Saturday, January 14, 2006

Double Consciousness...

On Double Consciousness

by W. E. B. DuBois

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. ...

Excerpted from the chapter "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" in his book The Souls of Black Folk.

One of the dilemmas of being an African American screenwriting film student is figuring out what you want to write. Now why is that different than any other film student of any race you ask? Well, I think it's different because I think there's an expectation that you will concentrate your writing on African American subjects. That's pretty natural. I am African American and I do have a ton of script ideas that are African American themed. But...

Screenwriting is a business. No, kill that. Screenwriting is BIG business. And while there are those who will like to sing KUMBAYA and say that only the story and script counts, I learned in Terry Press' class (Director of Marketing at Dreamworks) that while that counts, so do a bunch of other more practical issues.

African American films don't sell internationally, so they don't get bought often. When I met with an agent friend at Paradigm, he told me the same thing, but also said that if I brought an African American script to him, he would be able to send it to about two companies versus twenty five. When I talked to my friends at William Morris and Endeavor, they said exactly the same thing. So what is a brother to do? Do you turn your back on writing African American subjects? Of course not. But I have to be smart.

When writing my books, I thought that since I was a published author, I would have the freedom to write outside of the African American genre. Easier said than done. It's a Catch 22 situation. You get published time after time because you've built a loyal African American readership. So to your publisher (and agent) the idea of blazing new trails outside of the African American is not that appetizing. So you write on African American topics. Is that bad? No. Is it limiting. Yes.

My interests are not all African American specific interests. My ideas are not all centered around African American life. That doesn't make me any less African American as the writer who only writes African American scripts. So why the hell am I talking about this?

At UCLA, there are going to be scripts that I write that will have African American themes, and others that won't. For example, my Sloan script is an African American period piece. However, the scenes I'm working on for Fred Rubin's Comedy Class will be for a predominately white themed script. When I eventually bring both scripts to agents this Spring, I want to be able to demonstrate that I can not only write for the African American audience, but the broader audience. That's a part of the double consciousness that African Americans have to think about, whether they write scripts or work on Wall Street.


Kemp said...

This is an interesting topic that I've found myself discussing with a lot of writers, both black and white, and I can't say I'm any closer to answers now than I was a year ago. However, I think the reality is much more complicated than black films not selling overseas. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly constitutes an "African-American film". The first half of 2005, before Harry Potter, Star Wars, War of the Worlds and other blockbusters debuted, the movie industry was being buoyed almost solely by films with African American principals. Those films included Hitch ($179 million gross), Are We There Yet? ($82 million), The Pacifier ($113 million), Four Brothers ($74 million), and a few others. Generally speaking, African-American films might not sell well overseas, but these films tend to be very profitable, as they cost less money to make, hence begin to rake in the profits sooner. Remember, F. Gary Gray's Friday was one of the most profitable films of 1995 because it cost only $3 million to make, then grossed $27 million at the box office (and god knows how much more on video and DVD). It was probably more profitable than War of the Worlds.

I also think that scripts based on an existing popular book, a prominent figure (i.e. musicians), or an interesting historic topic are going to be much more well received these days regardless of race. As you said, Hollywood is a big business, and if a book by an African American writer shows up on Oprah and is a hit, it stands as good a chance of being converted to film as many books by other writers. And book options are amazingly easy for producers to procure.

I know it might not be the answer, but I really am just trying to concentrate now on writing about things that I'm very passionate about, regardless of race. The last script I wrote (the one that landed me with an agency) was certainly black-themed, but it wasn't done on purpose. I just wrote about a subject I was passionate about, and that in turn got my agent very passionate about the project, which showed by the surprisingly wide variety of people who took an interest in it. Definitely more than two, and several of them expressed interest in me as a writer for other things, not all of which are black-themed. No, it hasn't sold yet, but it's certainly good to be getting onto as many people's radar as possible with your first script that "goes out".

It's still early yet in the game for me, so I'm going to try hanging onto my naivete as long as I can. Get back to me this time next year when I've had a chance to become jaded. :-)

Lawrence said...

I think an African American movie would be one that the studio specifically markets to the African American market, without regard to crossover. That would put Tyler Perry's movie in that category. Also, you get something like The Gospel. One of the things Terry Press told us was that when they sat down to go over the top five when The Gospel came out, the big wigs at Dreamworks hadn't heard of it.

And while African American movies of this type make money and are profitable, the studios understand that there's an inherent ceiling to what they can ultimately make. That's why they'll put money into a Cameron Diaz pix instead, even though they know they have to pay her 15mil, and that the pix has a low probability of making money, they'lll still bet on it because if the movie does hit, they can far outsize the profitablity of an AA movie, both at home and abroad.

Now the second group of AA movies are ones designed to crossover, mainly because the lead character has crossed over. Be that A list stars like Will Smith (Hitch) or Jamie Foxx or Denzel, their movies go into the general marketplace, and they are looked upon as having the same potential as any other film.

Remember, I'm not saying that one can't write an African American script. I'm bringing two scripts to agents this Spring, one African American themed, and one general market (read: white) themed. And I don't doubt the enthusiasm shown toward your script, but I think the end result is what we are looking for. How many producers are looking to buy AA scripts versus general market scripts? That's where your agent can do a good job. But it is also where the realities of the business can come back to bite AA writers in the ass, if we only have AA themed scripts.

Kemp said...

LOL that they had never heard of The Gospel. You've got to pocket that story for later.

I think it's interesting that you mention AA movies that are designed to cross over, because I wonder how often those crossover vehicles are actually written by AA writers. I don't honestly know off the top of my head, but my guess would be rarely.

I hear what you're saying about a lack of receptiveness to AA scripts as opposed to general market scripts. I just don't really know what AA writers can do to change these perceptions except continuing to write our asses off. I try to remain encouraged by the successes, such as Tony Puryear's sale of his script for Eraser. I met him once, and he just seemed like a brother who loves writing action movies, so that's what he did, and one finally broke through.

Anyway, I'm pretty much rambling now, so I'll shut up. Besides, I'm still trying to wrap my head around whether or not The Matrix would have been considered an AA film had Will Smith actually accepted the role of Neo.

Lawrence said...

You're right. The infamous "Soul Plane" wasn't written by an African American. I've always said that I don't have a problem with studios buying scripts that they think they can make money with. Fair enough. But the only way to have a diversity of scripts is to have a diversity of executives with the power to green light. That way, we can write what we want, and know that executives with a wide range of interests can see our scripts in the marketplace.

And you're right again. When thinking of strategy, you still have to write about what you are passionate about. It's just that you have to make sure the "business" side of the brain is turned on at the same time.