a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sometimes, You Can Be TOO Politically-Correct....

When I write a script, I write the characters without mentioning what race they are, and why should I? Unless the script specifically deals with race, or there is a situation in a script in which race matters, the casting should be color-blind, even in the writer's head.

When I read scripts, though, the words that are most often used are "black", or "African-American". The latter is considered the more politically-correct, and is generally the fallback for many writers.

But maybe it has become too ingrained. I recently read a script in which characters were described as being "African-American" throughout.

The problem? The script was set in Africa. The characters were African people, with dark skin, who lived in Africa their entire lives, who had never been to America, nor knew anyone in America.

Note to writers -- if you want readers to take your script seriously, try to avoid the things that will make them erupt into dumb-founded laughter.


At 6:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'off the mark' or 'unaware' rather than PC, I would say Scott.

Speaking from Cape Town I'd say the US is 'blue sky' in terms of its influence on young Africans here...

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Dave said...

I agree with the whole 'color-blind' thing in your script. I know some folks want to cast their script, but unless you have casting power, why rule anybody out?

My biggest eye-opener was Lethal Weapon. There is no mention of Danny Glover's role being African-American. It was just great casting.

I imagine there are times when your character must be of a specific race or sex due to the subject matter, in that case I would agree it's necessary to mention. Otherwise, let the casting agents try and find the best person, regardless of race for your part.

At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Leif Smart said...

That's almost a great comedy scene / skit in itself!

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In general, if the race of a character is not mentioned, it is assumed the character is white. Yes, people get cast in roles that were written for another ethnicity. Danny Glover gets the white cop in Lethal Weapon and Sarah Polley gets a black character in Go. But for the most part, white is the default.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Webs said...

I won't mention race unless it's a story point. Which, actually, is pretty good advice for anything you're putting in a script.

Everybody in a project has a job. The writer's is story. Let the costumer worry about clothes and the casting director worry about cast.

Of course, there are times when clothes, or whatever, are a story point....

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Formerly, The Dude Spoke said...

Thanks for pointing out how bad my script is Scott.

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Dave - Re: LETHAL WEAPON - it's even weirder than you think. An earlier draft of the movie had the father who was running drugs for mercenaries tell Danny Glover's character that his daughter was into everything - sex, drugs, porn. She even slept with "black people"...

(I use that term. The character used another term)

Do I think Shane Black is racist? No, I think he was writing a character who was racist.

And all that changed because Danny Glover came in and got the part.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

Wasn't it Marsilii who joked that Charlize Theron was his favorite African American actor?

I never mention race unless it;s critical to the story, and have had Japanese Americans and African Americans and Mexican Americans and Chinese Americans and European Americans... as well as just plain Europeans and the occasional Chinese dude... play the roles.

But if I'm writing a movie about French people, they are *French* not French Americans.

- Bill

At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Steverino said...

I just finished reading "blink," by Malcolm Gladwell. I recommend this book for any screenwriter who is writing action scenes where the characters make split-second decisions or scenes that could have unconscious stereotypes in them.

Gladwell, who describes himself as half-black, is a Brit who was raised in Canada and who now lives in New York. For obvious reasons, he doesn't call himself African American.

The book illustrates the power of snap decisions, or the ability to size up a situation in a very brief time. Most instances cited in the book are positive ones, such as how one skilled marine's intuitions bested the high-tech arsenal and intelligence capabilities of the entire US armed forces. Other instances present the flawed reasoning of pollers who ask people directly about their feelings. People often lie even when they are trying to tell the truth. Then there are instances where the effect of snap decisions is wholly negative, and many of the cases he presents are about unconscious racial biases. Mind you, none of the biases constitute conscious racism or sexual discrimination. But Gladwell clearly illustrates tragic happenings when a stereotype rules the moment (and by moment he means just that: 1 or 2 crucial seconds).

Below is an inoncuous problem covered in the book that shows how a fixed idea (not quite a stereotype) interferes with reasoning.

Imagine a huge inverted pyramid balanced on its pointy tip. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to tip over. Now imagine that there is a crisp new 100 dollar bill directly under the the tip. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid?

Even though I've seen the problem before, but it still took me a few minutes to figure out.

Here is another one he cites that emphasizes the main point.

A father and his son got involved in a serious accident. The father died, but the son was rushed to the hospital. Upon arrival in the emergency room, the attending doctor looks at the boy and gasps, "That child is my son!" Who is the doctor?

This one took me even longer: ten minutes. I'm not proud of this result. I guess my stereotypes are stronger than I ever suspected.

At 2:43 AM, Blogger D. B. Holden said...

If you write carefully enough, you don't really have to say what race a character is. If his name is "Ngara", or "Mfesi", or "Tyrell" for that matter, people will pretty much assume he's black. Same with language: Black English is it's own dialect, and it sounds different, even on paper. (Though a little goes a long way.)

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you remove the $100 bill?

At 10:25 PM, Blogger suzbays said...

In my English comedy, I did write the character description as African-American b/c the character is indeed black and from the USA and I want the reader to picture her as both of those things.

At 3:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a problem with the default being caucasian (as anonymous pointed out). Specifying that the character is black may not make a ground breaking difference to the plot but when one writes a character, usually, one has a pretty good idea what they look like, whether it's that they have red hair or that they are tall or that they are black. Generally, white people from white backgrounds write stories about white people and unfortunately, the majority of scriptwriters are still white males. I don't personally see anything wrong with trying to throw the net a bit wider. As was previously mentioned, casting directors generally have the final say but I think it is important that the writer develop the characters themselves. How many adaptations of well-loved novels have been balked at because of inappropriate casting for popular characters?


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