Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
—Martin Luther King
(Rephrasing a 1853 sermon by abolitionist minister Theodore Parker.)

Over the weekend I saw the screenwriter Paul Schrader posted on his YouTube page this interview with Marlon Brando and Johnny Carson from May, 5, 1968. Except that these two entertainment icons are long gone, the content feels like it could have been recorded yesterday—rather than just a month after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed.

P.S. And interesting side note  is Marlon Brando was born in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska and  Johnny Carson was born in Iowa in 1925 and as a youth moved to Norfolk, Nebraska as a youth (about 2 hours northwest of Omaha).  Toss in actor Montgomery Cliff (born in Omaha in 1920), and investor Warren Buffett (born in Omaha in 1930) and you have quite a few of accomplished people coming from one area somewhat around the same time.

Scott W. Smith 

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Note: I can’t think of a week in the past 12 years where I haven’t written a single post on this screenwriting and filmmaking blog. But that’s what happened in the last week of May. George Floyd died on May 25th shortly after being detained by police. The video of an officer with his knee in Floyd’s neck and Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” is disturbing. We don’t have all the facts at this time, but we do have one dead man, heart’s aching, anger, protests, riots, looting, and physical violence across the country. This is just me trying to process the last week.

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. . . . No, we are not satisfied. And we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
—Martin Luther King Jr. quoting the prophet Amos in his “I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963.

Chip&Scott 01062020_2

Directing Chip in a 1984 Student film

When I was 22 years old, I directed a student film starring Chip McAllister. I met Chip in acting classes in Los Angeles and knew that a few years prior, he played Muhammad Ali at age 18 in the film The Greatest (1977). He’s one of the most upbeat and charismatic people I’ve ever met. (And I’m forever grateful to him for introducing me to chicken curry at a Thai restaurant in Hollywood.)

Chip went on to have roles in the TV shows Highway to Heaven, Police Woman, and The Facts of Life, and in the film Weekend Pass. In 2004 he and his wife Kim won the fifth season of The Amazing Race.

But back in 1984, one day before or after acting classes I was talking about a setback of some sorts and Chip smiled and said, “Man, you’re white, you can do anything.” There’s a good chance he doesn’t even remember saying that, but for whatever reason, that line has stuck with me for decades.


Chip in the 1980s

I remember thinking, what does “You’re white, you can do anything” mean? It was the beginning in a shift in perspective for me. Though I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Florida, I did not witness much overt racism around me.

Personally, I wore #42 playing high school football because of Miami Dolphin great Paul Warfield.  Playing second base in baseball, Joe Morgan was the player I most wanted to emulate. My favorite and most inspirational teacher in my entire education was Annye Refoe, Ph.D. Warfield, Morgan, and Refoe are all black. My favorite all-time baseball team, the 1975 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds, is  a case study in peak diversity: César Gerónimo (Dominican Republic), Tony Perez (Cuba), George Foster (Alabama), Dave Concepcion (Venezuela), and Johnny Bench (Oklahoma) among others.

A brief stop as a walk-on football player at the University of Miami did not expose any racism that I could see. (But I could do a documentary on the differences between Overtown and Coral Gables. I’d call it 7 Miles— the distance between the two areas.)  My first 8mm student film used Michael Jackson’s She’s Out of My Life from his Off the Wall album. The 1982 NCAA championship came down to North Carolina beating Georgetown 63-62 and featured three players later voted to the list of the 50 top players in NBA history;  Patrick Ewing, James Worthy and Michael Jordan. All black.

In 1984, Eddie Murphy was at the peak of his powers finishing his SNL run and the release of Beverly Hills Cops. In 1984 Prince and his Purple Rain album and movie made him the first person to have a number one album, a number one song, and a number one movie at the same time. The only person even more popular than Prince and Murphy was Michael Jackson. From February 1983 to April 1984 Jackson’s Thriller album sat at Billboard’s number 1 spot. A record 37 weeks. The Thriller music video, the moonwalk, and the Victory Tour cemented Jackson as the King of Pop.

Also, in 1984 the Los Angeles Lakers, lead by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, put together an amazing run where they finished the season as NBA champs. From my limited perspective of sports and entertainment, black people in 1984 seemed to be doing phenomenally well.  Chip’s “Man, you’re white, you can do anything” comment confused me.

There were a lot of things I couldn’t do. Be as funny as Eddie Murphy, play the guitar like Prince, sing like Michael Jackson, play football like Jerry Rice, or basketball like Magic Johnson. Heck, in 1984 I couldn’t even afford tickets to see the Lakers and the Celtics play .

But that comment worked on me over the years, and I began to realize that there were more Arthur McDuffies in the United States than Michael Jacksons. Who was Arthur McDuffie? While at Miami during the 1981/82 school year, I became familiar with the events surrounding the 1980 Miami riots.

Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance agent,  was said to run a red light on his motorcycle at 1:15 a.m on December 17, 1979, leading police on an 8-minute high-speed chase.  A scuffle ensued, and McDuffie died four days later from head injuries. Police claimed it was from his motorcycle crashing, but the coroner said the injuries weren’t consistent with an accident. Instead, he said, it appeared McDuffie was beaten to death.  It resulted in manslaughter and tampering with evidence charges for six officers. This was in the days long before cell phone videos, and after a four week trial, the officers were acquitted.

Within hours Liberty City erupted in what turned into four days of violence, over $100 million  in damages, and leaving more than 15 people dead. Colin Kaepernick would not even be born until seven years after the Miami Riots.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Line from Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner

It took a while, but I realized what I think Chip’s passing comment meant. That after graduating from film school in 1984 I could meander around the country by myself for six weeks and not think twice about being confronted by racial tension. I got pulled over by police in Moab, Utah and Nashville, Tennessee, during that trip in routine and courteous stops for minor infractions. (And maybe both exploratory pullovers since I was driving an out of state vehicle. But never was I concerned that I might never see my mom again.) I could hike and camp freely, or stop in any store in any town, without a single suspicious glance.

If I started a whole list, I might never finish. Like anyone, I’ve had my share setbacks, and believe I’ve worked hard for my successes. And while it’s not true I can do anything I want—I do understand the sentiment behind that comment. I didn’t grow up in a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood, but the roads in front of me were paved in ways that they weren’t for Chip and his friends.

So I’m committed to listening to the experiences and stories of blacks. I will listen to conversations and debates knowing that there are perspectives that are foreign to me. (I am reminded of a 1997 debate between playwright August Wilson and Robert Brustein that touched on should black actors perform work by white writers.)

Here’s a prime example of “You’re white, you can do anything.” You may have heard the account six weeks ago when NFL great Tom Brady accidentally walked into—yes, walked into—the wrong house soon after he moved to Tampa, Florida.  Realizing he was in the wrong house he apologized and quickly left. The local press, TMZ, the owner, and Brady got a good laugh out of the situation.

Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 7.27.40 PM

No harm, no foul.

Chip is now a realtor in Southern California and in 2014 when he and his wife accidentally went to (to, not in) the wrong house (because they’d been given the wrong address) in an upscale neighborhood in Yorba Linda what do you think happened?

Several Orange County sheriffs came to the scene.

No harm?  No foul? Just a misunderstanding, right? One time, maybe. But if that’s what you and your friends have experienced to one degree or another, time after time, you might think there was a pattern. This is Chip’s video today where he talks about these things from his perspective.

I will gladly stand up when human rights are violated. Every situation has its own circumstances. In time, hopefully, the truth surrounding the death of George Floyd will come to light. Justice can only follow truth. And I do hope the truth prevails, but it’s not going to happen in a few days.

“What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.”
—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
LA Times Op-Ed, May 31, 2020 

May we all take steps toward making this world a place with a little more peace, love, grace, and harmony.

We shall overcome…

P.S. So that’s some of the context behind my 2014 post:
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking

Scott W. Smith








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 “Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama…”
Martin Luther King Jr.
March 25, 1965 address at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march


Back in 2006 after a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi I made a point on my way to Atlanta to drive through Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. I took the above photo as I crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I especially thought of that trip today because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the movie Selma is currently in theaters fresh off a Best Picture Oscar Nomination.

Related Posts:

25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking (From the Screenwriting from Iowa blog)
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #7)
Martin Luther King Day Special (2012)

Scott W. Smith

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“He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village of cows, corn and mud huts in the rolling hills of the Transkei, a former British protectorate in the south.”
NY Times Obituary for Nelson Mandela

“What else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter From Birmingham (1963)

The former leper colony Robben Island  is located in Cape Town, South Africa and covers only two square miles on this great big planet. But I’m into unlikely places—and the people from there— that help nudge the world.

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was an extraordinary man in the truest sense. Extra-ordinary. A troublemaker and an agent fighting for justice and human dignity. And like all extraordinary people from Martin Luther King Jr to Martin Luther, the reformers always have trail of supporters and haters. But the trails they leave behind are more important than even their own remarkable lives.

Mandela died this week and while he never wrote a screenplay (that I know of) while imprisoned 18 years on Robben Island for fighting apartheid, his thoughts and writings that were formed there in a 8-foot by 7-foot concrete cell that had a bucket for a toilet. Ideals that eventually led him to becoming to the first Black President of South Africa.

“The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.”
Nelson Mandela

Mandela is the center of several documentaries and a couple of feature films including the recently released Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. (Screenplay by William Nicholson based on Mandela’s autobiography.)

In 2006 I went to Cape Town, South Africa as cameraman on a documentary. I was looking forward to seeing South Africa up close. My work in production over the years has given me many wonderful opportunities to see both great beauty and human hardship. But I was not prepared for seeing the shanty town—miles and miles of poverty with plywood, metal and cardboard homes— we drove by soon after we left the airport. Cape Town I was told at that time was one of the murder capitals of the world and Johannesburg, South Africa ranked near the top in kidnappings and carjackings. I’m not sure what crime statistics are in South Africa these days but did find a 2010 report that titled Why South Africa is so violent and what should we be doing about it? so I’m guessing there are still many problems there.

“Life is still not good. It has changed for some people, not for others. Some people still have no jobs. People are hungry.”
Siphiwe Mthembu, Mpumalanga
BBC New Online, South Africa: Life Today

Real, meaningful, and lasting change takes time—and a lot of it. Driven through parts of the deep south recently? There are still a few issues there. But go back and read Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail and know that in the last 40 years there has been positive change in the south and the entire United States. I don’t know that King changed the world—but he certainly helped nudge it in the right direction.

“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love)
Above quote spoken by character Henry in The Real Thing: A Play

Children of future generations will speak of Mandela and read his words long after he’s dead, because he too nudged the world a little.

A funeral will be held for Mandela in his birth village Mvezo on December 15, 2013.

Related Post:

Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #7)
Martin Luther King Jr. Special

Related links:
Robben Island Museum
Photos of Mandela’s prison at Time magazine
Nelson Mandela Foundation

Scott W. Smith

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Since today marks the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech given in Washington D.C. I thought I’d pull together many of the links related to Martin Luther King and black writers and filmmakers I’ve written about since I started this blog in 2008. The roots of this blog go back to a creative writing teacher I had in high school named Dr. Annye Refoe—who just happens to be black. She opened to me and other students a new world of creativity, literature & storytelling, and an understanding of the black experience in the United States.

Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #7)
Martin Luther King Jr. Special
Blacks in Black & White
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry
Postcard # 18 (NYC Synagogue)
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Writing & House Cleaning “Whatever your life’s work do it well.” MLK
The Father of Film (Part 2) A look at Birth of a Nation.
The Father of Film (Part 3)
Jackie, Spike & Sanford, Florida
Soul of the Game
President Obama, The Man & Iowa Seeds
First screenplay, Oscar—Precious
40 Days of Emotions (Famous scene of Denzel Washington in Glory)

And I’ll close with this the video below of the multi-media performance of Three Black Kings I edited a couple of years ago with artist Gary Kelley. It was performed live by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Weinberger.

Scott W. Smith

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DSC_0572Proving that all beautiful sunsets aren’t only found at the beach I took the above picture yesterday in Villa Rica. I was in route yesterday from Orlando, Florida to a shoot in Athens, Alabama  when I pulled off Interstate 20 in Georgia between Atlanta and Birmingham because I was intrigued by the name of the historic town. The area was originally Creek Indian territory and received the name Villa Rica in the late 1800s during a gold rush. Villa Rica is derived from Spanish for “rich village.”

I used the street lights and the hood of my rental car to add some design elements to make the sunset shot less pedestrian.

Actress Maidie Norman (1912-1998) —who in 1977 was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame—was born in Villa Rica, and the movie Randy and the Mob (2007) was filmed mostly in Villa Rica. But perhaps most of all, Villa Rica is known as “The Birth Place of Southern Gospel Music.” Thomas A. Dorsey known as the “Father of Gospel Music” was born and raised in Villa Rica.

Dorsey is featured in the 1982 documentary Somebody Say Amen. He wrote the song Take My Hand, Precious Lord which was recorded by Aretha Franklin and  Whitney Houston, and Mahalia Jackson sang it at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.  (It was said to be King’s favorite hymn):

Here’s the Elvis version:

Scott W. Smith

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“Whatever your life’s work do it well.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

“The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the women going about her household task, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.”
Martin Luther

Before David Sedaris became David Sedaris the best-selling author, humorist & storyteller extraordinaire David Sedaris, he was just a college drop out working various jobs including house cleaning. After he was discovered by Ira Glass doing a public reading of his diary he began to gather a following on NPR but still cleaned houses in the day to earn a living. In a radio interview in 1993 Terry Gross interviewed Sedaris asking him if it bothered him that he had to clean houses as his day job instead of devoting his full time to writing.

“I like to think that all work is pretty much equal. It doesn’t really matter what you do—it doesn’t bother me, the work. I like it. There’s a before and an after. I mean I like cleaning someone’s home if they’re really filthy, that’s my favorite. But some of the people I clean for it’s clean when I get there and there’s not really that much for me to do. So you don’t really feel like there is a before and an after. So I’d much rather go to a slobs house… because afterwards they look at it like you’ve done something they could never possibly do. Like you have retuned the engine to the car, like you have removed their kidney. Like you did something that required such skill, and it was a skill that you could ever master.”
David Sedaris
Fresh Air Writers Speak with Terry Gross

His first book was published in 1994 and over the years several books have followed and I think it’s been a while since he cleaned houses for a living. Perhaps one of the reasons that Sedaris embraced his various jobs was because it was not just a paycheck it was material. Material that went into his daily diary and that could one day find itself in one of his books. In 2004 he was nominated for Grammy Award for Best Spoken word for Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Cinemablend announced in May of 2010 that feature film writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier with Practice) had optioned one of the stories from Sedaris’ book Naked.

Scott W. Smith

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©2007 Scott W. Smith

Let’s put political views and rhetoric aside for the day and just step back and look at this moment.

Just a few minutes ago Barack Obama became the first African-America president in the history of the United States.

To put this in perspective when Obama was born in 1961 the Voters Rights Acts that allowed blacks to vote was still four years away from being signed by President Johnson. And when Obama stood before that sea of people in Washington D.C. today he stood on the shoulders of those who went before him. There was Jesse Owens who was shunned by Hitler, there was Jackie Robinson who was shunned by a chunk of the nation, and there was Martin Luther King Jr who was stunned by a bullet.

If we just look at the last 47 years from a racial perspective since Obama’s birth the change while not necessarily swift has been sweeping in scope. Sure there are struggles. There always will be because we are human. But this day is a symbolic mark for the United States.

As far as Screenwriting from Iowa? How about screenwriting and Iowa? Two things come to mind.

Screenwriting: At least in fiction, the first black American president (as far as I know) actually happened back in 1964 in the novel The Man by Irving Wallace which became a film in 1972  starring James Earl Jones as President of the United States with the screenplay written by Rod Serling. The pen has always had power to lead the way which is why Plato wrote a few thousand years ago that poets should be banned as a danger to society.

Iowa: I ended up seeing 12 presidential candidates in this last election and the first one I saw speak was Obama in Oelwein (pop. 6,692), Iowa in the summer of ’07. That’s where I took the above photo. I ended up being hired to videotape him in Waterloo, Iowa and happened to be at the Iowa State Fair when we crossed paths once again. I was always interested to watch the people and how they responded to him. But even as his momentum grew it was still a surprise that he won the Iowa caucus.

And the chances are good that without that win in Iowa Obama wouldn’t have been sworn in as President in Washington today. Depending on your political view you can credit or blame Iowa.

“What you started here in Iowa has swept the nation.” Barack Obama

“I don’t think we’ll ever quite capture the feeling of that night in Iowa when we won. This is hallowed ground for us.” David Axerod
(Huh, this is Field of Dreams territory and sometimes confused with heaven. )

Just one more example of big things having their seeds planted in small places. And let’s all hope that Obama does a great job as President.

And lastly, I’m not a 100% sure but I think those large lights you saw in the wide shot as Obama spoke at the inauguration were Musco lights that are made here in Iowa. They are also not strangers to film shoots where large areas need lit with portable lights.

Words & Photo Copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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How about that Kurt Warner? If you don’t follow pro football you may not know that his underdog story is one of the greatest in sports history. And now, with a win in yesterday’s playoff game, the 37-year-old adds another chapter to his hall-of-fame career by leading the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl. If you like comeback stories Kurt Warner is your guy. And, yes, he does have a connection to little ole’ Cedar Falls, Iowa.

When Warner graduated from Regis High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1990 his dream was to play down the road for the University of Iowa. But he didn’t get a scholarship from them or any Division 1 major college. But he did get an offer from a Division II school, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, where he thought he’d at least get a lot of playing time at a smaller school. But he ended up sitting the bench for three years. 

But in his senior year he was the starting quarterback and at the end of the season he was named Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year and hoped he’d get drafted in the NFL. He didn’t and was cut when he tried out for the Green Bay Packers. He returned to Cedar Falls where he was an assistant coach at Northern Iowa and a stock boy at the local Hy-Vee grocery store. With no NFL teams interested he went on to play arena football for the Iowa Barnstormers in ’96 & ’97 where he was named to the AFL’s all arena team both years. From there he played in Europe where he played for the Amsterdam Admirals and led the league in passing, then he was finally welcomed in the NFL.

He started the 1999 season as a back-up quarterback for the St. Louis Rams and ended up the MVP of the league and after winning the Super Bowl was named the Super Bowl MVP. The press enjoyed telling and retelling the quick rise of the former stock boy to Super Bowl MVP. Then he was injured in a loss at the 2001 Super Bowl and considered a has been by some. He should just retire they said. But he kept doing his thing and now he’s leading a franchise that’s never been to the big game to Super Bowl XLIII.

You can read more about him at KurtWarner.org where he has a foundation called First Things First that among other things provides trips to Disney for children with life threatening conditions, and has helped with flood relief efforts.  

It seems he does just about everything except write screenplays, but maybe he’ll try his hand at that after his football career is over. Some day his story will make an excellant film as it is one full of conflict, struggle, disappointments, loss and faith. Perhaps you can identify with what Warner told Sports Spectrum’s Chuck Swirsky about his unorthodox journey:

“This isn’t how I had it planned. I didn’t want to work in a grocery store then go to Amsterdam and play in the Arena League. But as I look back over my life, I realize that I had a lot of maturing to do. I had a lot of growing in my faith.”

Warner kept his hand on the plow and did his best in whatever arena he was allowed to play. He believed in his dream and his talent even when he wasn’t sure how he was going to pay his bills. Most people won’t find the wild success that Warner has found, but at least his story gives some hope and purpose to taking the bumpy roads of life. And that is fertile ground for writers in life and in the stories they write.

Related posts: Speaking of bumpy roads & faith check out the post Screenwriting & Martin Luther King Jr.


Scott W. Smith

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“I finally figured out we are somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerator.”

Chris in Morning
KBHR, Cicely, Alaska
Northern Exposure

When Sarah (Barracuda) Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate it was textbook solid screenwriting inspired. A nice twist in the story. If it were a movie and she ends up VP I’d call it Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington. Kind of a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic.

How do you offset the first African-American presidential candidate who makes his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 45th anniversary to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How do you offset Obama being raised by a single mom and forgoing a Wall Street career to do social work on the south side of Chicago?

How do you take advantage of millions of women who are upset that Hillary Clinton is not the presidential or VP candidate? How does McCain avoid being seen as just rich and elitist and out of touch with the countries economic problems?

You head north…to Alaska, that’s what you do. You choose their female governor as your running mate.  A “hockey mom” with five kids (pro-family)  including one with Downs Syndrome (pro-life) , a moose hunter (NRA), whose husband is part Yup’ik Eskimo (multiethnic) and a commercial fisherman (working class) and union worker (union), whose parents were teachers (middle class), who has faith (evangelicals), who has brought reform to government there (change), who fought the “bridge to nowhere” (fiscally responsible), whose son joined the Army last year on September 11 (patriotism), and who comes from an area more than 3,500 miles from Washington D.C. (beltway outsider).

As a former broadcaster she is media savvy and can read a teleprompter. And her selection as the first VP GOP candidate came on the 88th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. And to top it off the former Miss Wasilla has the whole sexy librarian thing going on with the glasses and wearing her hair up.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether she’s qualified for the White House, but there is no debate she has a heck of a story. And stories outside L.A. is what this blog is all about.

Is choosing Palin a Hail Mary pass by McCain? If so, he’s old enough to remember when Doug Flutie’s desperation pass beat the mighty Miami Hurricanes back in ’84. Sometimes the high risk pass works.

And for the media, picking Palin is a slice of Hollywood. A political narrative full of conflict. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Palin’s candidacy “will be either dramatically successful or dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.”

We know screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) has written presidential speeches for the Democrats. The talent pool of Republican or conservative screenwriters is not quite as deep (99 to 1?), but I wonder what writer or filmmaker they’ve employed. (Perhaps John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper or David Mamet.)

Maybe it was Hillary’s Hollywood people (Spielberg or Murphy Brown creator Diane English)  suggestion since a Republican victory is Mrs. Clinton’s only chance to make a run in ’12.

No matter the outcome of the election, from a dramatic standpoint McCain couldn’t have written a better script. Well, Palin could have been born in Cedar Falls, Iowa to an African-American mother and a Hispanic father and have captured Bigfoot last week–but let’s not get carried away.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Alaska has been at the heart of many good stories as well as being full of folklore. Say, did you hear the “Little known facts” about Palin? “The Northern Lights are really just the reflection from Sarah Palin’s eyes.” “Sarah Palin doesn’t need a gun to hunt. She has been known to throw a bullet through an adult bull elk.” (Do you know how long it took for Chuck Norris to get that kind of street cred? She did it in one day.)

On second thought, Sarah Palin appears to have more in common with Erin Brockovich than she does Jimmy Stewart. (“You may want to re-think those ties.” Erin, in the movie written by Susannah Grant.) But let’s get back to Alaska.

Stories do flow from Alaska; Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Never Cry Wolf, and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia written by Hilary Seltz , Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Johnny Horton’s number one hit North to Alaska, documentaries by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North)  and Warner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and more recently the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild from the Jon Krakauer book.

But my favorite set of stories that are Alaska-based is what I think of as one of the all-time great TV programs – Northern Exposure. (In my book it’s right up there with The Twilight Zone and Seinfeld.) Though the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington it retains the feel of a small eccentric, creative town you’d like to think exists in Alaska. Some say it is based on the quirky little town of Talkeetna, Alaska and others say the quirky town of Ely, Minnesota, a town near the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters.

In part because of my love for the show I’ve been to  Roslyn, Talkeetna and Ely. (However, I’ve never been to Moosefest.)  I do think the show Northern Exposure in part lead me to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Growing up in Florida steeped on Jimmy Buffett’s songs about Key West, the Caribbean, and paradise mixed with a heavy dose of Walt Disney’s version of Main Street, I think I have always been looking for my own personal Margaritaville. (A place where “My old red bike gets me ’round.”)

Even if you didn’t get into Northern Exposure you’d have to give it points for originality. Where else in the history of TV have you seen two people arm wrestle over the doctrine of transubstantiation or see someone have a conversation with a human-sized dust mite? And isn’t there a little spunky Maggie O’Connell (Janie Turner) in Palin? Yes, Palin even owns a float plane. I’m sure Noexers (as fans of the show are called) have already connected John & Cindy McCain with the older/younger couple Shelly & Holling.

Is it more than a coincidence that one of the co-creators of Northern Exposure went to college just a little over an hour from Cedar Falls? John Falsey is one more MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe winning producer/writer also worked on St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and I’ll Fly Away. (I don’t know much of what he’s done in the last decade. “Where have you gone John Falsey?” Maybe he cashed in and moved to his own personal Cicely, Alaska.)

And I guess this blog is my own little version of Northern Exposures resident radio DJ Chris in the Morning (John Corbett). Trying to do my best to wax philosophically while making odd connections.

Cedar Falls is a little bigger than Cicely Alaska, but it’s got enough characteristics to feel similar and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than Key West, FL, Seal Beach, CA, or Crested Butte, CO. No oceans or mountains here (though we do have a river and killer bike trails) but we have a perfect view of the political process as I pointed out in Politics, Power & Screenwriting.

I’m sure will see plenty of Mrs. Palin which will make up for all the times I saw Obama last year. (I think the guy was stalking me.) If John McCain and Sarah Palin don’t make it to the White House I think they could have shots at a career in Hollywood. At least a reality show.

And whoever is our next president I wish they add to their packed political campaign platform a decree for films to be better. Yesterday I walked out of two movies in one day for the first time in my life. On second thought, that’s really not the government’s job–it’s yours, so get busy writing.

And just to tie this all together as we say goodbye for now you might not know that the beautiful, haunting song that was played at the end of the last episode of Northern Exposure was written and performed by Iris DeMent — a folk artist who is married to another folk artist named Greg Brown from Iowa City and where I believe they both now live.

If you’ve never heard “Our Town” or if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and listen to the link below. The song resonates every bone of my body and I hope it hits a nerve or two for you. (And if you’ve never seen the show at all check it out because it is a fine example of great writing.)

September 4 Update: From a public speaking perspective you’d have to pull for an Obama-Palin ticket. Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?.. Lipstick.” Great writing and great delivery. All of this reminds me of that great Jon Stewart quip at the 2008 Oscars: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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