Staten Island Graveyard


STATEN ISLAND GRAVEYARD is a timely and soul-stirring full-length documentary which tells the story of a centuries-old, paved-over African-American cemetery in the “forgotten borough” of New York City. The film chronicles the far-reaching impact of two descendants who challenge and galvanize their community to repair the damage and reclaim the humanity of those who were once—and still may be—buried there.


STATEN ISLAND GRAVEYARD began as a documentary about a 19 th century African- American cemetery that was illegally seized by New York City in 1954. This burial ground, once known as Cherry Lane, was leased to Shell, who sunk gas tanks deep into the hallowed ground of an estimated 1,000 people, including infants and children. In 1985 the property was sold and transformed again—into the strip mall it is today. When descendants David Thomas and Ruth Ann Hills learned their ancestor, Benjamin Prine, was buried at Cherry Lane, and that his remains had been desecrated a mile from where they live, their decision to fight this deeply-felt injustice became the primary focus of the film.

Benjamin Prine was star power. According to the Elmira Star-Gazette, “His stories of historical events are household talk on Staten Island.” When he died in 1900—age estimated 99-106—Mr. Prine was the oldest enslaved person from Staten Island, and his obituary was printed from Boston, MA to Davenport, IA. According to the Davenport Daily Times “he was a playmate of Commodore Vanderbilt,” while The New York Times reported, “During the War of 1812…he helped to construct fortifications on the island [and] drove the first stage coach there for fifteen years.” The Boston Globe recounted his life as such: “Prine was five years old at the death of the first president of the republic, was approaching manhood when the War of 1812 broke out, was made a free man at 25 by the Northern Slave Act, and was seven years past threescore when Sumter was fired upon.” Mr. Prine passed away at his daughter’s house on Elm St., so named for the numerous elm trees he’d planted.

David and Ruth Ann had never heard of Benjamin Prine or Cherry Lane. The obliteration was complete; the location of Benjamin Prine’s remains are unknown. The film closely follows David and Ruth Ann’s highly personal and emotional journey as they unite a community in repairing the damage that was done, while dealing with their own feelings that alternate between sorrow, anger, and hope. Their efforts have grown exponentially into a movement which includes activists, educators, artists, students, politicians, and even Santander Bank, an anchor tenant on the site. Santander has granted us exclusive access to document their
efforts in memorializing Cherry Lane.

As NPR’s Arun Venugopal said in his “All Things Considered” segment about the film, “This is a story that needs to be told.” “This burial site is sacred ground and the lives buried there matter.” — Viola Davis’ Instagram post about the making of this film In May 2023, we filmed the ceremony for co-naming the street that runs alongside the strip mall “Benjamin Prine Way”—the first time in New York City history that a street has been co-named for a formerly enslaved person from New York City. The ceremony was followed by a heartfelt reunion dinner with Prine descendants, where they candidly discussed what more they want done, and they agreed to pursue the site being reclaimed in order to create a memorial park. The events of this day began to incite David and Ruth Ann to commit to a larger goal for repairing the damage at the strip mall.

On a frigid December day in 2023, we filmed David tour assemblymembers from across New York State around the strip mall to show where the cemetery was, and how reparations can help sites like Cherry Lane. Assemblyman Charles Fall, who represents this district, said on camera, “It’s not a matter of if but when…we’ve got to work with the owner to see how we can get them to either sell it to the state, or we find another tool to take the property over. But this needs to come back to what it used to be. And not a shopping center.” A week later we filmed Gov. Kathy Hochul sign a bill that convenes a committee to research state reparations. At the event, Rep. Michaelle Solages, who introduced the bill, dedicated her speech to Benjamin Prine, and named Cherry Lane as one of the notable sites that will be part of the committee’s final report.

The discovery of countless desecrated African-American cemeteries across the country, and the potential that reparations can in some way undo the damage, have made this a federal issue. It’s rare to get the opportunity to document an entire community—with legislators, and a bank— engaging in positive change as it unfolds in front of our cameras. As a fourth-generation Staten Islander, I find it particularly rewarding, especially in light of the infamously poor race relations in the borough. Efforts are underway to convince the property owner to have a ground-penetrating radar survey done to reveal the remains, and elected officials are working to determine the value of the property with a view towards exercising eminent domain. If the city took the property once, the city can take it back again.



Heather is a Sundance Co//ab alum best known for her award-winning documentary IF THESE KNISHES COULD TALK: THE STORY OF THE NEW YORK ACCENT, which was shown at the Library of Congress and streamed on Amazon Prime, Roku, and Apple TV+. Heather next directed SWAGGER: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ’86 METS, executive produced by KING OF QUEENS creator Michael Weithorn, and was Production Manager for the award- winning documentary AMERICAN RIVER, which screened at the Montclair Film Festival and recently aired on PBS.

Caroline is an educator and award-winning filmmaker whose work has appeared on PBS, Discovery, and NatGeo. She was co- producer of MARIACHI HIGH, a documentary that premiered on PBS’ acclaimed National Summer Arts Festival series, and her first documentary was PBS’ NKOSI: A VOICE OF AFRICA’S AIDS ORPHANS. As a producer for the award-winning multimedia production company Talking Eyes Media, Caroline helped create healthcare-focused projects including THE INNER WOUNDS OF WAR for the Discovery Channel and FIRESTORM, a one-hour PBS documentary that was nominated for a regional Emmy Award. An active community volunteer and educator, Caroline was Media Director for Harlem Children’s Zone’s after-school program, TRUCE.

Most recently Kelly served as producer of the award- winning independent feature documentary AMERICAN RIVER. Her films have been theatrically released (FOUR SEASONS LODGE), broadcast on PBS (MARIACHI HIGH) and on the Sundance Channel (FOLLOW MY VOICE: WITH THE MUSIC OF HEDWIG; CROSSING ARIZONA) and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs Festival. CROSSING ARIZONA was a nominee for Best Documentary Feature at the Sundance Film Festival.

Anthony is an Adjunct Professor of Film and TV at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he’s taught documentary lighting, camera, and audio production for more than 20 years. He is also the author of the bestselling “Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide” and “The Shut Up and Shoot Freelance Video Guide.” Anthony is currently part of the filmmaking team at Hearst’s MATTER OF FACT WITH SOLEDAD O’BRIEN.

Crockett Doob edited BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Crockett also edited the critically-acclaimed GHOSTBOX COWBOY, and his work has aired on NBC, PBS, HBO, VH1, and theatrically released worldwide.

Donald Thoms is the former Vice President of Programming for PBS, overseeing the visual arts, dance, music and performance programming, as well as independent films. He is also an award-winning producer and former VP of Production and Talent Development for Discovery Communications.

Peggy King Jorde was a pivotal figure in the fight to protect a 17 th -century African burial ground in NYC that was rediscovered during construction of a federal building. She led the nationwide architectural design competitions for the African Burial Ground National Memorial. Peggy has consulted government and community stakeholders on a development project in St. Helena, the largest burial ground of enslaved Africans direct from the Middle Passage, and was a participant and producer of the documentary about this project, A STORY OF BONES, which premiered in 2022 at the Tribeca Film Festival and aired on POV