Because Josh Said So (Notes on a Revision)

whitewallet2As 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

acter at all. It was her nemesis who took the most action, setting off the farthest reaching chain of events; so the story seemed to belong to him, Josh asserted.josh teaching class

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 awalter and famrtist 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.

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When Walter Met Hattie

Hat and WaltWalter Frances White and Hattie McDaniel (left, center) met only once, but they spent years obsessed with one another.

They shook hands briefly during the summer of ’42, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which Walter headed, held its annual convention in Los Angeles. The Academy Award-winning actress also attended. I have to imagine that they got corralled into the picture by L.A.’s Mayor Bowron (right) because by then Hattie and Walter were on each other’s #*%@ list.

A couple of years ago, I made the trek cross country to the Beinecke Library at Yale to learn more about Walter, whose papers are there. White was light skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, yet his family had black and white roots. (An ancestor was President Harrison, who before he became Commander-in-Chief, fathered children with one of his slaves.) Gutsy, Walter went undercover to investigate lynchings; arranged legal defense for the Scottsboro boys; and leveraged the might of the NAACP to advance black rights on multiple fronts, setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.

Though it started in 1909, the NAACP didn’t gain momentum until 1915, when chapters began to form around the country to protest Birth of a Nation, which depicted black people as dangerous, ignorant brutes who had no business being free. The film glorified and reignited the Ku Klux Klan, which gave rise to Jim Crow, so the NAACP took the depiction of black people in films seriously from the gate. So when McDaniel won the Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she popped up on Walter’s radar as the most visible symbol of the kind of stereotypical role he wanted to shut down.

To be fair to Hattie and the black actors who starred in the films of the 30’s and ’40s, neither America, nor Hollywood, was particularly enlightened about race. (I’m sure some of you are thinking, and they still aren’t, but stay with me here…) Hattie grew up in poverty, and struggled to keep her career afloat during the Depression, which lasted well into the 1930’s. She was, as so many were, grateful for steady employment.

I became fascinated by the relationship between Hattie and Walter, in part because of a few lines in one of her biographies, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, by Carlton Jackson: “She had a fear of being plunged back into her earlier conditions of indigence… thoughts like these made Hattie feel as thought Walter White was trying to grab the bread right out of her mouth.”

At the Beinecke, researching Walter, I saw a Yale student newspaper, which said something about Dean Kim Goff-Crews. I knew the name: She’s the great niece of Hattie McDaniel. I emailed her, and she told me to stop by. Her great aunt—through Hattie’s older sister, Etta–had died about a decade before Goff-Crews was born, but family memory of the parties Hattie threw; the way she doted on her nephews; and her legendary generosity lived on.

The more I thought about how their energies became enmeshed, the less surprised I was that when I came looking for Walter, I also found Hattie.

Photo: WinkFlash