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Student filmmaker sheds light on influential Illinois politician in new documentary

Joseph Cannon served central Illinois in the House of Representatives for a total of 46 years, though he was unseated twice during that tenure. The documentary "Uncle Joe Cannon" takes a dive into his life and career.

DANVILLE — “Uncle Joe Cannon” is a student-produced documentary that revisits the life of a prominent 19th-century Illinois politician.

Joseph Cannon spent 46 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Illinois — including eight years as Speaker of the House. Even when he led the Republican Party for years, he made it a point to always remember his constituents.

From 1873 to 1923, Joseph Cannon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he gained a reputation as an advocate for farmers.

“In his time as the Speaker of the House, he had never forgotten Danville and Vermillion County,” Jason Cotten II, the director of the film, said. “And so, while he was Speaker of the House, he had constantly used his authority and his kind of newfound abilities in Congress to make Danville a better place.”

Cotten, an English major at Danville Area Community College, mentioned Cannon’s contributions to Danville, such as establishing a post office and courthouse, as a source of inspiration for his documentary.

“He’s done so many things for Illinois,” Cotten said. “And I’ve talked to people on the street, and they don’t even know who he is.”

When Cannon retired in 1922, he was the longest-serving member of Congress ever, and he continues to be the second-longest-serving Republican Representative.

Danville Area Community College Adjunct Professor Peter Barrett mentored Cotten, guiding him through the process of producing a professional-level documentary. 

“He came at it from almost square one and learned how to shoot and edit,” Barrett said. “And went from square one to where he is just in one project, and I think that that speaks volumes about what the potential is there.”

Cotten expressed surprise at how far he’s come since his days of making YouTube videos as a kid.

“I went from a Sony Handycam and Sony VEGAS on my old laptop, to coming into essentially a fully-fledged TV station with state-of-the-art cameras, state-of-the-art editing equipment,” Cotten said. “It’s been a wild ride.”

The film premieres on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 1, at Danville Area Community College’s Bremer Theater. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Jason Cotten and Tim Smith, a historian who is featured in the documentary.

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Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson covers arts and entertainment and LGBTQ issues for Illinois Newsroom. He’s a recent graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has worked with Illinois Public Media in various capacities since 2021.

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