Jun 6, 2022 - News

Scoop: "Tiger King" director working on Dozier School documentary

Crosses on unmarked graves

Crosses made of metal pipes mark the graves of 32 unidentified bodies in a small, hidden graveyard near the former Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Photo: Emily Michot/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The filmmaker behind the smash Netflix documentary series "Tiger King" has turned her attention to the plight of the White House Boys, former wards of Florida's notoriously brutal reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna.

Driving the news: Emmy-nominated producer and director Rebecca Chaiklin and a film crew shot footage yesterday of the Fort Myers memorial service for Jerry Cooper, long-time president of the group of men who were abused by guards while in custody at the state-run school in the 1950s and '60s.

  • Chaiklin tells Axios that she grew interested in the Dozier School after learning that Don Lewis, the missing former husband of Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin, was abused at the school as a teen.
  • His experience at the school could help explain his unusual behavior at the time of his disappearance, which local police still have not solved.

Why it matters: In spite of attention from international news media and from Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-prize-winning novel "The Nickel Boys," which fictionalized the Dozier story, state lawmakers have so far ignored the calls for reparations the White House Boys say they deserve.

  • The White House Boys hope a blockbuster documentary might force state lawmakers to act on a claims bill that is virtually ignored year after year.

What's next: Chaiklin tells us she doesn't yet know what shape the story might take, but she has spent hours in state archives in Tallahassee and has interviewed a slew of former wards, widows and wives.

What they're saying: "This fight's not over," retired Army Ranger Capt. Bryant Middleton, a former ward from Fort Walton Beach, told the crowd there for Cooper's memorial as the cameras rolled. "The state of Florida might think it's over, but we've got news for them."

A woman and a man behind a camera film another woman standing at a lectern.
Filmmaker Rebecca Chaiklin, left, watches Babbs Cooper eulogize her late husband, Jerry, at a service Sunday in Fort Myers. Photo: Ben Montgomery/Axios

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