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Friday, November 16, 2007

Colour Me Bad

This is a true story. I went to school with a girl I will call Mary. Mary was mixed heritage in a school almost entirely white (that's Devon for you): her absent father was black and her abusive mother and stepfather were white. At school other pupils called Mary "black" and at home she was the "nig-nog" stepdaughter. Growing up in such environment then it is not surprising Mary fell foul of a self-fulfilling prophecy; always the outsider, ostracised by her peers bar a select few and reminded daily what a nuisance she was at home, it was not long before Mary fell into a cycle of crime and drugs to gain (negative) attention and by the age of seventeen she was in a young offenders' institute serving a short stint for burglary.

I suppose I was friends with this girl because I too felt like an outsider growing up; we were both bullied, her for her skin colour and me because I had that stamp of someone who did not quite "fit in" and refused to see why she should try. It ended happily for both us by the way; as you know I left the trials of school behind and Mary had a similarly happy result. Sent away from Devon because of a lack of facilities for female juveniles, she ended up in a unit with other black and mixed heritage women and discovered, for the first time, that others felt as ostracised by our society as her: it wasn't just her. In the unit she studied, did a few exams and when she was let out, she became a cobbler of all things and set up her own business, which she does very well at.

But what is this story doing on the pages of a screenwriting blog? It seems to me that we are encouraged to see colour as something that is seen to "define" us - Asian Film, Black Film, Asian Women in Film, Japanese Horror are all tags we see on a daily basis online, at film festivals, on DVD boxes. Yet where is the definition if we are white? There is none. It is just, simply, "Film". It would appear that no definition is needed.

But what does this mean? Well first off, it would appear that defining people on the basis of colour *can* be a bad thing... Mary would testify to that: "she was a problem because she was an outsider and she was an outsider because of her colour" is a foul way to pigeon-hole someone, especially so young. But defining people because of their colour can also be a good thing: how can pride in your heritage and its achievements be a bad thing? Well, if you're celebrating the heritage of Nazi Germany (or similar - Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Serbia etc) and its "achievement" in oppressing and destroying entire races of course. There's a flipside to everything, it seems.

But this is why giving your characters a colour in your script *can* be a mine field. It's come up on here before: should we specify if someone is black, asian, white etc? Does it matter? And crucially, are you being racist if you do/do not do this??

Lots of writers say casting should be "colour blind" and I am one of them. Who knows whether this script will ever be made anyway and if it is, huge changes will be made according to what and who is available at the time. One of my Bang2writers made the assertion that we should write with a particular actor in mind and if that actor is then black, you should specify that character is also black but this doesn't work for me just on the basis of maths: specs spend such a long time in development that by the time it goes into production who's to say if that actor will even still have a career?

Of course, sometimes colour pays off in a story. If you're writing about say, Neo Nazism, then it helps to have some black characters for the sense of conflict. But often the casting choices we make as writers are obvious - names can give a huge sense of what colour a character is, as can ways of speaking and the actions they make.

Which leads us onto another rub. Black characters are so often negative role models. For every Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness, there are legions of drug dealers, gun runners and ill-educated black characters, whether it's TV or film. And let's not forget the oooh-let's-do-the opposite and be 100% POSITIVE. Someone said to me once, "It's either/or : on telly we're on the street selling drugs or we're the bloody captains of the police force!"

Your thoughts?

28 comments:

Steve said...

Oh yes. One thing that I suddenly realised in my script was that everyone was white -- or, at least, I was thinking in terms of white, and this for Manchester!

I hadn't even thought about it.

Of course then I went into the whole, "why should I think about it?" the fact is that *I* don't care whether the parts are played by black, white, indigo or violet.

But there was the issue of names. It occured to me that one of the main characters could be of chinese origin -- so should I change the name?

I have no idea. The parts may be interchangeable but names aren't necessarily.

But sometimes it does matter. Could "Bend it like Beckham" exist as a story without the family being of a race/religion that represses women? (Maybe, but then a single person would become the antagonist instead of the society.)

In a way I might suggest that we, in the UK, have a problem as probably the least racist country in the world. We're not colour-blind but completely lacking in any colour sense at all.

In "Studio 60" someone says to the female British writer: "You're white" to which she replies "I'm not white, I'm British".

Which sums it up for me.

(You might argue that my first and last points contradict one another, but the middle point should make this clear: I don't care what race, colour or creed they are, as long as their "classification" doesn't contradict the way I wrote the part.)

riboflavin said...

The UK is the least racist country in the world? I disagree, sorry Steve.

Growing up in the UK we are encouraged to think of racism as something that "happened in the past" which, though admirable in its attempt to fashion the notion that we *shouldn't* be racist as a fundamental, the notion falls down on its simplicity ie. we've got generations of people walking around unable to empathise with people from ethnic minorities (tho I'm not saying you do this Steve btw).

I'm a teacher and I have heard extraordinarily racist statements in my classroom over the years, though not because these kids are actively trying to be rude or offensive, they literally don't know any better. This is what depresses me most, for the chance of rehabilitation then is much more slim if they don't know they're ignorant. Instead they absorb stereotypes via TV, Film and might I add - MUSIC. *That's* what black people are like.

Tom said...

There's no point in ever describing a characters race or skin colour unless there's a particular story need. Best example I can think of is The Shawshank Redemption - Stephen King described the character of Red as being a white Irishman but the role went to Morgan Freeman (and, if I recall, Darabont kept the reference to him being Irish in the script).

Will Smith is another good example - he's replaying the role in I Am Legend that was made famous by Charlton Heston.

Colour doesn't matter unless it affects the story directly.

Lucy said...

Steve - I agree with Riboflavin, I think the UK can be mega racist, esp in the current climate and largely because of my own experiences in the classroom at the head and as a pupil sitting next to my friend. These weren't bad kids per se generally; rather they were just ignorant like Riboflavin says. Mary was treated as a novelty item and I was particularly down to see the same was going on when I did my teacher training ten years later.

Tom - I agree. It should be the best actor for the job IMO, who cares about colour? Unless of course it would mean a problem for the story.

riboflavin said...

Should say...That last sentence in my previous comment was supposed to be sarcasm if that's not obvious.

Also, perception will presumably play a part in how the reader sees your script too - if you're white, your "default setting" for all characters is going to be white; black = black and so on I would think.

Steve said...

I said "least racist". I am well aware of the extreme racism that exists, I live in Oldham!

However I stand by "least racist".

Oli said...

You can subconsciously decide a character's race by their names. Whilst the names of European and American black and white people are largely interchangeable, Asian, African and Eastern European names are not, so unless you specify an asian (etc) name, the casting director is likely to go to the default race - white, or rarely black.

John August has some interesting things to say on this here.

Lucy said...

Thanks for the link Oli, will check that out. Whilst it's true Oriental and Asian names are the most obvious to spot, there are some African names that can be useful in the black/white decision whilst reading you describe though - Kwame, Tupele, Mufu. A good baby name dictionary can point you in the right direction or check here www.babynames.com.

Steve, yes I was aware you said "least" but I disagree, simply because so few people are willing to say that it's a problem - though I accept absolutely that that's not actually what you're saying here by the way.

anya said...

Of course, I went to the same school as you Lucy, though not really at the same time in that I was so far ahead of you in age group... It WAS an incredibly white-orientated school though, so was the college I went to afterwards and it does skew your perception of the world. I don't believe I was ever offensive to a black or mixed heritage person then, but I don't suppose I was understanding (though now you come to mention it, I don't believe I ever spent any time with any).

When I went to university in London it was a rude awakening. I lived in a rough area and I had no idea people had to live in such conditions, let alone the notion of racism that might be directed against them. It really opened my eyes. It just had never occurred to me before, I'd had such a sheltered upbringing like a lot of kids in an area like Devon. Now I live in New York and I wonder how I could ever have been that other girl.

Lucy said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Anya... Devon is an interesting place because it seems "cut off" from other places (despite not actually being that far; 2.5 hrs on the train from certain Devonian towns to London). It also has its own problems, particularly with poverty and underachievement, which gets overlooked next to the great scenery and people imagine that it's a wonderfully rich place 'cos so many businessmen buy second homes there, not realising that the kids there are some of the worst deprived in terms of eduucation and opportunity in the country if you want to look at statistics.

So what am I trying to say... That we're all misunderstood? I suppose - you have to be the person or place to "really" get it, the rest is a rough approximation I suppose.

Lucy said...

Cor, that last bit was a bit WONDER YEARS wasn't it? Next comment please!

anya said...

It's funny you should mention that actually cos though I lived in the country and would be deemed "privileged" on that regard alone, my family had NO MONEY, I mean we were dirt dirt poor when the whole BSE crisis just completely did farming over in the early to mid 90s. We had no money for basic repairs to the house even, wind and rain came in, it was FREEZING. I remember one week the electric got cut off - and cos we hadn't enough money to settle the bill, it stayed off. We ate mashed potato like every day and our school uniforms were patched and patched and patched again. It was tough. Having said that, we had a beautiful place to live and weren't afraid to go out for fear of other people (largely cos none lived in a 5 mile radius!). It was hardly Famous 5 but it does mean I'm triple hard about the cold now, no central heating for me!

Oli said...

England is a racist country - but I can't think of a country that isn't, off the top of my head.

The American South is obviously the poster boy for intolerance, but pretty much every country is intolerant of someone.

Gypsies are a popular whipping boy in England currently - people who'd be offended by a joke about a black guy or an Asian will still laugh at a Gypsy joke.

Jon Peacey said...

Anya, sounds a bit like my Dad's thing except without the BSE. He grew up in the middle of nowhere and for at least his first decade or so lived in a house that had no electric, gas, water, 'indoor plumbing'. I don't really understand how they managed but according to him it was a case of not knowing anything else (and a lot of the others in his area didn't have anything much either): that was during the 50's and into the early-60's. Of course, this has made him immune to the cold and while I grew up in 'comparative' affluence in a centrally heated house he had to keep windows open all the time 'to let the air in' right through the winter... which was not much fun during the hard 81/2 (?) Winter. He still occassionaly falls back into a near-parody of the Python's Yorkshiremen sketch.

I went to a primarily white school with a heavy emphasis on sport and I had trouble: I was one of those who 'didn't fit', my background didn't have enough money, I didn't have the right way of speaking and I was (still am) terrible at sport not least of all due to my slight build. Bullies love people who can't fight back. For some reason, the 5 or 6 non-white pupils never had any problems with racism quite possibly because they all had money and were all good at sport.

Jon Peacey said...

I'd actually agree with both Oli and Steve: they both have a valid points.

While Britain has got some racism it is nowhere near as bad as any other country I can think of: so 'least worst' would seem to apply but is nothing to be too smug about.

However, consider France where they had to vote for one Presidential candidate because the alternative was Le Penn. Consider the US where it's a toss up as to which notion is more divisive: the non-white Obama or the female Clinton. Turkey persecutes Kurds; Arab Africans persecute black Africans in Darfur; there are still lynchings in the US' Deep South (remember the black man chained to a bumper and dragged several miles), Neo-Nazis kill Turks in Germany...

Considering the massive number of immigrants that have come to Britain over the last 5 or so years there have been surprisingly few serious incidents and we have proved 'relatively' tolerant. Imagine, for comparison, the reaction if a million Algierians appeared in France over the next 5 years!

What is rarely mentioned is the inter-minority racism: Oldham has been mentioned above but does anybody remembered the riots, violence and death in Birmingham when a rumour started several nights of race riots between the Asian and Black communities? The two most (overtly) racist people I knew were an North African Arab who hated blacks and Jews; and an Indian bloke who loathed blacks and thought whites were a pig-ignorant, lazy, inferior race. When my sister went to University in London she lived in a mainly Asian area and was the subject of racism for being white. I am NOT trying to defend white racism by re-directing the argument just pointing out something which isn't often mentioned.

Sadly, I have started to wonder whether the bleak reality is that the human race is, for whatever reason, hard-wired to prejudice.

Jon Peacey said...

I'm actually now quite concerned that someone will now brand me as racist for my last comment. This would be unfair and wrong. It does remind me of something else I think is important.

I would rather like to write something that features a criminal organization. This is causing me some 'angst' to say the least. Every way I look at it I keep coming to the conclusion that I will have to have non-specifically nefarious white criminals for fear that focusing on any particular activity will lead to accusations of racism because certain activities are the province of certain groups. For example, virtually all home-grown British marijuana is produced by Vietnamese gangs (ditto Canada), while people traffiking is mainly down to Eastern European and Chinese (so-called 'snakehead') gangs. I am concerned about including anything that might be considered a black name for a criminal and I won't use Islamic sounding names because of Theo Van Gogh.

...and if you think this is unecessary paranoia consider that Tony Todd's casting in Candyman was controversial and American Gangster is currently drawing fire.

Lucy said...

Anya - good grief, you just described my teenage years down to a tee AND my husband's... His family's assets were severely affected by BSE too and my parents' business was killed off by the early 90s recession... We both grew up in old, freezing cottages in the middle of nowhere (and incidentally spent hours walking across fields so we could go to the pub) and now the kids often complain we don't have enough heating or the windows open too much, the soft little gits ; )

Oli - too right. It's weird how there can be an "accepted" way of slagging someone off... Unaware of the gypsy thing but round here it's "pikeys". No idea what the hell that is even, all seems so juvenile.

Jon - could you actually get any more in there?!? I think too be honest there's a case for paranoia re: organised crime... Sopranos didn't draw anything particular that I was aware of (though I didn't watch the show admittedly, not 'cos it wasn't good, but it was always on too late for me), but there are things that are *particular* to certain cultures, especially organised crime. The Mafia obviously, but also Triads, Yakuza, etc and I've read many scripts with all these in and not thought them racist for including them.

Jon Peacey said...

"Could you actually get any more in there?!?"

Yep, I was scratching down notes as I was following the argument and barely touched on half I'd jotted down! Trust me, you got off lightly!!! Mwahahahaha!

The Sopranos was threatened with legal action by the National Italian-American Foundation, an anti-defamation group in America. (I think they were set up in the wake of The Godfathers [1&2].)

It could well just be that I'm reaching a level of advanced paranoia! I don't want to find myself successful and suddenly have it all taken away by somebody thinking I've libelled an entire ethnicity!

Re: Gypsies, Pikeys et al... Pikeys is another name used for Irish Travellers but is also used to describe Gypsies, Roma and Tinkers. The term's origins are unknown but some think it may be a contraction of 'turnpike'. Some also see it as interchangable with chav (see [the awful] Catherine Tate Show).

While prejudice against the people is hard to justify it is less hard to see where it comes from: in my county roads and laybys are blocked up to prevent access to fields or to stop the road itself being purloined for use as an ad hoc campsite. It costs thousands to repair the damage that has been left: rubbish, effluent, torn down trees, motor-oil poured into streams, etc. There was (note the tense) a specified site prepared with piped gas, electricity and full shower blocks (which is more than most councils will provide)... the first group (Gypsies, if I remember right) who came treated the site well then the second group (Travellers, I think) came and tore out all the piping from the place. The money wasn't there to repair the damage so the site was no longer up to scratch and was closed down. Something similar happened down Forest way, all the beams were sawn out and removed from the shower block and the building had to be condemned. Again the site ended up closed.

So, while prejudice against the people is completely wrong, witnessing their activities or the aftermath can go some way to making such prejudices more explicable.

Gavin Williams said...

@ Jon

I don't think you should be too worried about featuring any of the criminal organisations you are thinking about as long as your research is sound and you write fully-fleshed out people not cliches (which I'm sure you would).

Furthermore, just because a piece of fiction draws complaints doesn't mean those complaints are founded. Almost ALL drama is complained about by someone, and race is - perfectly understandably - a sensitive issue for many people. Still, I can understand that you might not want to risk it for the sake of an easy life. Still, best not to capitulate to that angst if you have an idea you really want to write and can justify its "reality" and "world".

One thing, however- have you considered making your protagonist someone from the same background as the gangs? e.g. a British Vietnamese detective. It's quite a well-worn answer to your dilemma, but it does have the dual benefit that as well as getting you away from what some might see as a "white-guy good-guy/ minority-guy bad-guy" set-up it actually *generates* more drama (the detective is investigating "his own", so to speak- literally if you brought in a familial connection i.e. a brother or whatever). Just a thought.

Paul M said...

One of my Bang2writers made the assertion that we should write with a particular actor in mind and if that actor is then black, you should specify that character is also black but this doesn't work for me just on the basis of maths:

Actually it wasn't my assertion, I got this from Chris Soth -- that you should basically write for an already well established actor. Although, having said that, I had already begun to think about just who would play the roles within my screenplay anyway, which helped greatly with their character (in my mind anyway!).

"and if that actor is then black, you should specify that character is also black"

- those are your words not mine. Sorry, have to make that clear. I didn't make this conclusion. "Lazarus" was black in my mind from way back, then I thought of Forrest Whitaker for the part. I decided on Laz being a black man, because I wanted to represent someone who had suffered victimisation as an aspect of his bitterness and urges to strike back. Also, how many great villans these days are ever black? It's not politically correct is it? I think of it as the same as deciding or choosing to make your hero a woman in a male dominated arena.

I'm in no way shape or form a racist, not that I'm saying I'm being accused of this ;-) my mother is South African. She lived through aparteid, and unfortunately still suffers incidents born of racism in the good old clean streets of Bournemouth town.

I'm still learning this game (writing) and my views are far from crystalised yet. So...I'm leaning towards not specifying him as an "African-american" now, because I hope it will be obvious to whoever reads the screenplay anyway.

Useful and interesting debate.

Keep up the good work Luce!
Your passion is to our advantage.

Yours sincerely,
Paul Edward Morris

And. "Thanks. A million"

Lucy said...

Jon - don't know if I like the notion that any prejudice is understandable, just on the basis that all of us are annoying, difficult, damaging etc to another in some sort of context.

Gavin - investigating "your own" is a good way of getting round this problem and as you say, creates more conflict.

Paul - outed yourself! Well, well... Not had that before. I used the word "assertion" because you were so passionate about it and I didn't know that Chris Soth thinks this too, interesting. As for PC and black villains, I think there's some merit in that notion of political correctness IF a character is only black because they are... Given your character's evillness is not as a direct result of his victimisation (but the event you have him go after your protag), I just didn't see why he *needed* to be black, 'tis all. I think there's enough negative role models, but even regardless of that I didn't see it affecting the story if he was either.

Steve said...

I think what's understandable is that people (in groups) are prone to prejudice and witch-hunts. Of course it's not defensible -- but it is understandable in as much as people are scared by difference and can be manipulated on that basis.

I too didn't "fit", though I generally avoided bullying since I had a habit of fighting back (eventually) -- I wonder if there are many writers who did "fit"?

To be a writer you have to get outside, look at things objectively, and be able to take other people's viewpoints. This is not a common skill -- which is a shame.

Racism couldn't exist if everyone were capable of "being" the other person.

Anyway I wrote loads more but I was just rambling so I'll stop now.

Lucy said...

"Racism couldn't exist if everyone were capable of "being" the other person."

Well said, Steve - though unfortunately the xenophobic part of ourselves will always rear its ugly head at some point I guess, usually as a result of an experience where someone has been intolerant of us in some way, it's the ultimate negative domino effect.

Fighting back doesn't always stop bullies though, at least not for me. People who are bullied are often portrayed on the telly as timid or "asking for it" in some way... Another misrepresentation as far as I can see.

Jon Peacey said...

“don't know if I like the notion that any prejudice is understandable, just on the basis that all of us are annoying, difficult, damaging etc to another in some sort of context.”

I made sure I chose the word very carefully… I say ‘understandable’ NOT ‘justifiable’. I believe it’s most important to understand where a prejudice comes from because without understanding the root cause it is impossible to address the issues: ultimately the prejudiced is just labelled as ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’ which could be seen as being as blinkered as the way the prejudiced perpetrator sees their own victim. If a white versus Asian race riot is provoked by a perceived inequality of provided services should the Council call the white community ignorant racists and dismiss them or address the perceived inequality and improve services to both communities while attempting better integration and understanding between the two groups?

(In the case of the Sites I mentioned, the truly sad part is that these sites were originally put there with the support of the local community. After the vandalism and trouble that support evaporated. The thoughtless actions of the few created a prejudice against the whole where none had existed previously.)

Jon Peacey said...

PS: I now await your opprobrium... Eeep!

Lucy said...

Opprobium... Lol. I'm not admonishing you Jon, I'm just wondering if understanding the reason for prejudice is neccesary, as opposed to the notion of understanding, full stop. You're entitled to think what you like. I'm understanding like that ; )

Jon Peacey said...

Isn't what I said similar to a research scientist needing to understand the disease before creating the cure?

Anyway, I was expecting much opprobrium from, well, pretty much everybody. I seem phenomenally good at making people cross... on race, on writing, on unions, on anything... ironically mainly when I'm trying to agree with people! I could comment on a column on fluffy bunnies and I'd manage to get people riled up! It's all rather strange as I'm actually quite a peacable chap...

Lucy said...

Peaceable... V gd, I should hope so with a name like yours!!

I wouldn't say racism is a disease any more than love is a drug, personally. I think it's more useful to talk about tolerance, not the "whys" of people who are intolerant.