#OscarsSoWhite, Black Writer’s Plight

Author not pictured. Photo courtesy: Tachina Lee

Leading up to all the hype of this year’s Oscars and the lack of diversity, I started to think about my college years as an English-lit major. Circa 2001 to be exact, when I refused to believe that I needed to distinguish myself as a black writer. It was my junior year and I was taking a Screenwriting 101 class. Our end of term project was to write a full theatrical length screenplay.

When it came time to putting together our first draft, I was having a form of writer’s block. Not the kind of writer’s block that keeps your ideas from flowing, but the kind of writer’s block that limits you from expressing what you truly want to write. I consciously knew that I was blocking out the personal stories that really had meaning to me. I knew that I was internally fighting with myself to stick with the stories that were “mainstream” and “commercial.” If I wanted to make it in Hollywood, I had to be commercial. (Bear with me, it was my college years).

I ended up creating a romantic comedy script. From a casting director’s standpoint, the script could have been anybody’s — Leo DiCaprio, Will Smith, John Leguizamo — it was a one size fits all, a safe bet. I knew it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, but it was the story I knew I could sell. (One day, right?)

My professor was a boisterous mid 70’s white man who said he once worked in Hollywood with the greatest of movie legends. He read my draft and said to me, “What’s the race of Remy and Sheila?” (The names of my two main characters). I responded, “Black…uh…but I haven’t fully decided yet” “Well why didn’t you say that they were black in the beginning of the script?” he continued, “You’re black, so you should be writing about black stories.” I was shocked at the question and statement. He continued to say that the characters didn’t seem “believably black.” He told me to go back and revise so my story could seem more realistic.

Believably “black”?

I wasn’t that naive, there’s nothing very believable about any romantic comedy. Yet, for him to be concerned with the race of my characters and to declare that I should only be entitled to write black stories struck me as an unfair, unwarranted affirmation. Did he subject my white counterparts to the same racial question and statement? Sure, I envisioned Gabrielle Union as I was writing the script, but Sheila’s part could have just as easily been played by Cameron Diaz. While I battled with the dilemma of going “mainstream” when I was writing the script, I was now battling with the dilemma of race and who’s allowed to tell what stories? My frustrations with my professor’s question came from a desire to, for once, not have to give myself the extra adjective that my white counterparts didn’t have to subject themselves to. Did he ask John Thomas if the characters in his sci-fi screenplay were white? Did he ask Emma Warhl if the characters in her story about a young girl’s stolen bike were white? I didn’t have to investigate for that answer; the answer was a clear no.

Growing up and going to college in a “post-racial” America, I yearned to think of myself as just a writer or just a student. Sure I was a minority, but why did I have to give myself that extra adjective that my white counterparts didn’t have to even think about. I am a [black] writer, I am a [black] student. But why should that matter? I attended Catholic school all my life, grew up in neighborhoods that were middle class comprising of all races and ethnic backgrounds, and yes I lived in majority white neighborhoods as well. To me, my story and the stories that I told weren’t so much about being “black” in America. My story and the stories I wanted to tell were more so about a character, who has a story, an important, or funny, or tragic story, and who lives in America. If you want a description of that character, she’s of dark brown skin, slender in figure, curly hair that frames her face and takes over a room with its presence.

Simply put, my stories weren’t the “believable black” stories that were being stereotypically portrayed on TV and the big screen at the time. In my eyes, my story didn’t fit the stereotypes of growing up in “da hood” or being exposed to drugs in the projects. My story was simply unique in plot and detail of events. They were not unique solely due to race. My story was more “American,” in my eyes, than it was “black,” according to how Hollywood defined it or the way my professor had imagined it.

Photo credit: Artur Pokusin

As I reflected on my professor’s statement that night, being the only black person in the class, I felt that I was being subject to racial identification once again in life — even in my own fictional writing. I was furious. I completed the script, drawing out the racial explanations of my characters, describing their skin tone, their hair and the color of their skin. I grew more frustrated over what was deemed to be “believably black.” The story became more detached from me the more I wrote it according to my professor’s specs. I handed in my final screenplay, a stale romantic comedy about a black man and a black woman and her dog. It was blah.

If you’d ask me today to do that same class project, I’d absolutely never write a romantic comedy, and I’d absolutely racially identify my characters. Not because of the reasons given by my professor, but for reasons of erasing what has been set in stone to be “believably black.” The professor was right in the respect that I was holding back. I was, in fact, afraid to tell my story and the stories seen from my perspective. While I didn’t have to make up a fictitious story about growing up in ‘da hood’ of South Central, I could have simply told what was my unique story. I could have racially identified the characters for their differences, and not for their stereotypes. Yet, back then I was too concerned with telling a safe story, a neutral story, a marketable story, a Hollywood “believable” story.

I also did not agree with my professor in that as a black writer, we are only entitled to tell “black” stories. We can tell just as many “non-black” stories as our white counterparts. I do, however, believe that as black writers, we need to continue to tell those stories that make us unique. Those stories are not all gangs and violence, those stories are not all poverty and projects. Our stories are varied, our stories are complex, our stories are emotive. There are not enough of them out there today for many reasons, including the lack of black writers in general. But I’m fairly certain that there’s still a problem in Hollywood of accepting only the most “believable” of black stories, only the most commercially valuable. What are those stories? This New York Times article highlights it very well.

There are many stories about people of color that don’t just involve incarceration, or poverty, or false representations of bling and fame. There are simple stories of a young girl who grew up in a middle class family, in a divorced home, traveled around the world to find the meaning of life, only to come back home and lose her only sibling to a senseless act of mass murder. This could be a white person’s story, this could be a black person’s story. This is an American story, this is in fact my story.

Jenny Miranda is a content therapist and working on her memoir.

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