by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
As we reflect on the Oscars this week, 2016 will be remembered as a year when racial diversity highlighted the conversation. Screenwriting is also an area where few people of color have seen their work recognized throughout history. Only two African Americans have ever won the award for adapted screenplay and no one has ever taken home the big prize for an original screenplay. It is also notable that only one black woman has ever been nominated, and that was more than 40 years ago. Here’s a look at the seven black writers who have been nominated for Academy Awards in the writing categories, the stories they brought to the screen, and the lessons we can learn from their work.
Suzanne de Passe, nominated for Original Screenplay for Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
In 1972, black writers saw their first glimmer of hope, with nominations in both the adapted and original categories. de Passe’s story about jazz legend Billie Holliday starred Diana Ross in the leading role. The script follows Holliday’s tragic beginnings as a housekeeper in a Baltimore brothel where she was repeatedly raped, through her rise to stardom. The script is an unflinching look at a complicated woman’s genius as well as her demons, which led to her premature death at the age of 44.
If there’s one lesson we can take from this wonderfully complex storytelling, it is that powerful stories must show a protagonist’s greatest weaknesses as well as their strengths. It is in Holliday’s humanity that we see beauty. It takes bravery to show the shadow of a beloved character. This is exactly what Suzanne de Passe did in this story and the Academy rightfully acknowledged her for it. de Passe continues to work in film and television and presently is developing an MLK film alongside Steven Spielberg.
Lonne Elder III, nominated for Adapted Screenplay for Sounder (1972)
The pressure of taking a well-loved book and adapting it for the screen can be unnerving. Sounder tells of a young boy’s journey to visit his father who has been convicted of a petty crime in a prison camp for black sharecroppers in 1933. The film starred Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks. Elder initially refused the assignment of working on the film, afraid the story would be more sympathetic to the dog at the center of the tale than the people who cared for him. Director Martin Ritt eventually convinced Elder to come on board, saying, “I wanted to keep Sounder accurate in its historical context and not go off on any present-day fantasies.”
Writers today would do well to examine Elder’s masterful balance of the horrors of racism and the universal theme of family importance. One word that appears time and again from those discussing the film is honesty. If audiences sense a writer’s view of the world is anything less than honest, they will reject their story outright. Elder knew this and kept this principle central to his writing. He scripted a sequel to Sounder a few years later and continued to write stories about the black experience until his death in 1996 at the age of 68.
Charles Fuller, nominated for Adapted Screenplay for A Soldier’s Story (1984)
It would be over a decade before another black writer would be nominated after the successes of de Passe and Edler. Finally, in 1984, Charles Fuller brought the story of a military murder investigation involving black soldiers to the screen. The script was based on Fuller’s own stage work, A Soldier’s Play, and took loose inspiration from Herman Melville’s novella, Billy Budd. Fuller tackled the difficult theme of anger and resentment in the black community toward those who find success in arenas historically controlled by white men. He discussed his use of storytelling as a means for change in a 1982 interview, stating, “To spend one’s life being angry, and in the process doing nothing to change it, is to me ridiculous. I could be mad all day long, but if I’m not doing a damn thing, what difference does it make?”
The protagonist in Fuller’s story, Captain Richard Davenport, is compelling to the audience but disliked by everyone around him. There is an important lesson to be learned here. Everyone in your story can despise your protagonist, but it is the job of the writer to make the audience empathetic to him or her. This can be no easy task, but Fuller accomplishes it brilliantly. Charles Fuller continues to write stories and remains active with the Writers Guild of America East.
Spike Lee, nominated for Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing (1989)
Some film historians have commented that Do the Right Thing’s loss to Rain Man for Best Original Screenplay in 1989 is one of cinema’s greatest travesties. Lee’s examination of modern racism, justice, and anger was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress in 1999 and was added to the National Film Registry that same year, one of only six films to receive the honor in their first year of eligibility. The script takes place in a single day, the hottest of the summer in Brooklyn. It features a host of neighborhood characters intersecting around a single catalyst — there are no pictures of black celebrities on the wall of the local Italian pizzeria.
The narrative methodically unfolds, showing how the effect of this discovery eventually turns into a neighborhood riot, where businesses and even lives are lost. Lee makes a daring move at the end of his script. He has the protagonist take action that will be upsetting to some of his audience, but that is true to who that character is. He demonstrates one of the most key yet difficult principles of screenwriting. Characters must do what they would do in a given situation, not what the writer would do. It can take years before a writer can even tell the difference. However, only when we can parse out the nuances between ourselves and our characters will our stories begin to possess power. Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, was released in 2015.
John Singleton, nominated for Original Screenplay for Boyz n the Hood (1991)
25 years ago, in 1991, was the last time a black writer was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. While Spike Lee had brought the modern black experience in New York City to the screen in 1989, John Singleton would show audiences what life in Los Angeles was like for black men and women. Boyz n the Hood provided a portal into the realities and dangers of inner city life for many white Americans. Singleton defied the stereotypes about black youths and presented a story about family, humanity, and the myth of redemptive violence.
While Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of the protagonist, Tre, would make him a breakout star, it would be the secondary characters that would steal the show. Tre’s best friend, Ricky, and Ricky’s brother, Doughboy, the first role ever played by Ice Cube, would provide the heart of the story. Many writers focus all their story energy on their protagonist, whose importance cannot be underestimated. However, the protagonist cannot accomplish everything a story needs. Secondary characters can provide elements in a story that truly make the script what it is. John Singleton went on to great success and continues to write and direct significant work for the screen.
Geoffrey Fletcher, won for Adapted Screenplay for Precious (2009)
Finally, in 2009, a black writer would not only be nominated for a writing award by the Academy, but would actually win. Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, tells the story of an illiterate 16-year-old girl living in Harlem with her abusive mother. The end of the script is especially moving as the protagonist has developed and learned important skills for her journey. However, the narrative remains nuanced and does not lead the character into unrealistic waters. Fletcher captures the heartache of the situation without ever pandering to the character or the audience. He guides the protagonist through her journey and even manages to teach the audience something about tenacity and hope.
One of the key elements that makes Precious unique is that it is a story of a character we had never seen before. As writers, we should constantly be searching to tell the tales of characters unfamiliar to the audience. At the very least, we must figure out methods of telling new stories about characters that audiences have been long familiar with. Geoffrey Fletcher continues to be an important voice in American screenwriting while teaching at Columbia University and NYU.
John Ridley, won for Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, 12 Years a Slave marked the first time a black writer would craft the script for a film that won the Best Picture award. Telling the story of a New York State-born free African American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, Ridley developed themes that remain as relevant today as they were when the original story was told. Many critics noted how the story never shied away from the brutality of slavery and those who profited by it.
This is important for screenwriters. Shying away from the difficult or brutal aspects of a story will never lead to connection with the audience. While all writers desire success, it’s important to remember that not every script we write will be for every audience and not every audience will be right for every script. We must stay with the stories that live inside us and never look away from all the warts and ugliness they wear. John Ridley continues to write for film and television. His most recent work can be seen in the TV series, American Crime. His latest adaptation for the big screen, Ben-Hur, will be released in 2016.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.