The Color of Your Character
I got an MFA in screenwriting in the UK, but I didn’t go to a traditional film school. I studied politics and sociology and I was encouraged by my parents not to pursue film because we were poor, and that’s not what poor people do.
There was a moment when I thought that I was going to teach film and I was going to get a Ph.D. I had so many friends who did go to film school and were trying to make movies. But they were not critical of the work that they were doing in any larger sense of the word.
Making movies is not about changing the world, nor do I think that it needs to be. But we have a duty of care and a responsibility to think very carefully about the images we’re rendering, and we need to interrogate ourselves about why we think the way we do.
So my MFA programme was at Royal Holloway. I was one of four Americans and one of two Black people. I always found it interesting when my classmates who were not Black had Black characters that would sound and behave in certain ways. I didn’t know where it came from, and I’d always ask them, “Why does this Black person sound like this?”
All of the work that I wrote would centre on a black protagonist, but I never made that clear. I’d leave the character’s description blank and at some point on some page, someone would make the connection that the character is a Black person.
I did that intentionally, first of all just to challenge how people render human beings, and what it means to be human. Also how race is important, but also not important when we’re putting those pieces together. I mention that because so many people struggled with having that question asked of them, and then at the same time, they’d get mad at me because I wouldn’t tell them that the person I was writing about was Black.
I would ask, “Why does it matter?”And they’d say, “Oh, well I didn’t think that they were.” I’d ask, “Well why didn’t you think that they were? How does this rendering affect your larger understanding about my lived experiences, and what it means to be someone like me?”
Anyway, there’s a lack of critical thought in our business sometimes, and if we’ve gone to film school then those are the moments when it needs to happen. Again, it’s not anything beyond learning how to read your own work and your own pathology.
… What’s cool about being an artist is we grow, and we evolve, we work on our ideas. Scorsese is a good example of where one person was in their very early work versus where they are now. I was thinking about Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), and just the larger conversation or conflicts that Scorsese has had with women, and how in the tiny little scenes, what we understand about how he feels about women’s sexuality then, and how it has grown or not, regressed or expanded. We’re all just living organisms, but we also need to think and be accountable for our perceptions and impact on other people.