Burn the Script: We Need More Voices

It's not about making room, it's about changing the defaults.

After a successful run of movies in the 1980s, Spike Lee used to say “Make Black Film” like a mantra. We saw it in the 1990s with Matty Rich, the Hughes Brothers, John Singleton, and Lee himself. It looks as though it’s back in effect with boundary-bombing work by Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Arthur Jafa, Donald Glover, Jordan Peele, Terence Nance, Daveed Diggs, and Boots Riley. The latter’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) is not just one of the best movies of the past few years, it’s a statement, a stance, and a hopeful catalyst for change.

Like any worthwhile project, Boots Riley had been working on this one for a while. The screenplay itself was finished in 2012 and published by McSweeney’s in 2014. I got it and started reading it before I knew it was a movie. Once I heard it had gotten made, I had to stop.

At times—for obvious reasons, I know—you can hear Riley talking directly through these characters. For instance, when Squeeze tells Cassius that it’s not that people don’t care, it’s that when they feel powerless to fix a problem, they learn to live with it. As surreal and wacky as this movie often is, social commentary rarely gets more germane than that.

While I’m writing here about voices in the figurative form, Sorry to Bother You uses them much more directly though still metonymically to make a similar point. The phrase “Sorry to Bother You” applies not only to the telemarketing refrain on which it’s based but also to the hegemony against which it stands.

Another movie that deserves another look is Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s Blindspotting (2018). Less surreal than Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting is nonetheless a great companion piece. Where Sorry to Bother You uses voices and personal financial gain to highlight its issues, Blindspotting uses gentrification and systemic racism. Visceral yet funny, it’s as poignant as it is poetic. These two movies were being filmed simultaneously in and around Oakland in 2017. It’s hard to imagine how rad that was. Now Diggs and Casal are making Blindspotting into a TV series on Starz with all of the original players. Definitely look out for that.

A couple of years ago I started a screenwriting class. I’d been trying to write a screenplay for several years just to see if I could do it. It’s a very different kind of writing than I’m used to, and I wondered what exactly you put on a page to make things happen on a screen. Since I hadn’t finished the script I started, I thought a class might help me get it done.

Anyway, the teacher of this class made me very uncomfortable. It took me several days after our first class meeting to figure out what it was. I am not easily offended, nor do I do passive-aggressive online reviews (I emailed the institution about this teacher; in fact, much of the description in this post is excerpted from that email), but I couldn’t shake my unease after that one class. My instructor had some very odd attitudes toward movies, stories, and, more specifically, people. His frequent jokes about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Woody Allen bordered on apologist, while his views on anyone who wasn’t a straight, white male were heteronormative in the extreme and bordered on the sexist, racist, and outright intolerant. He was a nice enough guy and a knowledgeable teacher, so I was trying to figure out what had me so on-edge after the one class. I kept coming back to things he’d said: subtle references, jokes, comments, and recommendations that I finally found I couldn’t ignore. I was unable to attend his class again.

One specific thing that instructor said is relevant here. He made the argument that if you’re telling a universal story (i.e., one about love, loss, coming of age, etc.), it doesn’t matter what your background is, your story will connect with an audience. While this assertion is true and could be the basis for a great argument for diversity, he used it to defend the longstanding white-male dominance of storytelling!

One of my other writing heroes, Tina Fey, does a great job of diplomatically explaining this issue to David Letterman on his My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. She uses the SNL writers’ room as a microcosm or cross-section of the audience at large. Explaining that things that might not have played well with mostly (white) men in the room, did once the room became more diverse. So, sketches that had never made it to dress rehearsal before started making it onto the show once there were more women and people of color in the room to laugh at them. That change is such an important shift in gate-keeping, and it applies to all such gates, not just those in comedy.

Hey! A short story I wrote called “Façade” was just published on the Close to the Bone website. It’s about love in the age of Big Data and a facial-recognition reality show called Drawn & Courted. Let me know what you think.

The script I mentioned above finally made it to full draft form recently. It’s called Fender the Fall, and it’s a sci-fi romantic dramedy about a lovelorn physicist going back in time to return the journal of his high-school crush in order to save her and his marriage. Tagline: “You don’t know what you’ve got until you get it back.”

Thank you again for reading, responding, and sharing.

I hope you’re as well as can be,