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War of Words

An actress who worked with Oprah Winfrey in 'Color Purple' wins a 'Beloved' script dispute but won't let Disney off the hook.

September 25, 1998|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Akosua Busia has been a lot of things in her life: a princess (she is a member of Ghana's Royal House of Wenchi), an actress (she played "Nettie" in Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple"), a novelist ("The Seasons of Beento Blackbird" was a bestseller) and a mom (she has one child with her former husband, director John Singleton).

Now, thanks to the findings of a Writers Guild arbitration panel, the Los Angeles resident is also a credited screenwriter. And lately, her desire to talk about that has made her a thorn in Disney's side.

Convened at Busia's request, the guild panel gave her first-position writing credit on Disney's forthcoming "Beloved," an adaptation of Toni Morrison's acclaimed novel. She shares credit with Richard LaGravenese ("The Bridges of Madison County") and Adam Brooks.

Busia, who completed the first draft of a "Beloved" script in 1991 at the behest of Oprah Winfrey, says she is gratified that her work--by her own admission, the first screenplay she ever wrote--has been recognized. But she is deeply disappointed, she says, by the treatment she's received from Disney, which has not allowed her to see an advance screening of the film. And though she resists saying so at first, Busia also feels let down by Winfrey herself.

"I find it sadly ironic," Busia wrote to Winfrey earlier this year, "that here we have a story . . . 'Beloved,' [about] the daughter of a captured African woman brought across the seas and sold at a price, fight[ing] for freedom for herself and her children from their white oppressors.

"And then here I am, a black female writer from Africa, writing the script, and then being left in a position to battle alone against Disney, who recommends that two white, male writers . . . be credited instead of me!"

What's unusual about this battle is that Busia, who has compared herself to David taking on Goliath, already has won what aggrieved screenwriters seek when they resort to arbitration: credit. Given that, many people connected to the film say they are surprised that Busia has contacted the news media to tell her story.

"This whole thing is shocking," said Kate Forte, executive vice president of Harpo Films, Winfrey's company. "Akosua had a friendship with Oprah based on [co-starring in] 'The Color Purple,' and Oprah gave her the biggest gift in the world: a crack at 'Beloved'--which is amazing for someone who had never written a screenplay. She should be dancing in the streets in celebration that she's associated with this incredible movie."

'What More Does She Want?'

Disney spokesperson Terry Curtin sounded genuinely baffled.

"What more does she want? She was paid. She was credited. I don't see any evidence that she's been wronged," said Curtin, who confirmed that Busia has not been invited to any screenings, but said that was because she has appeared to be hostile to the film. "Now that she's approaching media outlets, we're not sure how to treat her. She's made it difficult to invite her into the fold."

For her part, however, Busia says she's only conducting her own interviews because she felt shunned by the movie's official publicity machine. She says she set out to draw positive attention to the film, which she describes as "majorly important for people to see." But she has been hurt, she says, by recent articles, done with Disney's cooperation, that downplay her involvement.

"Here comes Oprah saying to the L.A. Times that for eight years she searched for a writer," Busia said, referring to a recent article about the making of the film. "The Disney production notes had the same story in it. How is that supposed to fit with [the fact that] seven years ago I wrote a script?"

Busia says she got a prepublication copy of the novel "Beloved" in 1987, after Morrison gave a manuscript to Busia's sister, a professor at Rutgers University. The minute she finished reading it, Busia says, she knew it could be a great film. Knowing that she couldn't afford to purchase the rights, she says she told her friend Winfrey about it.

"I told her, you've got to read it in one sitting," she recalled. "Later, I came home and my answering machine was filled with Oprah messages--a running commentary as she was reading 'Beloved.' "

Winfrey, whose associates say was given the book by someone other than Busia, secured the rights from Morrison and began looking for a writer.

During this time, Busia says she was in close touch with Winfrey, who at one point sent her a short treatment done by another writer. Busia hated it because, she said, "it reduced the story to the slave trade and, 'Oh, if massuh would just let us have a piece of land.' "

Busia called Winfrey, she recalled: "I said, 'Don't do this. "Beloved" isn't a slave epic, it's one of the greatest love stories ever told, about a mother and what she would do rather than see her children in bondage.' Oprah said, 'God, you've articulated what I felt when I read it. Maybe when we get a writer, I'll send it to you and you could make notes.' "

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