An Open Letter To Black Screenwriters

UPDATE: Since writing this article I decided to do something about the lack of diversity in Hollywood by shooting a documentary focused on finding solutions to the problem. Please support the Kickstarter that's going on NOW by spreading the word using #endtheblackout and sharing this link: http://kck.st/1pkqLIi

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Dear screenwriters,

I’m a film critic in the DC area. During a recent screening of “Think Like A Man Too” I couldn’t help but notice that my mind was split between enjoying the film as a viewer but being disappointed as a critic. I felt that the magic that made the first movie was gone. Instead of hitting on universal themes, the movie went after cultural cliches and manchild humor.  We have to do better, and it starts at the script level. I'm writing to you because you are our story, you know it best, and we're in need of quality black storytelling. (*It should be noted that "Think Like A Man" wasn't written by African Americans, but that furthers the point of this letter.)

Why does it matter? Should it?

I love movie franchises like “Think Like A Man” or even “Why Did I Get Married?” as a movie goer because I see myself and my family represented on the big screen. I even enjoy the specific humor in them and get caught up watching them during the millionth showing on TBS. As a movie critic, however, I feel like the black audience is getting fed chitterlings because it’s what we've been handed from Hollywood so many times and the majority of us haven’t been exposed to anything cinematically better. If movies are a mirror of ourselves as a human race, I’m afraid of what these types of movies are affirming for our culture. It limits the scope of who we are to stereotypes. It’s certainly not healthy nourishment for my black movie IQ, and it sure isn’t healthy for our non-black brothers and sisters having a seat at the table to dine on a predominantly black film. 

Just look at the difference between “Think Like a Man” and “Think Like A Man Too”. The first film had a tight structure, and interesting love stories. Sure there were some stereotypes and it wasn’t a classic, but each couple fought through the insecurities and vulnerability of dating to try and find love. That’s what everyone does in real life. While each couple played into a particular image, it worked well for the movie and in the end we got to see black love on the big screen and a surprise hit was born.

In “Think Like A Man Too”, the competition is no longer about winning each other’s heart but who can throw the best bachelor/bachelorette party. Let’s stop here. When the stakes are someone’s heart on the line, we get timeless movies like “Love & Basketball”, “Brown Sugar”, “The Best Man” or “Love Jones”. When the stakes are who can throw the best bachelor party we get “Think Like A Man Too”. It’s a fun movie, but in no way does it cut through the boundaries of race and tell a universal story. It may garner success for opening weekend, but ten years from now it will be forgotten.

Not all movies have to be deep, or move black storytelling forward. Yet, there’s a reason that you can be powerfully affected by “Schindler's List” without being Jewish, “Erin Brocovich” without being a single white mother or “12 Years A Slave” without being black.  These films have cultural specifics but universal themes. 

Wrap It Up

What’s my point? While the majority of this letter is addressing the latest black romantic comedy release, it goes for all of our films. When we actually can get a predominately black film squeezed through the pipeline to a nationwide release that’s a victory. While we don’t need to, nor should we, conform our films to make what we think will be a smash based on other mainstream films, we shouldn’t settle for cliche’d storytelling. If we make films that we know, that have heart and a universal story, I believe that box office success will come. Even if it didn’t, at least more positive and well-rounded images of our culture would be going out into the world!

I’m not just a critic who says “here’s the problem” and drops the mic. I’ve had a State of Black Cinema Panel episode on my TV show Picture Lock that addressed some of these issues, and I plan to have another in season 3 to continue to talk about solutions. I'm also a filmmaker as well. So I can identify with the process of writing a solid script. I write this because I know I’m not alone. I know that there are plenty of us, black and white, that expect and want to see more from films from our perspective and culture. There are plenty of us who don’t mind chittlins once or twice a year at grandma’s, but prefer organic food year round. So I’m hoping to reach that student that’s about to write that script, or the seasoned writer that’s fed up but is trying to keep food on his/her family’s plate by writing “what sells”. Don’t write what sells. Let Tyler have his lane. He’s good at what he does for a reason and we need his perspective, but those films will never be in the National Film Registry (no disrespect Mr. Perry). Write what you know. Write from your heart. Write universal stories and characters. We need that more than anything so that we can get past the abundance of chittlins and dine on the Ryan Cooglers, Ava DuVernays, Justin Simiens, Dee Rees (if you don't know these names please google them) and other great black filmmakers presently putting out great work that you can help get exposed. That combination is undeniable, and how classic movies are made! 

Thanks,

Kevin Sampson

Critic/Host of Picture Lock

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.