The Fly Fishing Guide Who Brought Martin Luther King Jr. a Moment’s Peace
Days before Dr. King died, he went bonefishing with Ansil Saunders, the subject of a new short film
You probably know of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic speech the day before his death, in which he declared, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life … but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” You may even know that, a few days prior, the civil rights icon was on Bimini, an island in the Bahamas where he had previously traveled. But you probably don’t know Ansil Saunders, the fly fishing guide who was with King when he wrote the speech.
“MLK would spend so much time out there just writing and wrestling. I can’t even imagine what kind of doubt or what kind of fear he had to wrestle with. He was receiving death threats,” says film director Shannon Vandivier. “I think that in itself is something that Ansil got to interact with directly, and it created a really special bond between them.”
Vandivier’s new short film Mighty Waters profiles Saunders, a lifetime Bahamian who took Dr. King bonefishing days before giving his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and thus days before his assassination. The movie, which is currently available to view digitally through the Fly Fishing Film Tour, is only tangentially related to that festival’s mission; the fishing is a backdrop for an engrossing look at a man inspired by King, as well as a new view of the minister himself, one that will be new to many, as it was to Vandivier.
“I loved how, when I heard [Saunders’s] story, I felt like I was getting to see MLK in a way that I’d never heard about him or seen him portrayed,” the 34-year-old filmmaker tells InsideHook.
“MLK was a wonderful speaker and a preacher and an activist, and we see him out in the streets and we see him on podiums,” he says. But this “intimate perspective into somebody who struggles” was something that struck Vandivier instantly when he first heard of Saunders about a year ago, and drove him to make the movie.
The 17-minute short doesn’t feature any footage of Saunders and King, the former steering the boat through turquoise waters while the latter puts pen to paper; after all, that was over 50 years ago. But it does impress upon the viewer both the majesty King saw in the bonefishing paradise and the colossal effect he had on the life of Saunders, even if you’re just watching the movie on your phone or laptop; the awe-inspiring shots often look like they should be narrated by David Attenborough, including drone footage that tracks Saunders’s fishing boat weaving through the mangrove islands.
On the other hand, when Saunders, who is now in his late 80s, tells his story, he’s recounting something that took place half a century ago; as such, it’s easy as a viewer to get the impression that you’re hearing an old timer spin a yarn. Except King really did seek refuge in Bimini. And Saunders really did a one-man sit-in at the “whites only” Bimini Big Game Club, which eventually changed its policy, and became involved in Bahamin politics, eventually contributing to the country’s independence from British rule in 1973, citing his inspiration as King’s civil rights work in the U.S. The mythical quality of the movie, you then realize, is not something wholly applied in post by Vandivier, but a product of Saunders himself, who is a storyteller like King, but with one story he’s been working on his whole life.
As for Vandivier, through his production company Cold Collaborative, his storytelling has in large part consisted of projects for outdoor brands like Orvis and the cooler company Yeti. For this film, his sponsors include the American Museum of Fly Fishing, fishing gear brand Simms and sunglasses purveyor Costa. So like the film festival Mighty Waters is currently playing in, the director’s wheelhouse is fly fishing; but he’s used that pastime as a starting point to explore topics that are outside his personal experience, though intimately important to the conversations we as a country, and a people, are having around systemic racism and Black equality.
“I think that Ansil provides us a window of hope and a model for how we can serve each other as a community,” says Vandivier.
That belief led him and his four-person crew to reconfigure their shooting schedule after their plan to fly to Bimini in March 2020 was thwarted by the pandemic. Instead, they went for 10 days this past December, split the team between a commercial airline and a private charter, partnered with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism so they wouldn’t get fined when filming without masks, and had the movie finished within 50 days so they could submit it to film festivals this year.
Where will Mighty Waters be shown after the Fly Fishing Film Tour ends on April 4? Vandivier can’t confirm anything at the moment, but it seems like he’s simply trying to break Ansil Saunders’s story out of the tackle box and into the mainstream. It’s an interesting problem to have, especially because, as Vandivier says, fly fishing is “not even about catching the fish really.”
“It’s about this process of disconnecting from everything else and allowing yourself to be in touch with something that’s so much bigger than yourself,” he says.
That’s why Dr. King sought out Saunders and his bonefishing expertise when working on what would become some of the most powerful speeches of his lifetime. And that’s why, in the mangroves off Bimini where he has taken countless people to fish, Saunders planted a bust of King that is worn and weathered, but still standing.
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