Angela Shelton is the writer-director of Heart, Baby, based on the true story of boxer George Lee Martin, starring Gbenga Akinnagbe and Jackson Rathbone; the film is now playing in select theaters. Shelton had her first screenwriting and producing credit with Tumbleweeds (1999), which won the Sundance Film Festival Filmmaker’s Trophy and earned the lead actress Janet McTeer an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win. She followed Tumbleweeds with her highly acclaimed adaptation of Kaye Gibbons’ novel Charms For The Easy Life (2002), starring Mimi Rogers and Gena Rowlands. In 2001 Angela made her directorial debut with the documentary Searching For Angela Shelton, in which she discovered that 70% of the women she interviewed with the same name had, like herself, been a victim of rape, childhood sexual abuse and/or domestic violence. The film received many accolades and went on to begin a grassroots movement of survivors and humanitarian organizations around the world dedicated to exposing the epidemic of abuse. Her memoir, Finding Angela Shelton, published by Meredith Publishing in 2006, describes how making the documentary changed her life. She is currently in development on her second feature.
In 2010, I was asked to speak at the 140 Conference by its founder, Jeff Pulver, to share how we can help the world be a better place via social media. I talked about ways to heal from traumas like rape, domestic violence, and child sexual abuse, that I had learned from making my documentary Searching for Angela Shelton. While there I met Andy “Doc” Dixon, who was speaking about prison reform and a term he and his wife, Linda, created – “felonism” – which describes the unfair treatment of released felons, or “returning citizens.” Ironically, a friend had warned me about talking to Doc, because “he’s been in prison.” Regardless, Doc and I became instant friends.
On a road trip later that year, my high school sweetheart/soon-to-be husband and I visited Doc and Linda. The four of us stayed up drinking wine and listening to Doc’s prison stories, because Doc has a lot of prison stories. One of the people he told us about was his best friend in the world, George, who became a boxer when he was inside. Doc was his cornerman, “although he didn’t need nobody telling him nothing. I just collected the money from people betting on him and made sure he got his share of it.” Doc hit his chest and said, “Heart, baby! That’s what George would do every time he won a fight and people asked him how he did it every time. ‘I got Heart, baby!’”
It was then I began my prison education and learned that on the inside, “heart” means courage. The LGBTQ prisoners (who were referred to as “sissies”) were cheerleaders during Friday Night Fights; they sang Queen’s “We are the Champions” and later made up their own “Heart, baby!” cheer.
As Doc told us about all the fights George won, we each started hitting our chests with excitement and saying, “Heart, baby!” I could see the scenes in my mind as Doc described the warden bringing in champs, including the Golden Gloves champion and then heavyweight champ John Tate and watching George knock them all out inside one round.
Suddenly, something shifted, and Doc got tears in his eyes. “What, what happened?” I asked, seeing the sad look on his face.
“Well, they offered George a chance to get furloughed, so he could fight in the 1984 Olympics out in California. He woulda won the gold for the U.S., none of us doubted that. We sure had a party when we got that news.”
“Oh my God, what happened?” I asked, riveted.
“He turned it down. Wouldn’t go. Wanted to take somebody with him, the crazy bastard.”
“Nah. That woulda been fun. We sure woulda had fun on that bus, like the time we escaped reform school together.”
(I don’t want to reveal the spoiler of who George insisted on taking with him. As a filmmaker, I’d prefer you to experience that same moment of surprise we did hearing the story for the first time!)
Doc was so animated and full of emotion as he described how the warden prevented George from boxing ever again, in retaliation for him not fighting in the Olympics. We all were crying. (As Doc tells it, even the dogs were crying!) Tears streamed down my face as Doc choked up sharing how George then got sick. In 1993, George was given a compassionate release to get out of prison, so he could die at home. That was the last time Doc saw George.
“Oh my God, this is a movie!” I said, as we all wiped our tears.
“It would be a good movie, Angie. Only you could do it. You’ll give it the heart it needs.”
Doc agreed to give me the rights to his story, and I began getting more details to Doc’s story and talking to other prisons and admins. Only 300 prisoners and guards witnessed these moments and since John Tate’s manager insisted that the news of him being knocked out never made it outside the prison walls, so I wanted to be sure it was OK to reveal these historical moments.
It takes time raising money for an independent film, so it took five years before I had the script and the financing, and we were in pre-production in New Orleans. (Although the story takes place in Tennessee, we shot in Louisiana to utilize their tax credit and their plethora of prisons!) Doc was with me throughout pre-production and production, helping make sure every detail – from the shanks to the uniforms – was “convict-approved.” I have since learned that “returning citizens” is the politically correct term one should use in order to avoid felonism – but for the sake of our film, Doc said “convict-approved” sounded better!
Right before we started production, we still couldn’t find George’s death certificate, which we needed for our insurance policy; in order to tell someone’s story, you either need a life rights agreement from them, or their death certificate. When none of us could find any information on George, we hired a private investigator to dig deeper. She couldn’t find his death certificate either – but, remarkably, she found him! He had survived Hepatitis C and was still very much alive. I got to witness Doc and George being reunited on November 12, 2016. Talk about a tearfest! We were all elated and overwhelmed. “I’m glad you’re alive, George, but do I have to kill you now?” I joked. “We’re about to start filming your life story.” Thankfully, George gave his permission for us to proceed with making Heart, Baby!
If not for us making a film, these two best friends might have gone the rest of their lives without knowing that they were both alive and living just 30 minutes from one another. I had just enough time to write parts for them in the film, as the officer and the counselor who let George out of prison. During the scene in which Doc and George say goodbye for the last time, you can see that the officer and the counselor have tears in their eyes. Once you know those are the real dudes watching a piece of their lives being acted out, it warms your heart, baby!
Meeting Doc at a conference about doing good things in the world via social media led to us doing good things through a movie. Now Doc and George hang out together all the time. I’ve gone to Tennessee to be with them and witness their wives chatting while George plays with his children. Since boxing helped him stay sane on the inside, George trains young kids around Nashville, providing them with an outlet to keep them off the streets and out of a life of crime. He cannot get a loan to start a gym since he has a felony, so he trains out of his garage. Always George’s cornerman, Doc watches out for his “road dog” (the prison term for a brother), and we set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money for George’s gym, which you can donate to here.
I look at these two men, now in their late fifties, and I see two 12-year-old best friends – road dogs – and when I hear George’s infectious laugh, all I can think of is “Heart, baby!”