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The Villain of the Piece

I’ve seen ‘The Social Network’, written by Aaron Sorkin a couple of times, deeply impressed by the script’s vibrant construction and razor sharp dialogue. The film’s prologue, a break up ceremony between a fictional Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, is one brilliant bit of writing, one that stands on its own as a scene, while establishing the themes of class envy, blinding intelligence and casual misogyny that weave through the narrative like threads in a finely tailored suit.

There was an outcry by some very smart women that ‘The Social Network’ not only depicts sexism but is sexist itself, falling victim to the evil it attempts to illustrate. Any acute depiction of a condescending attitude toward women is likely to make folks uncomfortable, especially the people being depicted as objects of scorn. “The fact that the real Zuckerberg has had a real life long term relationship made some feel the salty nerd Sorkin created in ‘The Social Network’ was a violation of the truth and a ruse played upon a gullible audience.

But ‘The Social Network’ is not journalism and I didn’t expect fidelity to the facts when I entered the multiplex. (All screenwriters know “based on a true story” is as reliable a barometer of accuracy as the dealer in a three card monte game.) My feeling was that Sorkin was using the fictional Zuckerberg as a metaphor for the insecure boy’s club that is Silicon Valley and the world of net nerds worldwide.

If this fact doesn’t satisfy the film’s female critics, believe me I understand. The most talked about African-American feature film of 2010 is ‘For Colored Girls,’ Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1970s play/poem that features black male characters who are cruel, alcoholic, rapists, wife beaters and child killers.The play is a touchstone of black feminism and I don’t believe there’s a working black actress in Hollywood who hasn’t been in at least one production. In Perry’s film there is one good dude (a policeman and husband) just as in Sorkin’s script there is a smart, perceptive attorney played by Rashida Jones amid a world of Facebook groupies.

But ‘For Colored Girls’ is never gonna be a black man’s favorite viewing experience. And why should it be? Like Sorkin in ‘The Social Network’, Perry has a point of view on sexual relations that defines the work they created and they follow it through with gusto. I have no problem with ‘For Colored Girls’ existing (though I didn’t love the filmmaking.) It wasn’t made for me and I’m not the audience for it. Art with no viewpoint is just product and we have more than enough of that. But it does sting when you find yourself the villain of the piece.

Pitching With Shades

Nelson George

In the fall of 1990 I, along with three friends/collaborators, participated in my first true Hollywood pitch meeting. It was at the office of a then active, now defunct, boutique production company with snazzy offices over on Sunset in West Hollywood, back when many a hip film and music enterprise called that area home. My partners and I had all just flown in from New York. I was jet lagged, nervous and self-conscious. I was wearing shades (eg: sunglasses). It wasn’t to act cool (since this clearly made me seem like a jerk), but as a form of protection against both Hollywood and my desire for acceptance.

I both very much wanted to be a movie screenwriter and was fearful of what being one would do to me. Twenty years ago I was deeply invested in being a cutting edge New York journalist who knew everyone and everything going on in black pop culture. Hip hop music and Spike Lee’s movies were expanding the culture’s commercial reach and I was one of the folks chronicling this historic wave. But I was in my early 30s and acutely aware that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing about other peoples’ success. I wanted to be on the other side of the story. I wanted to create cultural product others would talk about.

Eventually I took the sun glasses off and signed a deal to co-write a low budget comedy that would be released in fall 1991. I remember at one point during the negotiations I got a ridiculously low ball offer for my contract and a producer told my attorney saying, “Tell Nelson everyone gets raped in their first Hollywood contract. Just tell Nelson to bend over and enjoy it.”

Well, I didn’t enjoy the deal, but I very much profited from the film getting made. The difference between being a produced screenwriter and an un-produced screenwriter is huge. I got in the Writers Guild. I got invited to more screenings and premieres. I was suddenly treated as a professional and not one of the countless wannabe’s hawking a dream.

Looking back I realize how fortunate I was to be part of a pop culture moment when black film was embraced by studios and independents. As a result of meetings in 1990, the next year saw the release of BOYZ IN THE HOOD, NEW JACK CITY, FIVE HEARTBEATS, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, JUNGLE FEVER, STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN, STRICTLY BUSINESS (the film I co-wrote) and several other features. All in all 1991 may have been the greatest year in African-American film history with Oscar nominated films, big box office success, art films and a slew of dynamic young talents introduced.

Aside from Tyler Perry’s prodigious output few African-American themed films get released theatrically in the 21st century. Of course niche films, be they black, art house or foreign, are not really part of the mix at multiplexes across America. Sure we have the internet, cable, VOD, etc as new pipelines, but none of these means of distribution has yet to launch a culture defining feature along the lines of BOYZ. Hopefully it’ll happen soon.

So until then I, a grateful product of a more hopeful time, can’t help but mourn the absence of African-American life on screen (and TV too) in an epoch when a black family resides in the White House.
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Nelson George is an award winning author and filmmaker who specializes in documenting about African-American culture. His screenplays include “Strictly Business,’ ‘CB4,’ and ‘Life Support,’ an HBO film that he also directed. He has executive produced a number of television shows, such as VH1′s Hip Hop Honors and BET’s ‘American Gangster,’ and George produced the feature documentary Good Hair. Among his award winning non-fiction books are The Death of Rhythm & Blues and Hip Hop America. His memoir, City Kid, is now available in paperback and his next novel, The Plot Against Hip Hop, is being published next fall. His web site is www.nelsondgeorge.net.