As I told the writing teacher the eight most important turning points in my script—a k a story beats—I thought: He’s only half listening. But Josh Hoover of Thunder Studios got it, and his suggestions made me open up my screenplay and whack 12 pages right off the top.
“Often, your story starts too soon,” he shared in his 2-day class, now taught monthly at Long Beach Public Access Digital Network (PADNET). Then he said something that provoked an even more radical shift in my screenplay: That my main character didn’t sound like the main char
I’d heard this before, but when he added his voice to the chorus, it felt like a consensus. So in paring away the first 12 pages, which had established actress Hattie McDaniel’s journey as the one the audience would take, I’m instead introducing the NAACP‘s Walter Francis White’s first, and am now beginning to chart the tale more through his eyes and sensibilities.
The shift is uncomfortable for me. Walter was a gutsy businessman, traveling globally, and going toe to toe with Congressmen, Presidents and other world leaders. I relate more to Hattie, the woman and artist, who often struggled. But why wouldn’t I welcome the opportunity to step into Walter’s more imposing shoes? Probably because it scares me to assume authority for touching so widely on the evolution of black culture, as he did, from arts to politics, from law to education, and beyond.
Truth is though, Walter was also an artist and an author. Helping to initiate the Harlem Renaissance, he hungered to spend more of his time writing. No doubt I’m drawn to the story of these two, born two weeks apart–Walter on July 1, 1893, and Hattie on June 18, 1893, according to the US 1900 Census–because they’re more alike than they are different. They both sought progress in their own ways, but perceived it differently.
My friend, Jill Dotlo, saw a natural connection between my astrological chart and Walter’s nearly three years ago. “No wonder you picked him,” she said, noting that we’re both Mercury in Fire people (Mercury in Leo, Aries or Sagittarius), who express themselves with vigor, confidence, and enthusiasm, even when their plans may not be practical. His Jupiter is on my Moon: You evoke joy and a sense of adventure, but can also overdo it. And his Pluto is on my Mars—”Whoa!” Jill exclaimed—which is often a powerful indicator of intrigue.
So maybe I was born to write about Walter’s expansive accomplishments, incorporate Hattie’s impressive range as an artist, and continue to develop my own character by blending the best of theirs.
Top: Walter’s wallet at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; center, Josh Hoover’s class at PADNET, Long Beach, CA; bottom, Walter and his family at home in Harlem circa the late 1930s.