Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and "pitch coach" for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Her new photo-illustrated book is the long-awaited autobiography of the Yankees' famous Double-A affiliate (Trenton Thunder) Bat Dog: DERBY! My Bodacious Life in Baseball. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.
Last month in Part 1 of this article, I discussed some of the reasons why-- despite an increasingly diverse U.S. population-- there aren’t more Hollywood-produced movies starring people of color.
Now, I’ll make some suggestions for how you as a screenwriter can help remedy this situation, and why I’m hopeful about the future of racial diversity in Hollywood movies-- and about the number of Oscars that will go to minority producers, directors, actors, and screenwriters in the years to come. Let's cut to the chase:
FOUR THINGS SCREENWRITERS CAN DO TO INCREASE THE NUMBER OF OSCARS AWARDED TO PEOPLE OF COLOR
- The old saying goes, “To make your rabbit pie, first catch your rabbit.” If you want more people of color to win Oscars, first write a great story, with great roles for them to act or direct. Although I'm not addressing in this article the shortage of powerful starring roles and directing jobs for women in the film industry, this is also something to keep in mind when you're writing a new script.
- Where relevant and appropriate, state the race of the “minority” characters in your script’s action lines when you first introduce a new character, to give the producer and casting director a “nudge” in a certain direction. Of course, a lot of people are biracial or multi-racial, and you don’t need to do a complete DNA analysis of your character and write a long and detailed description. Just keep it simple. But if there’s no reason why a character you’ve created can’t be something other than the standard white male, why not make their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion a little less “white bread”? Be very brief but specific in your script; please don’t type in instead: “cast ethnically diverse actor of some sort, here.”
- Consider how a great spec script you have already written but have not yet shopped around or sold might work if you change the race, religion, ethnicity, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation of one of your lead characters. If you can do this, this not only might help promote diversity in American movies and on Oscar night, it might also make your script a lot more interesting.
- If you want to write a movie that reflects America’s racial diversity, and at the same time increase the chances that your script will actually sell, create a co-starring role for a bankable white actor alongside a starring role for an African American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American actor. Example: Creed.
DOES CHANGING THE RACE, RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND, NATIONALITY, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, OR ETHNICITY OF A CHARACTER ALSO REQUIRE THAT YOU CHANGE THE CHARACTER OR STORYLINE IN OTHER WAYS AS WELL?
Can you simply “plug in” to your existing script more racial, ethnic, gender, or religious diversity, simply by changing the initial description of the character the first time he (or she) appears in the action lines-- without also changing the character’s dialogue, actions, or anything else about him or her?
If the role is very small, or we see the character only in the context of their work-- the answer is: maybe (but probably not).
Perhaps, for example, you can change that white male rocket scientist or Wall Street CEO-- who appears only briefly in your story to utter just a few lines— and with the mere stroke of a pen, make him instead into an African American man, an Arab American woman, or a Cherokee Indian— striking a blow for more diversity in movies.
However, I believe that every character in a script-- even the small roles-- should be a fleshed-out person, not a generic walk-on. And knowing their specific background will help you make them a unique individual. It may even affect their speech patterns, favorite “sayings,” beliefs, and cultural references-- especially, for example, if they were born in another country and moved here as an adult.
Certainly, for a major role in any script you’ve already written, you probably can’t change the character’s race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender, and have this affect NOTHING else about him (or her) in your story. To create more “diversity” in your scripts, you will either have to plan your story and your characters that way from the get-go-- or else accept the fact that it’s going to take considerable work to convert a spec script with an “all-white male” cast into something more diverse.
Changing the racial, ethnic, or religious background of a character, and/or his or her gender or sexual orientation, will require you to re-think-- or at least re-examine-- almost everything the character says or does in your story.
Why? Because characters are shaped by their backgrounds. Backgrounds can, and often do, affect every aspect of who a person is, and race or ethnicity affect life experiences, so can be factors in forming who people are.
ISN’T EVERYONE EQUAL, AND AREN’T PEOPLE ALL THE SAME?
Yes, everyone’s equal. And yes, in most ways, people are all the same. We all have the same human needs and emotions, and people of all races, countries, and ethnicities all have the same mix of good and bad traits in exactly the same proportions found in all other groups and the population at large.
But people are also all different from each other-- and a person’s background, in all its aspects, affects everything from beliefs, to the way they talk, what they do, the holidays they celebrate, how they view their elders, and how they view the world. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, national origin, and sexual orientation all affect who we are, to a greater or lesser degree, which varies from person to person.
For some people (or characters), their background in those respects hardly affects them at all. For most, in ways small and large, it is likely to be part of who they are, even for people whose families have been Americans for generations or centuries.
Your job as a screenwriter is to create a unique individual for every character you create for your screenplay. That means considering their background, and how it might-- or might not—affect every aspect of who they are.
Knowing your characters well enough to consider how their race, ethnicity, the place they or their ancestors grew up, their gender or sexual orientation, or religion might have helped shape who they are and their way of seeing the world, can be a very useful tool in creating well-rounded, realistic human beings in your scripts, and not just caricatures.
You may find out that after examining your already-written script from beginning to end, and re-reading it, changing your lead character to an African American, Hispanic, Asian American, or Native American, gay or transgender person, may not require you to change much of the dialogue or story at all. Or it may require you to make massive changes. It all depends on the needs of that particular story, the character, and what changes you are making.
Some aspects of a character’s background may carry more weight in forming who they are-- at least in their work situations, for example-- than others. For example, their educational level, their family situation growing up, their economic status, and where they grew up, and simply their unique qualities as individuals may be more of a factor in their personality and behavior as a movie character than their race, gender, religious background, or any factor they were born with. But I’ve always believed that each person is unique, and that you’re not writing a character correctly unless you consider their background— in all its aspects and dimensions-- when writing their role.
This does NOT mean, however, that you need to write one of those “dossiers” on a character that some writing teachers advocate. Personally, for screenwriters I’ve always considered that a total waste of time.
But it does mean that you should put yourself in your characters’ “shoes” and walk around in them a bit. A character’s background and family culture can affect every aspect of who they are, including even the stories their mother read to them when they were a child, what expressions they might know, the way they speak, and the way they are received by the “white” society at large. I take the same approach to writing a character who is of a race or background very different from my own as I do when creating any character in a movie script or book: I use my imagination, and think about how they might see the world.
By the way, if a character in your story has a significant accent or speaks in some sort of dialect (for example, if English is not their first language), please don’t overdo the intentional misspellings or dropped letters in your dialogue to indicate this. The ease and clarity of the reading experience is paramount. Use slight variations in syntax if necessary and expressions to indicate the way someone talks, but don’t go crazy with this. As the saying goes, “less is more.”
THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE
As old views of what “the average American” is (white, Protestant male) fade away in favor of a more diverse society-- the traditional “majority” in the U.S. will very soon be the “minority”-- things are changing fast. Just as important, with interracial relationships and marriages becoming more common in the U.S., the whole notion of racial, ethnic, and religious distinctions may be changing in ways impossible to predict. How someone chooses to identify in terms of their race, ethnicity or even gender, is something that is, increasingly, a matter of personal choice.
Does race really matter anymore and should it? Certainly, as most observers would agree, it’s always a relevant topic in the U.S.-- in life, and in the movies. And without question, as events constantly reaffirm, unfortunately the harmonious colorblind society that many hoped for is definitely not here yet.
But here’s something that gives me hope:
When I’m not evaluating scripts for writers or writing scripts and books of my own, I photograph professional sports for the news wire services. That puts me in close proximity to a lot of young, pro athletes on the playing field.
The harmony I witness among teammates of different races, religions, and backgrounds in pro sports today, has really impressed me. The baseball players I’ve observed come from all over the U.S. and a number of different countries. They include Latinos, African Americans, Asian-Americans, and whites. Some are biracial or multi-racial. Some were adopted as babies—from the U.S. or abroad. Others don’t speak English very well (yet).
But these young teammates are all brothers “under the skin,” and-- at least from what I’ve observed over the past several years-- they get along great. Many are friends on and off the playing field, and I get the sense that their friendships will last for a lifetime. It’s been one of the happiest experiences of my life to witness their caring and open-minded attitude toward each other, because this fills me with hope about America’s future.
But, like much of America, Hollywood still has some catching up to do. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is aware of this, and is working to include more people of color among its voting members who choose the annual Oscar nominations.
As a screenwriter, you can also do your part to change things for the better. You can’t control whether the script reader-- or the Hollywood film studio executive-- will give your screenplay a chance. But you can at least write terrific, “Oscar-bait” starring roles for actors of color and women, or give your characters a different religion, nationality, or sexual orientation than we typically see in movie roles of that kind. If screenwriters create great roles with more "diversity," in the context of great stories with commercial appeal, there will be more non-white, non-male bankable movie stars as a result. These films may also win Oscars.
And as more young people-- who may be more open-minded on matters of race, and more ethnically and racially diverse themselves-- enter the film industry and gain positions of power, I believe things will eventually change for the better.
IF YOU’RE NOT A “CARD-CARRYING MEMBER” OF A MINORITY GROUP ARE YOU “ALLOWED” TO WRITE CHARACTERS WHO ARE?
Sometimes, writers wonder if they can— or should— write stories about characters whose racial, ethnic, or religious background differs greatly from their own. Opinions may differ on this, but my view is that a white American writer can write effective, realistic, and respectfully rendered black, Latino, Asian, or Native American characters, a man can write a convincing starring role for a woman, or a straight person can write a great character who happens to be gay. However, I do think that one faces special challenges in trying to do this properly. What it requires is doing your “homework” (research—including meeting and getting to know people out in the world, not just in books, and listening carefully), empathy and sensitivity, and a commitment to avoid quick and easy stereotypes.
In my own work, I frequently write about characters that are of a different race, religion, nationality, or gender from my own. I have a pretty good “ear” for language and dialect, for listening to and learning about other people, and empathy for others. Critics have not always been kind to some of my books, I confess, and they’re not always wrong. But I haven’t heard or read any complaints so far about the way I depict people of color, men, Christians, or those born outside the U.S. (for the record, I am none of those things). So I must be doing something right. You probably can too.
WHY THE SHORTAGE OF BIG MOVIES ABOUT HISPANIC CHARACTERS?
There are 55 million people of Hispanic origin living in the United States as of 2014, and Hispanics are our largest ethnic or racial “minority.” So, with an audience that size, why aren’t there more American movies being made that star Hispanic actors?
Shrug. I just don’t know.
When La Bamba, the 1987 movie written and directed by Luis Valdez about the late Mexican-American singer/songwriter Ritchie Valens, was a huge crossover hit and made pots of money, I was sure that this fine movie-- which made Lou Diamond Phillips (who is actually not Mexican, but is of Filipino, Scots-Irish, English, and Cherokee ancestry, and has been called an “Honorary Latino”) a star— and also had memorable, visceral performances by a young Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto, and Elizabeth Pena, would be the first of many big Hollywood movies featuring Hispanic actors in leading roles.
It didn’t happen-- despite the fact that Hispanics make up a huge (and growing) percentage of the American population. Frankly, I just don’t get it. If nothing else, don’t Hollywood producers want to make more money by making films that appeal to a very wide audience?
Maybe the problem is that, nowadays, Hollywood might no longer be willing to gamble on a cast of relatively unknown Hispanic actors—even for an excellent script and director, talented performers, catchy music, and a story about a famous singer/musician who appealed to all races and ages. Now as then, there just aren’t a lot of Hispanic-American movie stars under the age of 30. The same is true for many other ethnic or racial groups-- and for women, as well.
Another suggestion for screenwriters who want to help increase racial diversity in movies would be to write a terrific film role (in a great story) that might be a perfect fit for one of the many African American, Latino, or Asian singers who have already achieved superstardom in the music world.
By writing more great movie roles for actors of color, you may be able to help turn things around. If you do this, perhaps in a few years, people will have to find a different reason to boycott the Oscars.
Every time you write a screenplay, you have enormous power to do good—or harm-- in the world. These days, film and TV probably have more power to influence people than books do. But in the 19th century, that obviously wasn’t case. In 1862, upon meeting UNCLE TOM’S CABIN author Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time, President Abraham Lincoln supposedly seized her hand and said: “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War!”
The story may be apocryphal, but it certainly rings true.
As a writer, you hold within your hands-- and in your heart and mind-- great power for change. I hope that you will use that power wisely.
Keep pitching. See you next month.
- More articles by Staton Rabin
- Legally Speaking, It Depends: Women Issues
- Do I Need a Script Doctor, a Script Consultant or a Story Analyst?
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