American Warlord

In July 2003, as gun battles engulfed Monrovia during the final hours of Charles Taylor’s regime, the president’s son, Chucky, quietly arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was broke and haunted by the crimes he had committed in his father’s name. Chucky, who arrived in Liberia as a naïve American teenager a decade earlier, rose to power to become the leader of the feared Anti-Terrorist Unit, a paramilitary force comprised of mercenaries and former child soldiers. He had little to show for that experience other than a reputation for brutality that drew the attention of international human rights investigators and, eventually, U.S. law enforcement. As he set out to reinvent himself as a hip-hop star—cutting a demo detailing his violent exploits—federal agents zeroed in on his crimes and built a historic case against him. When he chose to return to the U.S. in 2006 to shop his demo, agents were waiting for him at the airport. Six months later he would be in a U.S. prison cell, awaiting trial: the first American ever charged with committing acts of torture overseas. How did Chucky Taylor go from a regular– if somewhat troubled– American teenager to an international war criminal? How did the victims of his brutality in Liberia survive to testify against him in an historic trial on the other side of the world?

American Warlord is a tale of greed, cruelty, and palace intrigue worthy of a Shakespearean history play. The film tells the story of Chucky’s parents meeting and falling in love while dad (Charles Taylor) was a graduate student living outside of Boston in the 70s. Shortly after his son’s birth, Taylor returned to Liberia to wage a bloody civil war. By the time the boy had grown into a delinquent teen in the suburban ghetto a stone’s throw from Disneyworld, his father had become the most powerful man in Liberia. Meanwhile, Chucky’s path grew increasingly troubled: a suicide attempt; involvement in gangs. Finally, a felony arrest at age 17 prompted Chucky’s mother Bernice to send him to live with his father in Africa. “It’s your turn now,” she told the would-be president.

There, he eventually married his high school girlfriend from Florida in a lavish state wedding and had a son. Later, he failed at the timber business and arms dealing. He descended into drug use, and philandering, and most critically, abuses of power in the form of bursts of violent, brutal behavior, often towards innocent civilians.

American Warlord is a personal portrait of an individual and a family defined both by their identities and the forces of history closing in on them. It is a universal story of a misguided young man eager to win the love of a father he never knew set on a stage of a violent civil war in a nation defined by the legacy of American slavery. The film’s interview subjects will include Charles (Chucky) Taylor Jr. (from a prison cell in Kentucky), Charles Taylor Sr. (from a prison cell in the UK), Bernice Emmanuel (Taylor’s ex-wife, Chucky’s mother), US ICE agent Matthew Baechtle (the arresting officer), Lynn (Chucky’s girlfriend), and Varmayan Dulleh (a torture survivor and a key prosecution witness.) Together, these voices weave a remarkable tale of a broken family in the midst of a collapsing nation.

Structurally, the film connects two very different but parallel narratives: the creation of the nation of Liberia by Congressional decree as a home for freed American slaves over 100 years ago and the story of a child born in Boston in 1977 to Bernice Emmanuel and her boyfriend, a 29 year-old economics student named Charles Taylor.   In their own ways, both are remarkable untold sagas of paternalistic relationships gone horribly wrong.  In the personal, we see how Chuckie’s misguided quest for his father’s love launches him on a terrifying transformation from wayward young man to war criminal. In the historical, we see the human toll of slavery, writ across the centuries, its stain so severe that even the best intentions to atone for it can end in violence. The film is both a global tragedy and an intimate cautionary tale, rendered through thousands of declassified documents, exclusive interviews with investigators, family, friends, comrades, victims, and through never-before-seen personal (home movie) archives.

As a filmmaker, I am motivated by the cross-section of the personal and the historical. While researching a film for National Geographic (Secret History of Diamonds) in 2008, I met a Lebanese diamond smuggler with incredible first-hand accounts of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the Taylor regime in Liberia. He provided a remarkable personal account on the role diamonds played in fueling a bloody civil war. He told me arresting stories of Taylor’s American-born son, “Chucky” and his abuses of power. I learned that Chucky was in prison in the US, serving a 98-year sentence in Kentucky for crimes in violation of the UN convention against torture. I learned through Chucky that he was sharing his story with writer Johnny Dwyer whose article American Warlord was published in Rolling Stone. I met with Dwyer and have since joined forces with him to make this documentary.

Over the course of six years, Dwyer gathered thousands of declassified documents, traveling throughout Liberia, the U.S., and Trinidad, conducting exclusive interviews with prosecutors, investigators, family, friends, comrades and victims. At the same time, he carried on a four-year correspondence and conversation with Chucky. Dwyer’s investigation provides the source material, context, and impetus for the documentary film: an in-depth account of a dark chapter in the history of two nations and the historic pursuit of justice that culminated in Chucky Taylor’s 2008 conviction.

Both the government of Liberia and the international community are eager to turn the page on the 14-year civil war that destroyed the nation. In large part because, collectively, little has been done to address the fundamental causes that drove that conflict. In particular, the issue of impunity continues to haunt the nation. American Warlord tells the untold story of the only individChuckyFenceual (Chucky) held to account for war crimes during the war era and reveals the unique historical origins of what became a landmark human rights case in international law.

Chucky Taylor’s resonant and tragic life story is told in part through his own words, (interview, prison letters, recorded phone calls and rap lyrics), artful re-enactment, and archival materials (photos and home movies). 

The film uses cinematic technique to explore the roots of violence and the human propensity toward it.  Working with the torture victims who now live a continent away from Liberia, some in Sweden, one in Chicago, the film explores the power of memory, gesture and speech to bring about justice through the courage of individuals who lived to testify against Chucky at trial. For example, torture victim and witness for the prosecution, Varmayan Dulleh now lives and works in Chicago, where he conducts workshops with other refugees of the Liberian civil war, using improvisation therapy to treat PTSD.   These scenes will begin as observational footage of performers working through their process.The scenes appear ordinary, until we realize that we are witnessing re-enactments of actual torture, the victims pantomiming both the role of torturer and tortured. We see Dulleh helping the participants work through the memory and the pain. In interview, we learn of his own agony as one of Chucky’s victims. The catharsis of this process is palpable. This stripped-down, bare-bones performance in a Chicago store front will become the visual means for re-enacting aspects of Chucky’s story later in the film and a means to represent the crimes (fateful steps in his biography) for which he was eventually put on trial.

In addition to the use of Dulleh’s theatre workshop to provide feverish glimpses of the nightmare, we will use Chucky’s recording session in Trinidad (the visuals re-enacted to the original studio recordings) as a narrating through-line for the film, providing rare insight to his mental illness, his narcissism, and his need for attention. These autobiographical rap lyrics (which were brought into trial as evidence by the prosecution) are a form of confession. In the film, they act as a storytelling-device generating chapter headings and transition points into the past. The lyrics, for the most part, describe Chucky’s command of his father’s dreaded Anti-Terrorist Unit. Yet the occasional reference to “mother” or “father” enable the recording session to act as the mortar to hold together the bricks of Chucky’s troubling biography…a jumping off point for a memory-motivated flashback.

Utilizing a distinctly Liberian visual form, the film will use street graffiti and hand-painted signs from the years of the Civil War (as both backdrops for interviews and as a basis for animation.) These elements distinguish American Warlord from the prior films about the war (“Liberia: An Uncivil War” and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”) and ameliorate the need to rely as heavily on the video footage from that era.