On my very first day as a newspaperman, an editor whose breath stank of cheap cigars forever imprinted on me the profession's devotion to factual accuracy.
I'd been assigned to write obituaries. One of those I wrote that day stated, in accord with the death notice from the funeral home, that the deceased had lived at such-and-such address in such-and-such town. "You sure that address is in the city limits?" the editor snarled. He jerked his thumb toward a stack of local street directories.
To make a long story short, although the departed himself probably claimed to be from the town, he went to his Maker a resident of the outlying township, at least on our obit page--and we got it right.
After three decades of such finickiness about fact, I had to make quite a psychic leap to write a movie fictionalized from a real story I'd covered. The movie, "Redeemer," premiered Tuesday on USA Network.
"Redeemer," which stars Matthew Modine, Obba Babatunde and Michele Greene, is my first screenplay. Writing it (and rewriting it and rewriting it) was like sailing a small boat into deep waters. The farther I got from the shore of fact, the uneasier I became.
Recent movies such as "The Hurricane" and "A Beautiful Mind" have been criticized for departing too readily from the real-life stories they supposedly tell. "Redeemer" is in a somewhat different category than some of them, designated as being "inspired by," as opposed to "based on," a true story.
Yet beneath its fiction beats the heart of fact. That quiet throbbing never left my ears as I devised make-believe characters, make-believe scenes and make-believe dialogue. Venturing into the unfamiliar--a place where cavalier treatment of writers' work is legendary--I probably had a psychic need for some semblance of the control that adherence to fact gives a writer in the newspaper business, where the most heinous sin an editor can commit is to insert an inaccuracy into a reporter's story.
Not to give the movie's plot away, but the real-life case involved a prison inmate and the sister of a man who had died as a result of the prisoner's crime.
As a 19-year-old Black Panther, the inmate, Ahmad Rahman (the name is changed in the film) had participated in raiding what he thought was a drug den. He'd been sentenced to life without parole after one of his accomplices, apparently accidentally, killed a young man in the house.
I learned of the inmate a decade and a half into his sentence. He had metamorphosed from a reckless young revolutionary into a model prisoner and learned man, a voice of civility and good sense to other prisoners.
I wrote a long feature story about him for the newspaper I worked for at the time. The article pointed out that his unusually harsh sentence had resulted from his refusal to plea-bargain, and that his accomplices--including the killer, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder--long since had been paroled.
A few years later, after becoming a newspaper columnist, I took up the inmate's cause as an advocate. In a dozen columns over three years, I called on the governor to reverse a long-standing practice of denying commutation to even the most deserving inmates. By then, the inmate had been in prison for more than 20 years.
After one of the first columns appeared, I received, from out of the blue, a telephone call from the sister of the victim. The article clearly had distressed her by recalling the most painful memories of her life. She vowed to oppose any attempt to release the inmate.
In "Redeemer," the crime committed, and the situation and character of the inmate, played by Babatunde, are much the same as in the real-life story. A lot more of the movie, however, varies greatly from the facts of the actual events.
For example, there is, and was from my first draft, no newspaperman character. Even in my naivete, I sensed that burdening the script with a character too much like myself would only hobble whatever creativity I could muster in telling the story dramatically. The reporter became instead a novelist, played by Modine, who masquerades as a prison writing teacher in the hope of picking up good material for a future book.
The relationship between the inmate and the teacher starts cold and becomes contentious. This is a far cry from my relationship with the real-life inmate, which was always cordial.
The victim's sister, played by Greene, also undergoes a transformation. Instead of someone surprised and angered many years later by an article on the death of her brother, she becomes a vengeful, bitter woman, obsessed from Day 1 with making sure the inmate never knows freedom.
Finally, in the movie, the Black Panther raid is a set-up, arranged by a police informer. In my real-life articles, I cited evidence pointing toward such a possibility but never was able to confirm it. I tried to track down the likely candidate, but failed to locate him.