Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’

“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”
–President Barack Obama, 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony

One of the problems of watching film and TV clips on YouTube is they can make what was originally profound and make it melodramatic. It’s almost impossible to watch the scene below from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman feel the gravitas it had when it first aired on TV in 1974.

Actress Cicley Tyson won not one, but two Emmy Awards for her role as girl born on a slave plantation and follows her into old age—a very old age. Based on Ernest Gaines’ novel of the same name, it was one of the first African-American centered made-for- TV movies produced.

The screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn starts in 1962 on Jane Pittman’s 110th birthday. When she’s asked to go into town the next day to show support to a young black girl who is going to drink from a white water fountain Miss Jane says she’s going to wait for a sign from God. From there a reporter from New York shows up to write her story for a magazine article. The movie goes back and forth between the past and the present to tell her sweeping life story from slavery to the beginning of the Civil Rights.

The viewing audience in 1974 was only 10 years removed from the passing of The Civil Right Act. Only six years from Martin Luther King Jr. being shot and killed in Memphis. The scars of segregation were fresh. My own high school creative writer was one of the first black students to graduate from Seminole High School in 1969. One of the venues where the school wanted to have their prom was turned down because the school had integrated.

So the major dramatic question set up in that opening scene—will elderly Miss Jane Pittman show up as an act of solidarity as a young black girl drinks from a water foundation and risk being arrested—is answered at the end of the movie.

Cicley Tyson died yesterday at age 96.

P.S. For those of you thinking things haven’t changed that much, keep in mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I was raised in Central Florida starting about the year The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ends and I never saw a black only or white only water fountain. May we all keep working toward a more perfect union. The release of Hamilton on Disney+ in 2020 is a great example of how opportunities have evolved for multiracial talent.

Here’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in entirety.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
(King was a student at Moorehouse College in 1947 when Robinson became the first black player to play Major League Baseball)

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
—Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson

To learn more about Jackie Robinson read his autobiography I Never Had it Made and check out the documentary Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon. Then there’s the movie 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.

P.S. The following scene from Spike Lee’s unproduced script Jackie Robinson takes place at Sanford Memorial Stadium. A stadium I played many games as a high school baseball player. It’s where Hall of Fame baseball player Tim Raines played his high school games. And it’s also just a few miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed. Gives that scene a little more punch doesn’t it?

Related posts:
Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”
Marlon Brando & Johnny Carson After the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Chadwick Boseman, Jackie Robinson, and the Struggle for a More Perfect Union
Spike Lee on Why You Have To Make Your Own Movies
Filmmaking in New Hampshire (Ken Burns Style)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do what is right.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Here are rare words from a Hollywood producer that could be accompanied by a Hammond organ:

“It may sound pretentious, but what I believe I really teach are values. Film is the conduit, the medium—not the message. I try to imbue my students with a strong desire to search out meaningful themes on pertinent, life-affirming subjects, to be true to and trust their own values, and to harness and hone them within the commercial film and television world; to value their hearts as much as their brains; and to be aware of the larger world, which can only enhance their chosen field and more importantly, their own lives. There can be meaningful work outside of the commercial mainstream. I encourage my students to pursue their dreams and to not be afraid of trying to inspire, to lead, to exalt. I passionately believe in the transforming power of beauty and art. Life is more important but, happily, art and life can be conjoined. How you live your life is more important than what you do in life.”
—Producer Lawrence Turman (The Graduate)
So You Want to Be a Producer
Page 10

Can I get an amen?

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than that paragraph being written by a Hollywood producer, is that Turman thought it was important enough to be included in the first ten pages of his book. And (at least when the book was published in 2005) Turman says that the very first seminar/lecture for students at The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC focuses on ethics.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“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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