Blind and Battling Conviction, Fashion Designer Wayne James Directs Cuba Film

                                                                                                       

Fashion Designer and Former Senator Wayne James Makes Movie while Challenging Conviction and Battling Blindness

Havana, Cuba

Going…Going…Gone:  The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba, a film by fashion designer and former senator Wayne James, will premiere at Union City, New Jersey’s prestigious Musto Cultural Center on Sunday, March 27, 2022.  The public screening of the three-part docufilm is being officially hosted by Union City’s mayor Brian P. Stack and the city’s Board of Commissioners. Union City is the oldest Cuban enclave in the United States, dating back to the late 1940s, and today boasts one of the nation’s largest urban Cuban populations, second only to Miami.   

The prestigious William V. Musto Cultural Center of Union City, NJ, venue of the World Premiere of Wayne James’ “Going…Going…Gone: The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba

Links to the film will be uploaded onto YouTube immediately after the Union City premiere, and a cocktail reception is being planned for Miami.

“The Union City leadership and community at large have welcomed me and the film with open arms,” James said. “They immediately recognized the film’s timeliness, relevance, and power. I have been treated to a classic display of Cuban hospitality.”

A prototype of the emerging “quiltography” genre—films skillfully and artistically pieced-together, quiltlike, from already-existing footage for the purpose of telling a new story—Going…Going…Gone is a gripping, emotionally charged oeuvre about Cuba’s journey from its late-19th-century title of “The Pearl of the Caribbean,” to Castro-era “Bastion of Communism,” to 21st-century “Battleground for Democracy.”

The film’s raison d’être is the display of James’ exceedingly rare collection of more than 500 self-captioned photos of golden-age Cuba, dating from about 1890-1925, taken by the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., Havana-based cigar company as picture-album keepsakes for the company’s preferred customers. 

Beginning in the mid-1920s, James’ maternal great-uncle, musician and sugarcane laborer Alexander Messer, born on St. Croix in 1888 to Christian Messer (1859-1927) and Andrina Prince Messer (1865-1941), would enclose the photos in his letters home to his parents and siblings on St. Croix. (Alexander migrated to Cuba in 1918 at the age of 29, settling in Santiago de Cuba, after having lived abroad in the Dominican Republic from 1908. Alexander’s younger brother, Richard Messer, born in 1893, migrated to Cuba in 1915 at the age of 21, settling in Camaguey.)  

Not known by the family to be a smoker, and, given his modest status in Cuba, not likely a preferred customer of the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., cigar company, how Alexander came into possession of the picture-cards has been lost to history.  What is known, however, is that Alexander’s younger brother, Alphonso Messer (1896-1973) painstakingly safeguarded the photos at the family’s ancestral home on Hospital Street in the town of Frederiksted from the ravages of time and storm, the nascent collection of approximately 100 photos passing to Wayne James, a schoolboy of 11 years old at the time of the inheritance. 

Over the decades, James has serendipitously augmented the collection by happening upon caches in quaint antique shops and by successfully bidding at international auction houses, his collection of the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., “Cuba Series” now totaling more than 550 images and believed to be the world’s largest. 

Approximately 50 of the images are portraits of Cuban political leaders, born circa 1850 to 1900, many of whom contributed to the Cuba that Fidel Castro overthrew on January 1, 1959. 

“Many Cubans who have seen these portraits have been moved to tears,” James said.  “Many present-day Cubans are the descendants of the once-powerful men depicted in the portraits.  And many of these present-day descendants had never seen photos of their forefathers since many of Cuba’s elite hastily left the country with little more than the clothes on their backs in the wake of the 1959 Revolution. For many Cubans, the emotions are as raw as they were 63 years ago, and they are comforted by finally seeing the faces of their forefathers.”

But there is more to Going…Going…Gone than portraits and breathtakingly beautiful photos of Cuba’s palatial architecture, manicured parks, impressive monuments, panoramic bays and roadways, palm-dotted hillsides, impressive stone churches and cathedrals, and bridges and factories, for example.

The plotline of the film is as much unfolded via photos as via music:  Cuba’s greatest, time-honored compositions—such as “Adios a Cuba,” “La Bella Cubana,” and “Barcarola”—of Cuba’s greatest 19th -century symphonic composers, musicians such as Ignacio Cervantes, Jose White, and Nicholas Espadero, seamlessly connect the elements of the film. And to pull on the heart strings, Director James weaves into the panoramic displays of the still photos live orchestral performances of the tango classics of Argentinean great Astor Piazzolla, performed by Washington, DC’s Pan American Symphony Orchestra (PASO). And, of course, the film is studded with Afro-Cuban spirituals, conga rhythms, and comparsas.

Archival film footage—from silent-era films of Cubans harvesting sugarcane and of carnival revelry; to clips of pre-Revolution glamor; to travel films lauding the island-nation’s modern accomplishments; to grainy original footage of Castro’s rebels in their mountaintop hideouts and his triumphant victory parade in Havana; to network broadcasts of Castro’s stirring speeches and interviews; to broadcasts of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, the 1994 Massacre at Sea, and the 1999-2000 Elian Gonzalez saga; to public domain YouTube posts of today’s Cubans taking to the streets in New Jersey, Miami, and Havana, demanding Democracy—are pieced-together to recount, with authenticity, the Cuban experience.

“When treating a historical subject of this magnitude, there is no point in trying to ‘re-invent the reel’,“ James said.  “The best footage is the real footage—that taken as these great historical events were unfolding. My role was to locate this archival footage, then piece-it together, quiltlike, to tell the story as I see it. I think I have achieved that objective with Going…Going…Gone.”

Fashion Designer Wayne James in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Alessandro Sonnetti.

And all this—a “tour de force” of sorts, a “magnum opus” in some respects—was accomplished in the few months since James’ release from Federal prison on June 19, 2020, after serving a 30-month sentence—in seven different prisons, foreign and domestic, federal, state, and territorial—for the alleged embezzlement of $78,000 during his 2009-2011 term as Senator of the United States Virgin Islands. James’ Petition to Vacate Conviction, based on 28 USC § 2255 on the grounds of violations of his 6th Amendment Right to effective counsel, his 6th Amendment Right to present witnesses to testify on his behalf, and his 5th Amendment Right to Due Process of Law, is currently being reviewed by the District Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands (Case:  3:15-cr-00042-RAM-RM  Document #:  299 Filed:  02/28/22 ).

Even more remarkable is the fact that James has directed Going…Going…Gone—in addition to launching his Wayne James’ Seasonings for Men and relaunching his signature Wayne James Ltd fashion line at www.WayneJamesLtd.com  while battling blindness caused by the Bureau of Prisons’ neglect of his glaucoma condition during his period of incarceration. 

“I entered federal prison not even needing drugstore readers,” James said. “But I left federal prison blind, deposited by prison personnel at the Pensacola, Florida, Greyhound Bus Station in the dark of night on June 1, 2020, and told to make my way as best I could to the halfway house in Atlanta, Georgia, where I remained until June 19, 2020.

  “But Ray Charles was blind,” James continues. “And Stevie Wonder is blind.  So, Wayne James is not going to let blindness stop him. As long as you are alive, you have to strive to thrive. Fortunately, I didn’t develop myself into a one-trick pony.  God and genetics blessed me with numerous talents, and I have cultivated them over the years.

Going…Going…Gone is simply one of the many things on my plate, a triumphant return to political life included. Plus, I have more books to write, including finishing volume three of my critically acclaimed Manly Manners treatise on modern men’s comportment and lifestyle,” James said. “And, as you can imagine, in that list of books to be written are books about life in federal prison, the first of which will be Culo! Culo! Culo!, a tell-all about life at MDC Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and federal prison in Florida,” James added.

Haute couture model Janice Joyce in a 1990 “little black dress” by fashion designer Wayne James. Photo by Amr Mounib.

Wayne James is no stranger to multi-tasking and artist achievement under adverse circumstances.  In 1987, while in his last semester of law school at Georgetown, he presented his first collection of fashion at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in SoHo, the esteemed Bergdorf Goodman purchasing the exclusive New York rights to that first collection, and the Washington Post lauding his launch.  James went on to graduate two months later and within two years was declared “one of the rising stars among young New York designers” by celebrated fashion editor Nina Hyde. 

What would become Going…Going…Gone started out as a simple conversation between two dear, dear friends.  Cuban-born Luis C. Garcia-Menocal, great-grandson of Cuba’s third president, Mario Garcia-Menocal (1913-1921), and James were sitting, talking about their mutual love for Cuba when James informed Garcia-Menocal of his rare collection of golden-age Cuba photos.

“Cubans would love to see those photos,” Garcia-Menocal said.  “Cuba is a great island.  And people need to see what the island looked like before the revolution.”

“Luis’ nostalgia for Cuba was palpable,” James recalls.  “I decided then and there to share the photos with him, Cubans, and the world. It started out as an exhibition accompanied by a coffee table book and organically morphed into a three-part, six-hour film.  Love is a powerful thing.  It brings out the best in us if we follow its lead,” James concluded.

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