Making history: Four acclaimed Black screenwriters on their Oscar-contending films
The writers of Judas and the Black Messiah, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, One Night in Miami, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom get real about the attention paid to films involving Black history.
While all their films were set into motion long before the COVID pandemic reached America, screenwriters Shaka King, Suzan-Lori Parks, Kemp Powers, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson share the unique experience of telling untold stories from Black American history at a converging time where newly released films are the most accessible they've ever been to home viewers, and audiences seem more eager to pay attention to Black art.
For a special Awardist panel, EW gathered the four writers to talk about the initial difficulty of getting their scripts produced, and if the current, seemingly widespread interest in Black stories is a moment or a movement.
"Everyone here, we've been telling the truth since jump," declares Parks, writer of the Hulu film The United States vs. Billie Holiday and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Topdog/Underdog). "I personally appreciate that now perhaps the entire world is more able to hear what we've been saying."
Powers, who adapted One Night in Miami… from his own play, echoed Parks' sentiment, and added that he'd "Always been trying to give voice to characters that I recognize, characters that I feel represent me and represent my community. As we all know, Hollywood is a business. Sometimes, they see a market for the stories you want to tell, and other times they don't."
Director and co-writer of Judas and the Black Messiah Shaka King provided an example of how to work with that: The unconventional framing of his movie about influential Black Panther Fred Hampton "was initially borne out of necessity....In Hollywood, Fred Hampton didn't have the name recognition to where we could make a traditional Fred Hampton biopic, nor do I think his politics lends itself to the studios being super excited about making a Fred Hampton biopic."
As for the work they've done helping make it any easier for more Black stories to be told, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom screenwriter Santiago-Hudson says, "Whether we're being heard or not, it will reveal itself in the next few years. There's a lot of talking going on." He remembers recently asking the head of a studio: "With all this incredible work telling stories where black people are in the center of the world, center of the narrative, how does that change what you green light next?" The executive responded, "Business as usual."
"You can spank people long as you want," Santiago-Hudson says. "And they just get thicker pants."
Watch the full roundtable conversation above.
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