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News : International Last Updated: May 24, 2009 - 3:37:13 PM

Coconut Grove's Bahamian history highlighted in new film
By MiamiHerald.com
Oct 24, 2008 - 10:24:47 AM

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MiamiHerald.com -
After four years of work, filmmaker Jeffrey Poitier's documentary Voices, the story of Bahamian immigrants who helped build the Grove, will premiere at the Cocowalk movie theater.

Some of the city of Miami's earliest black settlers sailed into the Florida Straits from the Bahamas.

They built houses, stores and streets in what today is Coconut Grove. They also founded the city's oldest historically black community, today called the West Grove or, more recently, Village West.

Filmmaker Jeffrey Poitier spent four years interviewing some of the area's oldest early residents and the descendants of those who died. Their stories are the heart of Voices, a documentary on the area's Bahamian heritage, premiering Saturday at Cocowalk.

In those four years, Poitier, himself descended from Cat Island Bahamians who landed in the Grove, talked with nearly 200 people young and old, amassing 640 hours of footage.

''We have all generations of the Grove black community. It's called Voices because we let them do the speaking,'' Poitier said. ``I wanted to keep the oral histories of these people from disappearing.''

Indeed, this is the kind of history until recently that was left out of textbooks.

The film, at just over 90 minutes, chronicles the area's evolution from a tiny settlement reachable only by boat into a neighborhood with a bustling business corridor and high homeownership rates.

In the film, Poitier's cousin James, 94, speaks of a time when ``Grand Avenue was the only paved street.''

It continues through Village West's decline into a crime-heavy zone where food-delivery folks feared to go and its subsequent slow gentrification.

Without plenty of support and help from his wife Ellie Tinto-Poitier, a medical facility administrator, the documentary couldn't have been made, Poitier said.

Tinto-Poitier said she eventually quit her hospital job and ''jumped headlong'' into her husband's project.

''I've worked in a lot of businesses so I was able to approach foundations, write proposals and develop budgets,'' she said.

She added that her husband shot so much great footage that they have decided to make it into a television series. The documentary will act as a sort of extended trailer they can show the networks.

''This is a marketable product,'' Tinto-Poitier said. ``It grabs you.''

For the premiere, managers of Cocowalk's AMC movie theater donated use of their largest screening room.

''I can't believe they did that,'' Poitier said. ``That's where they opened the movie Batman.''

He has invited several Bahamian dignitaries, including the tourism minister and Consul General Gladys Johnson-Sands, as well as representatives from HBO, PBS, MTV and WLRN.

Poitier, nephew of Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier, said the making the film also helped him connect with several aging family members before they died.

''We had five back-to-back deaths; you can imagine the toll it's taken,'' he said.

He saluted the deceased Bahamians buried at Charlotte Jane Memorial Park on Douglas Road as the catalyst for today's Coconut Grove.

''Those old souls in the Charlotte Jane cemetery,'' Poitier said, ``made this happen.''

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