Biopics: Four Key Ingredients – The Script Lab

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The Writing of “I am Sojourner Truth”

About a year ago I approached an independent producer on Facebook, the talented, Lateef Calloway, when he announced his intention of producing a biopic about America’s first black woman to gain notoriety, the dynamic preacher, abolitionist and feminist activist, Sojourner Truth, author of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth a Northern Slave (1797-1883). Embarking in such a high profile project as a writer seemed a breakthrough opportunity in all respects. When the producer and I agreed on the terms I had already started to gain knowledge about the polemic African American Sibyl. And what we envisioned during our planning time together was a biopic that would cover her entire life in a non-linear way.

The first thing I did was read the “Narrative of Sojourner Truth” a few times to get to know her intimately. Having been denied the right to learn to read and write didn’t stop Sojourner from being an author.  That’s just the way she was, a woman of ‘no excuses.’ So Olive Gilbert, her fellow Association of Education and Industry member and friend, was her amanuensis.  Gilbert’s voice tells us what she heard from Sojourner, as she saw it, in her own socio-political and historical perspective.  But through and through we see the determination of a woman to make a difference no matter what the situation of her life was. She was someone who always did the right thing and attracted high profile characters of the times to herself, or people who would help her on her quest. But she also met a lot of opposition.

Isabella, Sojourner’s given name at birth, wanted freedom, but not at the expense of leaving behind her little ones, and when she walked away from bondage she remained but a day’s walk away. How rapacious did John Dumont seem when he demanded $5 for the rental of the child Sophia, not yet old enough to work and $20 for Isabella after she had earned him $2000 on a bet where her strength and endurance were the only things of value! How much more moral standing did Isabella have over him as a human being!  Why would she be the best worker on the land if it didn’t belong to her, and she was just enslaved labor deprived of identity? Amour-propre, the satisfaction of being the best you can be, the spirit of the overcomer, the power of self-discipline, putting her all into the present.  Sounds like an Ekhart Tolle tape.

There was one thing they couldn’t take from her and that was her dignity, her self-worth, her true self. That’s why Sally hated her and John Dumont admired her. Sally found a way to hurt her where she knew it would hurt the most, by selling her son away.  But that was just the challenge for Sojourner’s newly acquired faith and relationship with Jesus. And she got her son back. I can see Sally’s disappointment and bitterness when she heard the news.

But that was just the beginning. The newly-discovered self spreads its wings and takes flight as the inborn Christ saving the lost souls of the Five Corners along with philanthropist of the Wesleyan Methodist Perfectionist Society, teaching temperance first, and later embracing a false idol in the Kingdom of Matthias where the same perfectionists pointed their guilty fingers at the most vulnerable when the kingdom came into scrutiny by the State of New York. Absolved by the Grand Jurors of any wrong doing and compensated for the injurious unfounded claim on her character, an awakened soul sets forth to fulfill its social reform mission as Sojourner Truth, an advocate of righteousness throughout the land, never again adhering to any one sect or religion but using her own discernment to interpret the scriptures.  First as a child and later as Sojourner, speaking directly with God was a gift she put to good use to the end.

So, although she relocated to Harmonia, a Spiritualist community, with friends from New York and the Association, and she participated in séances, these only made her more aware of the spiritual guides surrounding her, like her father, with whom she had a special connection in life. “Religion is empty,” she said, “why build monumental churches when the poor and old aren’t ministered to,” she’d argue.

In her days, she witnessed the mass incarceration of black men in America, the institutionalization of the welfare system in response to inadequate integration plans, or rather lack of integration plans for the freedmen, as well as the great Exodust of the 1790s, which she prophesied would happen if measures weren’t taken to settle the freedmen in the vast expanses of land in the west.

If I could choose one word that contains the essence of her legacy, I would choose, in the words of Sojourner Truth: “agitate, agitate.” And my favorite Sojourner Truth quote is “If women want rights, more than they got, why don’t they just take them instead of talking about it?’

How does this translate today? Well for beginners, I’m writing a biopic, and I have never done so, I am not a Hollywood writer, I am not African American, I am not a graduate of Julliard school, or UCLA, neither does my uncle, cousin, dad, or aunt have any Hollywood connections.  I spent twenty years teaching school and I got tired of living the adage, “those who can’t do, teach.”

associationof edandind
The Association of Education and Industry was the commune that she referred to as being truly egalitarian.

 

I don’t care what people think.  I am writing the biopic of Sojourner Truth as an independent writer, for an independent producer, and I intend to do a very good job. Not only do I practice what I have already learned about writing a screenplay but I must keep seeking knowledge and testing my skills.

It’s been a high peak learning curve.  An MFA in CW only got me started on the path of writing.  I have written and rewritten a novel, about 6 screenplays, produced a -50-minute film and a short (my first), and I have no more funds to produce. So now what? Start with the end in mind.  Find distribution, tie the scripts to famous actors, network, submit to festivals and contests, pitch where and when possible. But most of all, keep writing, keep improving those editing and production skills by planning and analyzing your own and others’ works. So the learning never stops. And when I wonder if this is in vain, I say to myself, in vain is not doing. “I am Sojourner Truth.”

Talking about learning through the work of others, I recently had the pleasure of pitching to one of the rudest panels I have pitched to in my short pitching career (If you can make a career of pitching). It was at the 2016 MFMM at CAMACOL in Miami.  Why rude? Well, Miss Karen Hall, with all her Emmies and Humanitas, a prolific writer of popular TV shows, felt I was angry at her on my pitch.  I think that one has to feel angry in order to perceive angers from others. It is not my problem but hers. She should check her anger meter before it gets out of whack.  Why would anyone be angry after receiving all those accolades? I was just being dramatic and very succinct.  But I thought I would get questions like, “Oh, what is the ecotomb, and how does the protagonist wreak havoc?” Instead, I got what I interpreted as “you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, I’m the writer and I’m telling you, that’s not how you do it.” Well, too bad for you, Ms. Hall, if you can’t come down from your pedestal and learn to listen to us mortals. Somebody will.  My pitch was “Survivors of the Holocaust of Humanity sit around the lar and tell the story of Taharai, a venous hrybrid who wreaked havoc in the cities of the modern world before the Ecotomb.” That was my chosen elevator pitch. I was going to pitch another but I decided to be loyal to my first project. (It was a great personal pleasure to work with actors and crew).

In my metaphysical studies I’ve learned that what you see in others is what you are feeling yourself. You see the world as you are. Where you see anger you have anger. Where you see love you are love. Where you see pain you feel pain. That is my response to those like Ms. Karen Hall.  I’m afraid of her now that I know she sees the world through angry eyes. I was just being dramatic. Was anyone on the panel interested in content, or were they there only to warn wannabe writers and producers, one, that TV writing and being a showrunner is too hard; two, that people should respect those who are doing this very difficult job; and, three, that you must move to Hollywood/L.A. so that through a friend that has a friend that “happens” to know one, after you “happen” to land the manuscript on his/her happenstance’ lap, you might “happen” to be lucky and land an agent. Frustrated? Naw… Discouraged? Naww…

Then, during the ABFF week, I had the more pleasant experience of listening to two great panels during ABFF week.  The first was hosted by HBO’s  26-year veteran Bruce Richmond who spoke about hybrid television, a great topic, too much to go into now, among other things. But basically, he sold HBO’s product and productivity, gave us a really good HBO pitch. He showed us how the west was won, basically. All the tricks involved in the making of a TV series such as Game of Thrones, the most popular TV show on the IMDB chart in 2016. Bruce and Gena (Gena Desclor), let the audience know early on in the 3hr (so called) workshop, that anyone trying to submit should contact the creative department and specifically, Kelley Edwards.  So I bet she must have had a hot earlobe that night.

Finally, this Father’s Day, I got to meet two young ladies making a difference on diversity TV right now.  Karen Horne SVP of Programming & Talent Development & Inclusion for NBC Entertainment who was more positive and advised the writers to submit through the workshops and fellowships that stations already have in place.  But she also recommended moving to L.A. and didn’t offer any tips on how to get an agent, other than writing a spec script that’s good enough to be noticed. The second speaker was Courtney Kemp Agboh, the creator and writer of Power, who seconded what Horne had already signaled out.  But Kemp went as far as saying that you have to be willing to go lower than getting lunches, whatever it takes to get into the writer’s room, for she got to where she’s at by going through the ropes.  Even what you wear and how nice you are, of course, is of the utmost importance. But don’t forget you have to be the best writer there to be noticed.

One element all writing workshops I attended had in common was that they promote, support, and stick to the traditional format of one hero on a quest obstructed by a villain and in the end changed by the choices and circumstances of his chosen journey, lots of violence, some sex and some big theme. I think for Brother the theme is the same as for Breaking Bad: “Does the end justify the means?” Can someone kill and not commit a crime? It is more like getting even with society and in the end making it all look good by having a legit business like a club.  It’s kind of Scarfacish to me, redundant, except this is an African American protagonist.

Going back to the initial goal of this blog, the problem with writing a biopic such as “I am Sojourner Truth” is that there usually isn’t enough dramatic action in a famous person’s life for it to be a captivating story.   The famous person’s life may have had a lot of ups and downs, but lacks the level of dramatic curve seen in these digitized dramas.

For starters, you must decide whether you are writing about something in the life of your hero or about the life of your hero. In other words, instead of ambitiously covering her entire life, should I focus only on the incredible feat of getting her son back from an evil and brute creep down south using the law in a courtroom? In this case, the villain was Sally, the mistress who wanted Isabella to hurt because she could never have her soul. However, Isabella had the fire of the inborn Christ presence in her and cast away all evils.

At every step of the way, Sojourner faces an antihero. In Matthias Kingdom it was the hypocrite Ann Folger who would get into Isabella’s bed at night, when the men were away, to show her how he (Matthias) made love to her (Mrs. Helen Folger), and when under suspicion, point a guilt-ridden dirty finger at Isabella using her as the scapegoat of the Perfectionist Society. Isabella, the lower class member, was the easiest target they could use as a shield. But the burning presence of the Holy Spirit remained a constant in Isabella’s life and this truth she breathed manifested. Isabella was not only absolved of any injurious culpability, but she also received restitution for damages and injury to her character. Way to go, Bell!

In another instance, it was the opposition of the rebels that she must confront in order to make her freedom of speech count. And she sure showed them, she did! Following that it was the conductors of the DC trolleys that she had to take on in order to get to ride and do away with the Jim Crow car. Not once but twice pressing charges against them. She was a legalist.

Furthermore, it was the freedmen themselves whom she must contradict for “their own good;” and it was the indifference of the administrations during Reconstruction to relocate the freedmen as enfranchised citizens instead of institutionalizing the undignified welfare system that she fought to the end. These were her nemesis, along with trying to exercise her right to vote by showing up at precincts.  She believed in taking what was rightfully hers.

How far would you go to get your own rights? She went as far as no one had before her, farther that she ever thought she could.   “I am Sojourner Truth.”  Her legacy is the spirit of the overcomer, of no excuses, whether Black, slave or woman. Not enough drama? We’ll see how well I can create a villain and a curve in every one of the five acts.  Why five acts? That’s how you break it up for television, and although this is a movie for the big a well as all the screens, it makes sense to use the five act strategy with so much material to cover, like Shakespeare did with his dramas.