Friday, November 1, 2019

How Writers (and Other Hollywood Types) Promote On-Screen Inclusion

This year’s Governors Awards banquet, hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, gave honorary Oscar statuettes to four Hollywood icons. Director David Lynch took a mere fifteen seconds to thank the academy, and then sat down. Actor Wes Studi, the first Native American to ever earn an Oscar, proudly held his statuette aloft. But the stars of the evening were two female honorees, Italian director Lina Wertmuller and actress/activist Geena Davis, who forcefully urged the Academy to move past gender stereotypes and make Hollywood a more inclusive place.

I wasn’t (alas) invited to that banquet. On that same day, though, I appeared on a panel that expressed similar views. We also went one step further, exploring just how enlightened writers can replace stereotypes with full characterizations that add truth and heft to their stories.  As a closing feature of the DTLA Film Festival, held in L.A’s newly cool downtown, our panel introduced an attentive audience to the pressing question of  “how to recognize and avoid unconscious bias in your screenwriting.”

Moderator Rosanne Welch, a professor at Stephens College, first asked her six panelists to explain, by way of introduction, where they themselves were coming from. Maria Escobedo and Evette Vargas, who both enjoy a long string of television writing credits, discussed their place in the Latinx community. Screenwriter-producer Hanala Sagal, touted  her role as a recovering alcoholic and as the child of Holocaust survivors. Writer-director Donna Bonilla Wheeler saluted her Peruvian mother and Irish father. Kala Guess, representing Final Draft screenwriting software, identified herself as a single parent and as someone who’s struggled with mental challenges. Several panelists noted that they were only children, acutely aware of family dynamics. The point being: that each of us is an amalgam of gender, ethnic, religious, and familial connections. It’s our job as writers to create characters who are no less complicated and no less true.

We all decried easy stereotypes (the Latina spitfire, the loud-mouth Jewish mother, the pathetic single mom). Donna Wheeler mentioned an upcoming film project in which she—attached as a director—successfully campaigned to shift the protagonist’s role from male to female. The result, which she was invited to write herself, deeply enriched the central storyline. (I noted in passing that the role of Ripley in Alien, triumphantly played by Sigourney Weaver, had originally been envisioned as male.) Evette Vargas, who had worked with Welch on Touched by an Angel, told an instructive story about the series, which involves angels played by Della Reese and Roma Downey assuming various human disguises in order to help earthlings in trouble. On one episode, they were pretending to be a wealthy woman and her maid. The assumption in the writer’s room was that Downey would portray the wealthy woman and the African-American Reese would take on the maid’s role. Vargas then made the bold suggestion that the roles be reversed. Everyone was enthusiastic for a moment, then pointed out that the ageing Reese was contractually limited to a three-day work week, which would rule out her playing the meatier part. Vargas, though, persisted, guessing that Reese would be willing to work longer hours to take on the bigger (and less stereotypical) role. She was right.

Beginners are always instructed to “write what you know.” So how do writers avoid limiting themselves to their own perspective on what’s normal? All of us could agree that one way is to have the widest possible range of friends and life experiences. A broad, generous view of the world is key to presenting that world in all its complexity. 

The latest version of Final Draft, the industry standard for screenwriting software, now offers an Inclusivity Analysis feature. It allows writers to check on the degree to which their project encompasses the full range of social possibilities. More on that, perhaps, later.

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