Being typecast as a writer

questionmarkThis may seem like a strange question, but I was hoping you could answer it for me. I am an African-American aspiring screenwriter and I was curious about how the industry views us. Are Black screenwriters seen as being able to only write material with themes pertaining to our race?

I don’t know of very many African-American screenwriters working regularly in films today and the ones I do know of tend to write “Black films.” Should I send out a spec script specifically related to the African-American experience, or will my writing (or, more pointedly, will I) be viewed with colorblind eyes? Most of what I write is genre material (horror, suspense, mystery) and race is rarely an issue. Will this be a problem?

I hate to dump a huge issue like this at your feet, but I visit your website regularly and I’ve greatly appreciated your insights into the industry and screenwriting. Also, let me say, I am only interested in your opinion based on what you’ve observed. I am not expecting a definitive answer. I won’t hold you liable for what you say. I understand that this isn’t your field of expertise. I don’t expect you to explain how race works in Hollywood, but I would value your input.

– Ben
Los Angeles

Ben offered me so many outs in that last paragraph that I pretty much had to lob up some kind of opinion. Obviously, I have zero experience as an African-American screenwriter. The closest I come to minority status is being gay, and other than some awkward moments and a few jobs I wouldn’t want anyway, it hasn’t been a giant hindrance. All I can offer is a decade of watching how Hollywood works, and some predictions on what you might encounter.

First off, I’m going to assume you’re a genuinely talented screenwriter. This whole exercise is based on that postulate. A poor-to-mediocre screenwriter would find a different path in the industry, and I honestly get depressed thinking about the travails of untalented writers.

So for the sake of this thought experiment, you’re great. By that I mean, anyone reading your script would say you’ve got chops and an original voice. How will your being African-American affect your career?

Let’s start with meetings, since these face-to-face encounters with agents, managers, producers and development executives are a crucial part of a screenwriter’s job. Your great script will get you meetings, no problem. But how will you be received in the room?

My hunch: enthusiastically. Remember, the assumption in this exercise is that you’re very talented, so they’re inclined to like you regardless. But here’s what you might not know until I tell you: every studio and every network has public goals to increase their diversity across the board, starting with writers. Some places have special programs. Some have incentives for hiring minority writers. They’re all trying — sometimes not hard enough, sometimes in the wrong ways, sometimes ineptly. One could debate the merits of these programs. We won’t. We’ll just say that a talented young minority screenwriter is incredibly appealing. I know writers who’ve been able to get a first job because of minority hiring goals. If it helps open a door, by all means walk through.

But will you get pegged as “a black screenwriter?” Will you only get offered rewrites of Martin Lawrence comedies?

In my experience, you get typecast more by your work than who you are. My first two paid screenwriting jobs were adapting kids’ books. I got typecast as a soft kids’ comedy guy, which isn’t particularly me at all. It wasn’t until Go that I was even considered for an R-rated movie.

As far as race being a factor, my best anecdote comes from David Dean Botrell, who wrote Kingdom Come, which starred Whoopi Goldberg and a predominately Black cast. David told me that afterwards, he got called in for meetings on many other African-American centered projects, which was odd, because he’s whiter than I am. People mistakenly assumed he was Black. The reverse feels true as well: if you wrote Legally Blonde, they’d want you write that Kate Hudson comedy no matter what your ethnicity.

Should you, Ben, write a spec with African-American themes? Maybe. Less because of how frames it you than because there are specific production companies — and specific actors — who are always looking for material.

Again, I can only offer examples from limited experience. Shonda Rhimes was a classmate of mine at USC, whose spec historical drama centering on a young Black woman came close to production with Jada Pinkett (pre-Will Smith, as I recall). It never got made, but it provided Shonda some exposure. Her first major credit was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. Shonda’s next two credits were not Black-centered at all, and now she runs Grey’s Anatomy, which while diverse, is not particular to the African-American experience.

I haven’t seen Shonda in years, so I don’t know to what degree she feels that her Black historical spec helped open doors for her — it certainly wasn’t the only thing she wrote. Anyone interested in hiring her had a range of writing samples to look at, and that’s what I’d urge you to consider.

You say your tastes run more towards horror, suspense and mystery. Write those. Remember, for the sake of argument, we’ve agreed that you’re immensely talented. Your suspenseful thriller spec will find a receptive readership no matter what your ethnicity. You don’t generally see M. Night Shyamalan referred to as an “Indian-American filmmaker.” He’s known by his work. I think you can be, too.

The Writers Guild has a Black Writers committee, whose members would obviously have more informed opinions on the situation, along with many other organizations. There are numbers to look at, particularly in terms of TV staffing, but I don’t think they’re particularly helpful in describing what your experience would be like. Are there a Catch-22 situations, where Black writers write Black-themed movies, and then only get offered other Black-themed movies? Almost certainly. But I think talent can defy expectations.

And don’t worry about being typecast until you’ve gotten a movie made.

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