It must have seemed like an unbeatable recipe. Take a sensitive script by novelist of note Trey Ellis, add the raw power of independent director Matty Rich in his first Hollywood assignment, and presto-a movie called The Inkwell that’s sure to draw praise and make back its estimated $5 million budget. But it isn’t working out so smoothly. Through the power of hindsight, in fact, the plan looks half-baked. As The Inkwell opens nationwide on April 22, Trey Ellis has become his own movie’s loudest critic, charging not only that Rich took a good story and made it silly, but also that the young creator of Straight Out of Brooklyn has done a disservice to his race.
Better known as the author of two poignant novels (Platitudes and Home Repairs), Ellis, 31, worked for more than two years on the screenplay of The Inkwell. He wanted to direct it, too, envisioning the semiautobiographical story—set in the black vacation enclave of Inkwell Beach on posh Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.—as ”something beautiful, bittersweet, elegant,” as ”a black Summer of ’42.” Disney was receptive, and in 1992 its Touchstone Pictures agreed to take the movie on. But nothing turned out as Ellis hoped, and for that he blames Rich, a 22-year-old who seems to like taking potshots at his elders.
Ellis’ complaints began after Disney decided that The Inkwell needed a director with some experience. He says he could handle the disappointment—”I thought I could learn from (the director),” he recalls—but Disney kept suggesting Matty Rich.
Rich had made his debut in 1991, at 19, when Straight Out of Brooklyn won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. The gritty story of a family living in a Red Hook public housing project, Brooklyn put Rich among John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles, and other directors of the so-called Black New Wave. But the film’s unrelenting naturalism—it turns on poverty, domestic violence, drugs, and gunplay—and its crude craftsmanship didn’t make Rich an obvious choice for the genteel Inkwell.
”I wanted someone who’d been of age in ’76, who understood the milieu of the black bourgeoisie,” the author says. Even Disney executives agree that Rich doesn’t fit the profile; he was only 4 years old in 1976, lived in Red Hook until age 10, then moved to a better neighborhood nearby. David Hoberman, president of Walt Disney/Touchstone, allows that ”It was certainly a stretch for him.”
Still, in Feburary 1993, after Rich assured Ellis that he liked his script, Ellis reluctantly approved hiring the director. Only then did he realize he’d been ”snookered,” Ellis says. Rich, who dropped out of New York University film school because he thought it racist, immediately asked for rewrites from Ellis, a graduate of Andover and Stanford University. ”(Rich) said my script wasn’t black enough,” the novelist says. ”I think it wasn’t stereotypically black enough.”
According to Ellis (Rich would not comment for this story), the director took a tale focused on a 16-year-old boy learning about love and injected ”silly class-warfare” comedy into it. ”Now it’s more like What’s Happening! The Movie,” Ellis asserts. First Rich tried making the main character’s schoolteacher father a garbage man. Disney nixed that, but he had more changes; about a month into their collaboration, Rich replaced Ellis and brought in screenwriter Paris Qualles, whose credits include episodes of Amen and China Beach.
”The characters are essentially the same—it’s just that the story didn’t work,” Qualles contends, yet Disney’s Hoberman offers the opposite rationale: ”The plot and everything else are the same. It’s really the characters that Trey saw differently.”
Ellis claims that once he was gone, Rich had the father ”drinking Colt 45 malt liquor and saying motherf—er.” Another alteration puts the characters in ’60s Afros and bell-bottoms, even though the story is set in 1976. In addition, the hero’s dog, a dalmatian in Ellis’ script, has become a doll. ”The dog was his only really good friend, like a boy and his dog, like a lot of kids,” Ellis says. ”I don’t know any 16-year-olds that talk to dolls.”
When The Inkwell was shown at Sundance this winter, reviewers criticized its ungainly combination of broad humor and pathos, but Disney is standing by Matty Rich. Says Alex Schwartz, a Disney VP who worked on the movie, ”We thought he’d bring something interesting to the mix.”
Qualles agrees. ”Matty has wonderful instincts, and that’s not a slight, that’s a compliment (to) someone who doesn’t have the breadth of experience or even the training,” he says. ”He was working from the gut. That’s where Straight Out of Brooklyn came from, and for the most part he’s right on.”
For Ellis, the ultimate issue is what kind of stories black filmmakers should be telling. ”So much of (The Inkwell is now) about black dysfunction,” he says. ”We black people want to see ourselves going to school, going to work, kissing each other. The black middle class are not very different from the white, meaning that they try to send their kids to school and make their house payments. They’re still as black as any gang-banger or welfare mother.”
Rich has never seen things that way. When Straight Out of Brooklyn and Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever both came out in the summer of ’91, Rich dismissed his competition as a ”middle-class third-generation college boy.” Lee told People at the time, ”It’s that kind of ignorant thinking that has black kids failing on purpose in class.”
Ellis compares Rich’s work—the director recently sold a pilot concept called Red Hook to Warner Bros. and Fox TV—to ”Stepin Fetchit, black minstrels—making black entertainment for a white audience. That’s the trap young Mr. Rich has fallen into. I tried to explain it to him, but he’s got the right thing on one side and a paycheck on the other and he made the wrong choice.”
There are those involved who say that for someone with so many complaints, Ellis has had little trouble cashing his checks. Says Qualles, ”This movie wasn’t going to get made when I came in.” Ellis, the author of 11 screenplays in various stages of development, counters, ”Everyone said, ‘How far can it go wrong?”’ Then he laughs and adds, ”I have a new big house. I call it the house that Matty built.”
What he doesn’t have is his name in lights. Ellis, who’s writing something new for Disney, substituted the pseudonym Tom Ricostronza in The Inkwell‘s credits. The first name—well, the first name speaks for itself. And the last loosely translates from the Italian as full of excrement.