Last week I got a very cordial email inviting me to join a professional organization of African-American screenwriters. Over the years, I've received many invitations from similar networking and social groups around L.A. including one promising that if I attended their mixers I would meet “other single black professionals like myself in a relaxed low pressure setting.” I've also been approached by some top notch African-American non-profits in the past and although I always try to make a financial contribution to their work, I don’t usually join for one very simple reason. Despite what you may have heard, I’m not black.
This confusion all began a number of years ago when I co-wrote a screenplay largely based on my rambunctious hillbilly family. It was optioned by a scrappy independent producer who shopped it around town for four long years. During this time, we became close friends and when I dumped my useless agent, he also became my manager. Although everyone praised the writing, the movie itself failed to take flight. Then one day, my intrepid manager-producer was on the phone trying to pitch it to yet another exec when she stopped him mid-sentence. She wasn't interested. What she needed was a script about a black family. Did he happen to have one? "You know, I might!” he answered. Thirty seconds later, he had me on the phone. “Look,” he said urgently, “We’re running out of options so I want you to open your mind.” I remember I was looking at my VISA bill at the time. “It’s open,” I answered. “Do you think this script could be about a black family?” I paused. I thought about how the story centered on a working class family in a small Southern town. A little afraid of where this was going, I answered cautiously, “Yeah, I guess it could.” “Great!” he shouted. “In two weeks, it’s a black family!”
I spent the next few days staring at the script on my computer screen and wondering what the hell to do next. Finally, I picked up the phone and called a friend who also happens to be a very successful black writer. I nervously explained the situation, fearful that he would give me an earful about how totally inappropriate this move was. Instead, he sighed and told me to send him the script. A few days later he called. “Don’t change anything. They’ll never know,” he said. “Go back to page one and type in the words ‘African-American’ and you’re basically done.” He thought a couple of the character names sounded “a little white” and told me to move one climatic scene from the funeral home to the church, saying “I can’t tell you why it would happen there, but it just would.” I thanked him profusely and went to work. Two hours later, I was done. When I handed it off my manager-producer, he excitedly told me that he had since learned that several studios were now looking for a funny, heartwarming movie about a black family. I tried hard to sound pleased about that news. In reality, I was terrified that we were setting ourselves up for a huge, politically incorrect disaster. I prayed for a miracle. And I got it. The script sold almost instantly.
Our little screenplay which had been viewed as something of a snooze when it was a white script was suddenly being touted as the new black “Citizen Kane.” Every major African-American actor in town was demanding to see a copy. My manager-producer was inundated with calls from agents all of whom were salivating to meet anyone associated with this masterpiece. I was, at the time, agent-phobic and told him to just “pick one.” After a series of meetings, he made his selection and I nervously agreed to accompany him to Beverly Hills to meet my new representatives. My first indication that there might be a problem came when the smarmy assistant froze with terror on seeing me. As we approached the conference room, I whispered to my manager. “Did you tell them I wasn’t black?” He shrugged. “It never came up.” When I walked into the conference room, it was evident by the expression on their faces that my new agents were not expecting a guy who might (on a good day) pass for "beige." It was an awkward, but accurate harbinger of things to come.
At that time virtually every studio in town was looking for “urban” projects (and I had co-written one that was cutting a swath through Hollywood). My choice was simple. I could either swim with the tide (and make some money) or swim against it (and go back to clipping coupons). I consulted a woman in my church who struck me as spiritually evolved (and yes, she was black). “Someone’s gonna write those scripts,” she said with a shrug. “Just tell the truth.” I resolved to stick exclusively to comedy and to prioritize original pitches. It worked. It was often a surreal experience, but I made a living. I got very used to entering an office and having the person behind the desk blink a number of times as if I were some sort of bad dream come to life. I once had a prominent African-American producer stare at me for a full five minutes before he was able to speak. Finally, referring to my script, he asked how I (of all people) could have so fully understood the hopes, dreams, problems and socio-economic pressures that ride on the backs of African-American families. Remembering the advice of my church friend, I respectfully admitted that I had no concept of what it meant to be black in America. "I was just writing about a family that had no money,” I said. “Because that's something I do know a little about.”
I didn’t think I’d be “black” for more than a year, but it surprisingly went on for a while. Eventually, the studios began to lose their nerve and the projects that they were willing to pay for became increasingly dumb and dumber (basically retreads of every 80’s fish-out-of-water comedy you can name). Something else had also happened. There were a lot more produced (and hugely successful) black screenwriters in the game. When I didn’t get the job rewriting the black version of “A Christmas Carol,” I retired. It was time. Last fall, I was called back to write the book for an African-American musical at Fox Searchlight and (as karma would have it) my script is currently being rewritten by a black writer! I honestly wish him the best. I know his voice will add an authenticity to the story that I could never have delivered. Scripts are sometimes puzzles and not everybody's got all the pieces. Writing is (or should be) a passport to wherever your imagination and heart can take you. Movie making (at its best) is the blending of a thousand voices, somehow tuned-in to each other and converging into a kind of raucous harmony. There are some days when I miss being black, but what are you gonna do? I’m sure Michael Jackson probably feels the same. Have a good week, Hollywood. Fight the power.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being quietly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv