The results are in on the screenplay and the feedback has been very positive, a fact both shocking and motivating. I was certain some of my readers would not get the script or respond to it, but instead everybody has been very encouraging. My friend M, who I was sure was going to hate it (“Amyn, what the hell are you doing? Why don’t you write about…” was my prediction.) Instead, she called yesterday and said “I loved your script.” I thought she was kidding. “You’re kidding, right?” was my witty response. But she assured me she was serious. “I think you can sell this thing. Really. I have a few notes, but I really like it.”
It’s amazing what some positive feedback can do for my psyche. (It makes me worry that I care a little too much about what people think, but screw it, this felt good). So there was a little extra spring in my step, a slight curvature upwards on my lips during my afternoon yesterday. I’m on the right track. All I’ve got to do now is rewrite a little more and then go make this sucker into my first feature.
But first I had to hear M’s notes, so I went over to her house last night for a little while. We sat on the couch and I took notes as she flipped through the script, discussing the various notes she had scribbled in the margins. Everything was going fine, just fine, until she said…
“There’s one thing I hate. The character Antwone. It’s racist. You gotta change it.”
What? Racist? Did I hear that right? She assured me she was serious. M, who is black, found the character of Antwone to be a “racist stereotype.” I assured her that was not my intention. In the script, Antwone is a street-tough guy who uses a lot of ridiculous made-up street slang and is the father-to-be of the main character’s sister, Jasmine. He lives in the parents’ house with her and has been accepted as a part of the family, even though he is not Indian (the rest of the family is) and comes from the “other side of the tracks.” He’s a devoted guy who plans to be around for his girl and their baby no matter what, and he expresses his intention constantly (which pays off in funny ways at the end). I saw him as being no more outrageous than any character you might see in popular movies or on television sitcoms like the ones featuring Method Man and Redman. Anyway, the stereotype was entirely intentional on my part, but it was meant to play with the reader’s expectations and make the ending funnier. So I went over the top with his dialogue, thinking that would make it even funnier. Instead, M was disgusted by it.
“It’s racist, Amyn.” M was insistent. But I had a problem with that. I can admit it’s a stereotype. And I can admit in the context of the script maybe Antwone’s jokes are a little cheap. But racist? I can’t help but feel at this point in America we jump to the “R” word a little too quickly. “Racism” to me means hatred of or based upon race. And clearly, there was nothing in the character Antwone that implied hatred of his race. An exaggerated use of street slang might be seen as an “ugly” depiction at worst, maybe, but hatred, no. Racial, yes. Stereotypical, yes. Promoting the hatred of a race? Uh uh.
M was the first person to point this out. She was also the only African American reader I had shown the script to. So I was puzzled. She moved on, talking about other notes she had, but I wasn’t really listening. She didn’t get it? I thought to myself. How could that be? Does one of my best friends think I’m racist? And for someone who “loved” the script, she sure did have some major problems with it! (That’s like saying “I LOVED the “Birth of a Nation,” except for all the racist parts.”)
M could tell I was still stuck on that point: “Okay, it’s not racist, Amyn. But it’s cheap. You can do something better and funnier with Antwone than that.” I found myself agreeing with her. I could do something better. I just had to put my mind to it. M’s clever like that. She managed to make me think about changing it while giving me the feeling I had won the argument.
On the way home I thought about Antwone and what could be done with him. Changing his dialogue would not be too difficult, but a total rethinking of him would be a challenge. I decided instead of being from the streets he would be a military man. Disciplined and tough. He’d use military lingo instead of street slang. He’d continue to insist he was sticking by his woman and would be there for her forever. He’d continue to intimidate the main character. Hmm…
I got into bed and thought about it for awhile longer. The jokes started to come, slowly. It might just work. Now all I have to do is start rewriting…