According to the state of Georgia’s tourism website, “Sapelo is a state-managed barrier island, the fourth largest in the chain of coastal Georgia islands between the Savannah and St. Marys rivers.” The island is accessible only by ferry.
After the Civil War, former slaves bought large parcels of land on Sapelo, establishing five distinct communities: Hog Hammock, Raccoon Bluff, Shell Hammock, Belle Marsh and Lumber Landing. Hog Hammock is the last community of Gullah (aka Geechee) people left on Sapelo. It’s where one of the subjects in new WORLD Channel documentary “Sapelo,” septuagenarian Cornelia Bailey, and her husband Frank (née Julius) Bailey live and hope that the community does not die when they do.
Most of the action in “Sapelo,” however, focuses on Cornelia and Frank’s adoptive sons, 11-year-old JerMarkest Bailey, known commonly as Marcus, and 10-year-old Johnathan Bailey, following them on their regular adventures in crabbing, fishing, riding horses, and hunting alligators together. They are shuttled to the mainland to stay with their biological mother at times.
What Cornelia wants more than anything is for the community to endure and to thrive. The boys symbolize a hope that they will do so. She states at one point, “The selfish part of me wants them to stay because I want them to keep my community going.” Cornelia sees the boys as the next generation of Sapelo. For a number of reasons hinted at in “Sapelo,” it doesn’t quite seem likely they will be.
Sapelo resident Tracy Walker appears, and informs the audience that there used to be roughly 60 children in Hog Hammock but now there are only five, with the Baileys having three of them. Many more leave Hog Hammock than remain, or return. It also isn’t encouraging to hear what the eldest brother, 14-year-old J.J. Bailey, has to say. Also adopted by Cornelia and Frank, he appears briefly. Shown playing a video game, he declares that he mainly stays inside because there is “really nothing to do” on the island.
That Cornelia appears to be the only one with a vision of what the community can be and with ideas of how to get there, is also a problem. Walker also states that there’s “No one just like Cornelia” in terms of doing what is necessary to keep the community alive and thriving. She seems to be waging this battle alone.” For example, Cornelia tries to establish an economic base by growing peas but there doesn’t seem to be enough people dedicated to the labor let alone any other aspect of the project for it to truly bear fruit.
Sapelo shows that new houses are going up in the dirt-road filled community but they are being put up by outsiders. Cornelia accusingly declares that it’s “my own people” who are the “culprits” for the decline of the community because they sell property to “outsiders.” There isn’t information as to who the outsiders are or how they change the community exactly. We don’t see what, if anything, is being done to keep the people of Hog
Hammock from selling off more of the property.
The more the audience gets to know Marcus and Johnathan, the more daunting Cornelia’s goal looks. As Cornelia describes the two boys, “they are hell on two wheels.” Marcus addresses his boredom by breaking and entering houses. During the filming, he and Johnathan are sent to stay with their mother, Janetta, and her girlfriend in Brunswick, Georgia when they become too much for Cornelia and Frank to deal with. Janetta was also adopted by Cornelia, when she was just a year old. None of the boys have a relationship with their fathers.
Johnathan is then sent somewhere else briefly before returning to Hog Hammock. Ultimately Marcus ends up first wearing an ankle bracelet, then being sent far away to juvenile detention. It’s obvious that Cornelia and Frank don’t have the resources to address the issues the boys have, much as they wish to. “Meeting with teachers, and counselors, and psychologists, and psychiatrists when you’re in your 70s can be taxing,” stated Bailey wearily. A tragedy that befalls her during filming makes it even less likely that her dream will come true.
The question is, is this a community on the precipice of reinvigorating itself or is it a dying community? Will the boys eventually straighten out and then have what it takes to breathe vitality into Hog Hammock and maybe the rest of Sapelo? By the end of “Sapelo,” none of this is clear.
There are three stories in “Sapelo”—one about the young boys’ lives, one about Sapelo, and one about how the boys’ lives intersect with the fate of the island town. On their own, each story is intriguing and promising, but none is complete in “Sapelo.”
“Sapelo” premieres on Thursday, April 7, as part of the acclaimed documentary series “America ReFramed.”