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Commentary : Minority Writers: Point, Counterpoint

December 07, 1986|MEL DONALSON

The author, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from Brown University, is a writer on the syndicated "Dennis the Menace" animated series . He teaches Afro-American history at Pasadena City College and English at University High School.

"Congratulations! Your script has been accepted into the Script Submissions Program. Our initial submission will be to Columbia Pictures."

That letter in August, 1984, from the Human Resources Coordinating Committee of the Writers Guild West gave me, a minority writer, a jolt of encouragement. After all, the committee was the guild's liaison between the industry and non-guild screenwriters. And the Script Submissions Program was established to offer minority writers the opportunity to have their "qualified" script forwarded to producers and major studios.

But by April, 1986, I heard nothing further. I made several calls to the guild to see if Columbia had made any comments or a decision about my material. Each time, I spoke with a different person who seemed unsure about the plight of my script--but I was also encouraged each time to phone back in a few weeks.

Finally, I visited the guild and was introduced to the special assistant to the executive director. With a pleasant but embarrassed manner, he explained that my script had, indeed, been located. But my script had not been forwarded to Columbia Pictures, and--like the dozens of other scripts stacked against the wall--had never left the guild's offices.

The special assistant gave me various reasons--mostly administrative--but I was still angry and disappointed. And the promise that in a few months the guild would reorganize the Script Submissions Program and send letters of explanation to the submitting writers was hardly encouraging--said letters would be going out two years after the initial submissions. That from, of all people, writers--who should know better about treating submissions in a timely, courteous, respectful manner?

Having offered his detailed explanation, the special assistant to the executive director gingerly inquired if I wanted the guild to hold onto my script for re-submission to the reorganized program. Restraining my laughter, I assured him that if I wanted my script to collect dust, it could do so just as easily on my shelf.

Before leaving the guild I obtained a copy of the lengthy Report to the Board of Directors. That document, written by a minority member of the guild in September, 1985, provided a comprehensive examination of the relationship between minority authors and the industry, as well as the ordeal of the minority members within the guild. Citing events, people and projects, the report described the shattered efforts to open up opportunities for the guild's minority members. The document emphasized that the major barriers preventing success were hostile producers and jealous white guild members.

After reading the report, I was dismayed. If minority members of the guild were confronting such oppressive obstacles and attitudes, what hope could an unestablished minority writer like myself cling to? The guild was always touted as the one place where a writer might receive fair treatment. But it appeared that, in regard to minority authors, the guild was but another spoke in a large wheel of neglect and unfulfilled promises. The major studios and networks have consistently been criticized for their unwillingness or inability to to recognize the talent and experience of minority writers. Now, it appeared, the guild was following the same sad pattern.

Why? What seems so difficult about allowing writers to compete fairly in the entertainment game? Sure, some things are "givens" within the industry. Primarily, most writing assignments on television programs are passed along to those who are on the inside--directly or by association--and the plurality of those "insiders" are white. Admittedly, the chances of gaining access into the feature film market is tantamount to getting the proverbial camel through the needle's eye--for unestablished writers both white and minority. But even with these business strictures, there remains ample room for creative and skilled minority writers if persons of influence on the inside will really make the effort to open the doors.

Minority writers are not demanding that studios and producers alter their systems of business and art. On the contrary, the minority writers with whom I speak are anxious to work within the system. Nor are minority writers seeking to create a plethora of television programs or movies that deal only with Latino, black, Asian, or Native American characters and themes. Surprisingly, most minority authors I've met write material that is not focused upon one minority perspective. They seem more inclined to create stories that contain a diversity of ethnic characters interacting with one another--a natural balance.

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