GREGORY ALLEN HOWARD
DEALING WITH RACE SCRIPTURALLY

January/February 2001, Scr(i)pt Magazine

"It's a little preachy..."
- Unnamed studio executive upon reading the screenplay for Remember The Titans.

In retrospect, maybe it was. But dealing with race in any script is always a challenge. Since I write a lot of race-themed projects, perhaps it is apt that I hold forth on how I deal with race in my scripts.

PC And Me

Without boring anyone on the storied history of race in films, suffice it to say that white writers - and we are talking about almost entirely about white writers - in the early days of film, up to and perhaps until the '70s when some black writers started doing their thing, handled race only one way: the stereotype - kindly black, best buddy black, studly black, menacing black and so on.

Over the past, say 10-years, film writers have been working hidden in the tall grass of PC: Political Correctness. Hence, we now have black characters who are angels or devils (made so because of their challenging circumstances). The cover is usually in the form of a black director, many of whom are only too happy to accept a check and shovel a plateful of clichéd black characters down out throats. Sometimes it is an actor or any other black "element" who decides it is time to get paid.

Political correctness has no place in art. It makes art propaganda. It debases the artist. Art should upset us, challenge us, scare us, force us to look deeply into ourselves. When I deal with race in the fact of the prevailing PC, I ignore it and try to deal with it honestly. Despite this candid approach, or maybe because of it, I get comments as above.

But I refuse to be inhibited by anything when I write about race. This has been our problem when dealing with race. We're too polite with each other. As Shakespeare wrote, our "darker purpose," is never revealed.

Serving My Master: "Veritas"

"Truth ... tell the truth." This seems simple enough, but it is one phrase that I repeat to myself every time that I sit down to write. There is only one master for me - truth. Did I tell the truth? Did I get to the emotional truth? In dealing with race, the themes and characters of it, it is too easy to become polemical (and yet I have time and time again). But I constantly ask myself, "Am I on a race soapbox; or am I serving the real master of the art? Truth."

A major producer doing a major black TV mini series remarked that white writers would be better for the project because black writers were "too close to the material." In a sense he was right. A black writer without art will be drawn into a polemic on race - a dissection of race. But this could happen with any "inartful writer".

This seeming liability of "closeness" transmogrifies into an asset when it comes to white writers. White writers are hired because of their "familiarity" with and closeness to a subject matter. (Without being drawn into another iteration of this issue of who is hired to write what, I believe strongly that anybody should be allowed to write anything - as long as it's good).

In Remember The Titans, in particular, I had to hold fast to the truth because it would have been so easy to fall into the racial polemic trap. I wish there were a book on Titans so that I could have dealt with the race themes even more deeply (anyone from Disney Books Division reading this? Hint, hint).

In real life, in truth, race never really resolves itself. It's always an issue in relationships as much as gender is. But that's good. If it did resolve itself, then I'd be at a fine university teaching about race instead of writing about it.

Show Me The Flaws

In dealing with race in a script, I want all my characters to be flawed, the deeper the better. Of course, this is Drama 101. But as basic as it is to storytelling, white and some black writers generally forget it when it comes to black characters. If I see another sweet, gentile, kind, warm, fuzzy, listen-to-all-your-problems, personality-free black character, someone's going to have to order up a casket for me.

Writers think they're doing somebody a favor creating one-dimensional black characters. The irony of these characters is that even though their skin is colored, they are not. The white star is the one with the "problems" (that lead in real life to awards and hefty paychecks). The black character is a papier-mâché doll sounding board.

As I said in all my scripts I want everyone flawed; but I want my black characters to be more flawed. This is not because we are more flawed, but allow me to generalize and say we're certainly more complex. We have to be. There is so much to us that no one outside our group will ever see or know.

I was at a resort once and met a caddie for a very famous golfer. This caddie had been with this golfer for almost 20 years. The pro told him he was like a brother to him. The caddie lived on this pro's estate in the guesthouse. Because of his 5 percent cut of the pro's earning, this 60-year-old black man was a millionaire. The caddie was Godfather to his children. There wer close, but the caddie, having known me only two weeks intimated to me, "He (the pro) only sees what I let him see."

I feel that black people are like the proverbial iceberg. What I try to do in ways big and small is to show a little bit more of what's going on below the water line.

In Remember The Titans, in the Herman Boone character, I wanted to show a different kind of black man, not a back slapping happy warrior, but a hard, arrogant, inflexible, proud, yet kind man - a thinker who acted thoughtlessly. A warrior with doubts.

Moreover, what I loved about the relationship between the Herman Boone character and the Bill Yoast character in Titans is that their relationship is not all worked out. It never really resolved itself. It doesn't have to.

No Heart ... No Script

When I first met my director, Boaz Yakin, we had dinner in Alexandria. Over some unfortunately bland Northern Italian food, we talked about projects past and present. When I mentioned a story that somebody pitched me, Boaz suggested that it was a commercial idea and that I should consider writing it. I told him then and I've repeated it a hundred times, "If it don't move me, I can't write it."

The issue of race is not academic. It is not sterile. It evokes passion and pain. Crack open any book on American History and there it sits - glaring back at you with its hideous face. Sometimes too much knowledge of it makes you want to weep.

Despite the seeming gloominess of the subject matter, what I look for is the heart - not the rage - rage in race is always there. It's easy, perhaps too easy. It's predictable, and in a way we've become inured to it - sad to say, but true.

Ah, but the heart. When I can find that to leaven the race drama, then I can work. In Big Julius Campbell from Titans, I found just such a man. The real Julius moved me to tears when he recounted his relationship with deceased white linebacker Gerry Bertier. Here was the big heart that I was looking for. The heart in a script represents hope - things possible in the face of something so massive, so insurmountable, so intractable. In a race-themed script, such as Titans, I try to bring that big heart our and put it front and center.

In drama, the most satisfying love is male love because there is no sex involved to bond the men (assuming everyone is straight, of course). In a race script, having men or boys bond and love; and using that bonding and loving to climb the mountain is a winner every time for me.

READ MORE ESSAYS BY GREG