Black There, Not Here

There are terms and phrases that immediately conjure up certain images; period drama, western, sitcom, road trip movie, rom-com, these are all terms and genres that are easily identifiable and which one can think of fare that falls into each category.
Here in the United Kingdom, there is a rich history in film, television, theatre and music. In comedy, drama and serials, there has been a vast output of memorable films and television programmes. The likes of Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and even the comedy, Keeping Up Appearances, are worldwide successes. For such a small island and one that is somewhat set in its way, – more on that later – the United Kingdom manages to hold its own in the highly competitive visual media arena.
The English language being the dominant language of film is a big factor in that, with the top ten highest grossing films of all time all English language films. In the British media landscape, the same country that vocally defends its animal rights record, its lax border approach to immigration, its law enforcement without guns (a good thing) and the general fairness for which the British are famed for throughout the world, things are not as fair as one would like.
For a nation that prides itself on fairness, the image of the British around the world still is of an overwhelmingly white nation. Whereas in the States, a country that is routinely targeted for its lack of diversity and racial inequality, the programming reflects not only the country’s racial complexity but also the many stories and struggles that have faced the various communities, here in the U. K. one would never know that there was a diverse population by watching its television output.
As a British born, black person the scarcity of programmes with black people in them was always noticeable but never an issue as, like anybody, one gets use to what is normal, in this case, very few non-white television shows. The fact that most of the black programmes that were shown were American – The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Different Strokes – one could not help but notice they were all comedies, perpetuating the long-held image of black people as grinning, jigging, entertainment. Alex Haley’s slave drama, Roots, was a big deal in the eighties amongst black people, a programme that showed a history, albeit an unsavoury one, and black people as more than caricatures. Of course, it was an American show.
Here, the paucity of black shows remains. There was a brief spate in the nineties – Desmond’s the standout amongst them – still, all were comedies. With the explosion of social media and every person able to venture an opinion and speak their mind – welcome to my blog! – issues of every ism – sex, race, gender – can be aired and debated. Any social issue can quickly become a cause, careers blighted by foolish utterances or proclamations in the social media world.
Such is the dearth of black shows in the U. K. many a black actor, much to the consternation of Samuel L. Jackson, moved to the States for work. With its rich history in television, featuring black ensemble shows since the seventies, as well as having black actors in a lot of their other shows. As well as television shows, there are also many black films of every genre, going back as far as the early nineteen hundreds, a truly rich history of black filmmaking.
Here in the U. K. even though black people have lived here since the seventeen hundreds, there has been very little television reflecting that with black British films so rare one could be forgiven for believing none were ever made. The few that have been made have not only been poorly marketed, a problem for a lot of British films but are so little known they even struggle to find a cult audience.
It was disappointing that Steve McQueen, the black British director, that when deciding to make a black film, starring the black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, he elected to make an American story instead of a British one. The production money for 12 Years A Slave was predominantly American, so that may have been a factor, but if a respected director such as McQueen cannot get a British black story made, what Hope is there? The like of Amma Asante’s Belle got so little traction even as a historical, costumed drama, that one despairs of trying to get authentic black, British stories out. Still, I will keep writing until I find the right story to put out there. That’s what a writer does.

Let’s Go Again

A friend of mine, who has a film production company, but is predominately a director, called me yesterday. He is in New York getting ready to premiere the conclusion to his documentary, In The Land Of The Free, with its brilliant follow-up, Cruel And Unusual – The Angola Three Story. I urge you to see it, utterly heart wrenching. Back to the call.
He told he had read my script – I sent him a script for a sitcom – on the flight over and really liked it. I have a real ear for dialogue he told me. I thanked him, really grateful that he had found the time to read it. Not at all, he had really liked it. He then said I should make it. Really? Yes. It’s easy. It’s a sitcom so the locations will be easy, it’s mostly set in one place. Um…okay…
Understand, this is a man who has just come off the back of directing two successful sitcoms, both of which got second season renewals. I have directed, a bit…okay, three shorts. Three! I wrote and edited them as well, but that hardly qualifies me to direct and, in essence, produce a half-hour sitcom! Don’t get me wrong, I like directing, really enjoy it, but I see myself as a writer first, editor way, way second and a Director third, at a push.
Still, the challenge has been uttered and I must decide what to do. Having written the script I, obviously, know the material quite well. I know what the characters are supposed to do, how they’re supposed to act, what they’re meant to feel. That is why, perhaps, I don’t want to direct it. I have never been a fan of omnipresence in film or television production. I understand that someone has to have the overall vision, but I just feel that comedy especially, works better when many find it funny, in terms of production and vision.
Of course, there is just the plain brain frying, pants wetting, stomach churning, finger pointing, it’s-all-on-me, fear of it all. I had always thought the writing was difficult enough. The thought of pulling an entire project together, a project that could pretty much become my industry calling card, curriculum vitae if you like, is mildly terrifying.
After the elation, at a creditable source thinking the work is viable, then the panic; where the hell do I start? That was quickly followed by lucid thought, quickly followed by panic once more. I need to get a producer. Yes, a producer is what I need, someone to raise the finance. Wait a minute, do I have to pay the producer? Does the producer get paid through the producing? I don’t even know. What about the rest? Location person/manager? Catering? Get the right actors – I’ve miscast before, so I know how important it is to get the cast right – shooting schedule, makeup, camera, lighting, crew, sound? This is just the bare bones. I want it to be better than a good YouTube video!
It could all be pointless of course, regardless of whether I direct, write, produce or not.

There is no guarantee that it would be of any interest to anyone beyond the friends and family of those involved in the production. After all, there are countless programme produced, year after year, that do not find an audience.
Still, what choice do I have? I could send it out to production companies in the hope that someone else likes it and pays to have it made. It would probably turn out a lot different than I imagined it, but that is the lot of being a screenwriter. I could also just keep writing. Just keep honing the craft, looking for that perfect script, the perfect calling card. That would be the way of cowardice, telling myself I need to work on ‘it’ more, that it could be better. Of course, it could. That is the same for anything; it can always be better. That does not matter. Anyone can be brilliant in their basement, they can stubbornly believe that they are great writers, actors, artist, but no one ever sees it, it does not matter.
So, it looks as though I am about to embark on another filmmaking adventure. Wish me luck.

Camera, Action…No Script?

There is an old adage that puts the perceived worth of a writer in film into perspective. It goes: the starlet was so stupid she slept with the writer to get the part. Boom boom! What a hoot. The writer, especially on large Hollywood productions is not held in high regard as say the director, producer, DP or even the composer. Writing is inexplicably regarded as less important than music.
I suppose there are probably fewer people trying to make it as film score composers compared to those trying to become screenwriters. There is always value in rarity. But can it really be the ready availability of writers, that has them so low down the totem pole of filmmaking? After all was it not the old master of the macabre himself, Hitchcock, who pointed out – “to make a great film you need three things; the script, the script and the script.” Hitchcock knew a thing or two about film, so perhaps he knew what he was talking about.
Let’s be clear; without the writer or writers on a film, you end up with Michael Bay-esque films, all action, explosions and no coherent story. Now, if, as is probably true, writers outnumber composers and possibly every other type of individual involved in film with the exception of actors, Hollywood, the juggernaut that it is, can be choosy when it comes to recruitment. So, aside from the nepotistic route to Hollywood employment, one can assume that only the best writers make the grade and get the big jobs. Or maybe not.
I suspect it is the more a case of the more amenable writers who get the jobs, the ones prepared to write whatever is asked of them. Film is a collaborative process, but the story should still be paramount and come first.
It seems so strange, almost archaic, that writers are held in such low regard in film, yet in television, it is the age of the showrunner, most of whom tend to be writers. Showrunners are, in the modern age, shown great respect and lauded as creative deities almost. Such has been the impact of television writing in the modern age, big studios have begun to look to television for talent. Not that this is a new phenomenon, it was just never so blatant. Many a film director made their starts on television and music video, the same can be said of some screenwriters; starting on the small screen and moving up to big screen projects.
In recent years the trend has gone the other way, with writers and filmmakers finding more creative freedom on the small screen. They can also tell bigger stories, no longer feeling the need to squeeze it into one hundred and eighty minutes or less.
On television, the writing matters. It is not about the big spectacle. The intimacy of television, the fact that you don’t have to leave your home to enjoy it, means the expectations are different. It is not on a forty foot screen, so you don’t necessarily expect visual pyrotechnics. They’re talking in your living room, crying in your bedroom, dying in your kitchen. They are close up, inhabiting our personal spaces, living their truths in our homes.
When a film cannot hide behind the spectacle or the set pieces, the writing matters. When you write a story, a screenplay, it is not a one-time process. It is not something that, unlike other aspects of filmmaking, that is fixed later. Yes, there are films where the script has been rewritten on set, but normally the script is ready before the film. Films generally get made because there is a good script or story. The actors – the good ones especially – come on board because of the story. Even crew sometimes only come because of the story.
Film and television is a medium for the storyteller, the writer. We will sleep with the dumb starlets or stars as long as we get to tell our stories.

Nothing But The Numbers

Just announced; a new film starring Susan Sarandon(70) and Cynthia Rothrock(60) is in the works. Sarandon plays a popular Democratic presidential nominee who is the target of an assassination attempt. Rothrock plays her security advisor. When Sarandon goes to stays at her country residence, Rothrock races to the residence when she realises there is a mole in the security team she has assigned to her.
Want to see the film I described above? Admittedly it’s a bit….rubbish, but with a little rewriting, some plot changes, it could be gold! What’s that you say? The women are what? Too old? Too old for what? Sarandon is the same age as Stallone. Besides, she’s playing a stateswoman, it’ll be designer suits and cowering mostly. Rothrock? She’ll be fine, she’s done martial arts all of her life. Obviously, there won’t be loads of high kicks like of old, but I’m sure she’s still got a few moves in her! Look at Jackie Chan, he’s the same age and he’s always flying about.
Of course, I am being facetious. Chan does not fly about. Haha. Seriously, though we do not expect Hollywood to reflect real life. It is accepted that they make everyone prettier, slimmer, more athletic and lighter. That is not only in part a reflection of the ruling demographic, it is also what they want to see.
The accommodation of ageing male Hollywood stars is merely a reflection of how those who rule view the world. Most of the money – the power – resides with ageing males. Yes, there are some female movers and shakers in the film industry, but, as with the majority of the western world, most of the money is in the hands of ageing men and the male ego is never ready to be put out to pasture.
This is not a new phenomenon, it is just that media; film and television, are so ever present it makes it easier to notice the disparity. This disparity is evident in the world’s most famous book, the bible. The majority of the leading characters in bible stories are men. This is not me being sensationally blasphemous. It is all there in black and white. The age thing is also prevalent in the good book, with many a male character living into their hundreds.
The hero character is a staple in storytelling. Whether it is written or visual, there is an aesthetic that we have come to expect. Even in the modern day of hashtag equality, not only is a female action hero over the age of forty a rarity, a fat or unattractive male hero is also rare.
The recent superhero films are a perfect example of Hollywood’s reluctance to cast against type, with the ever-popular Wolverine character, in the X-men films, being portrayed by the six foot two and handsome Hugh Jackman. In the comics, the character is a pug ugly short arse, standing at an unimpressive five foot three.
What has happened is, like every ‘new’ inception of the iPhone being an event, we have been led to believe that only certain people can be action heroes, leading characters or leaders.

There are stories that could easily have a lead of either sex, yet the Hollywood machine keeps churning out the same formula, confident – and the general populace has yet to prove them wrong – that the public will keep handing over their hard earned and watch more of the same.
The opening paragraph, using Sarandon and Rothrock for a fictional upcoming film, women in their seventies and sixties respectively, was obviously to make a point. The reason I picked those two, in particular, was because they have both been in action films and the two male stars I compared them to, Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan, have recently announced that they are going to be making a film soon. An action film.

How We See It.

Perception is a strange thing. Take two youngish men, both of whom have, let’s say, taken advantage of their status and the attraction it brings and had affairs. So far, so normal. One of the men had an affair with a friend’s ex – girlfriend, breaking the unwritten – but well known – rule of never getting together with a mate’s girl, ex or current. The other man slept with his brother’s wife.
   For those who do not know, whether it is because of not following the UK’s dominant sport – football – or because UK news does not affect you, the fact that this story is about two prominent sportsman will be of little surprise. What is a little strange is that the reputation of the sportsman who slept with his brother’s wife is less tarnished than the other.
   John Terry has the reputation of being a bit of an oik. A man of true working class roots, with a face that is to an Adonis what brick is to marble, Mr Terry, an uncompromising, but highly accomplished defender, does not project the air of a cuddly fella. A one club player, Terry has been a stalwart of Chelsea football club since before vast riches made them a force in world football. He more than any other player, represents the nouveau riche, cash-without-class, we’re-rich-and-we-don’t-care, attitude that irked so many opposition fans, made jealous or envious of the club’s sudden wealth.
  Being the captain  of such a club pushed Terry more into the limelight. So when the papers found out the married Terry was sleeping with a former teammate’s ex – girlfriend,  they could not wait to break the story. How could he sleep with his friend’s girlfriend?! What would happen, now that they played for different teams, when they met? What about his wife? John Terry did not get an easy ride.
  Ryan Giggs slept with his brother’s wife. Maybe they are not very close as siblings, maybe he was sick of lending him money, maybe she was an unrequited love. Maybe. He slept with his brother’s wife.
   The Manchester United former winger was a player of some talent. Fleet of foot, beautifully balanced, a footballing brain and given to – though I would argue too infrequent  – moments of brilliance.  He was the sort of player people paid to see and he played for one of the most famous teams on the planet.
  A good looking, urbanite, Giggs has enjoyed sporting success, a, relatively, blemish free reputation and personal acclaim. Even after failing to keep knowledge of his indiscretion suppressed – he tried to have the story legally squashed – he is still held in high regard in sporting circles.
   John Terry is no paragon of virtue. His reputation  outside of football is subject too many negative rumours; greed, gambling, racism. Ryan Giggs, currently enjoying life as assistant manager of Manchester United, slept with his brother’s wife.