African Film Festival next February in Los Angeles.

Established in 1992, The Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to the promotion of cultural understanding among peoples of African descent. PAFF is dedicated to racial tolerance through the exhibition of film, art and creative expression.

Gaddis is also currently working on a script based on the life of her cousin, Cam’ron Matthews, who died on the sidelines of a high school football game in 2015, after suffering an aneurysm

“I just really wanted my first project to be surrounded by my hometown,” Gaddis said.

Nytesia Ross contributed to this story