Keeping the Faith With Morrie

by Peter Wong on September 27, 2007

Once upon a time, an aspiring Hollywood actress promised to help out who she thought was a Bay Area cartoonist laboring in obscurity. Little did she expect the changes her life would undergo. Nor could she have predicted that fulfilling her vow would take 15 years and counting.

Angel Harper came to Hollywood from Washington D.C. in 1991 to parlay her skills at voiceover work and stand-up comedy into an acting career. During a Women In Animation networking session, she first heard about a racially egalitarian multicultural children’s comic strip. Given that far too many animation projects featured lots of white characters plus one or two minority characters for racial leavening, this strip fascinated Harper. Curiosity about the comic strip led her to track down and phone the strip’s now elderly creator, Berkeley-based Morrie Turner. What began as a business cum fan call regarding Turner’s strip “Wee Pals” ended with the development of a natural if unexpected emotional bond between the actress and the cartoonist.

How did that hour-long conversation eventually become a friendship lasting more than 15 years? Harper cannot explain in detail. Turner’s nice voice and his grandfatherly manner get mentioned. Perhaps it was the cartoonist’s ability to see Harper’s passionate core that did it. However that connection formed, it affected the aspiring actress/comedian.

She enthusiastically set two interconnected goals for herself. First, her Hollywood career would be strong enough to possess creative clout. Second, that clout would be parlayed into getting a film or television adaptation of “Wee Pals” greenlit. For his part, the Berkeley-based cartoonist encouraged Harper’s dreams with his favorite admonition to “keep the faith.” She in turn kept in regular contact with him over the years.

As it turned out, the realities of Hollywood business tempered Harper’s plans. The aspiring actress appeared opposite Whoopi Goldberg in “Clara’s Heart.” She had also done voice work for such well-known animated series as “Rugrats,” “Batman—The Animated Series,” and “The Real Ghostbusters.” But this resume didn’t translate into the type of star power that could persuade financiers or animation studios that a “Wee Pals” film could be financially viable.

Ironically, even if Harper had gained the clout she needed, Turner’s career had not exactly been overshadowed by obscurity. “Wee Pals” was the first African American-owned syndicated comic strip. Its truly integrated cast of blacks, Chicanos, Asians, Jews, and Native Americans marked a significant departure from pop-culture tokenism. The East Bay cartoonist’s numerous awards included the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum’s Charles M. Schulz “Sparky” Award. Finally, “Wee Pals” had already been adapted for television animation in the form of the fondly remembered 1972 series “Kid Power.”

To Turner’s credit, he never disappointed Harper by telling her the truth about his noteworthy career. The cartoonist remained the sympathetic ear for the actress’ career difficulties and the cheerleader for her career successes.

Harper’s opportunity to aid Turner finally came in June 2001. That month, her San Fernando Valley church “In His Presence” decided to hold a film festival. The actress decided to submit a piece to the festival. The first proposal, which she would have produced and directed as well as starred in, fell through. The festival’s prohibition against animated features rendered stillborn her second proposal, an animated adaptation of “Wee Pals.” But that setback inspired Harper to improvise a 30-minute rough cut documentary portrait entitled “Keeping The Faith With Morrie,” which would still allow her to use the “Wee Pals” material.

Making that tribute to Turner literally turned Harper’s life around. The technical problems that sank her previous efforts seemed to disappear with this project. More importantly, the actress finally met her phone correspondent of many years in the flesh. During that interview visit to Turner, the voiceover artist saw the recognition and great regard that Turner had received from the community. She laughs when she recounts that interview. “All this time, I thought Morrie was a little old man that nobody knew about, but when I walked in [his house], there were trophies, certificates, and thank you plaques that filled the house like wallpaper.”

Turner’s honors were well deserved. He has repeatedly contributed his illustrations to such non-profit organizations as EOYDC. In 2003, he received a Lifetime Achievement award from his peers of the National Cartoonist Society. His work has inspired legendary “Mad” magazine cartoonist and “Groo” co-creator Sergio Aragones.

The rough cut documentary won a Best Direction award at the In His Presence film festival. Harper decided to submit her short to the 2002 Hollywood Black Film Festival, which had a wider audience. That submission led to Harper’s short taking the Best Documentary award. The more important effect was to spark audience interest in spreading the word about Turner’s work and talent.

The actress decided to go forward with completing the film. Her next step was to expand the short into a 60-minute film marketable for PBS broadcast. More Turner interview material would appear in this hour-long film. More importantly, historical material regarding minority cartoonists and their tumultuous relationship with the comic strip industry would be included.

Established minority comics creators have already been interviewed for Harper’s film. Interview subjects include “The K Chronicles”’ Keith Knight, “Static Shock” creator and Milestone Media founder Dwayne Mc Duffie, and “The Boondocks” creator Aaron Mc Gruder. Mc Duffie also serves on the honorary board of Heaven Sent Productions, the film’s production company. Further work needs to take place to reach the film’s projected goal of interviews with 104 cartoonists in 30 cities.

This expanded film’s creation process has taken five years without any immediate sign of completion. The constant struggle to obtain independent financing accounts for the long time frame. Even with donated labor and equipment, the cost of interviewing this many cartoonists in so many cities is still noticeably high.

For those five years, Harper bore the brunt of the documentary’s financial challenges. The possibility of financial ruin and abandonment of the project constantly dogged her. Harper’s acting career had to be abandoned for the financially steadier career of teaching children.

In spite of her many hardships, the ex-actress has no regrets. Turner’s message of encouraging racial harmony among members of different ethnic groups still remains timeless. The Jena 6 controversy and the media’s racist comments about the black survivors of Katrina demonstrate that present-day audiences still need to learn Turner’s lessons.

To complete the hour-long version of the Morrie Turner documentary, Heaven Sent Productions needs tax-deductible donations, primarily of the monetary and skill kind. To learn how to help, people are directed to www.heavensentproductions.org

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