I've mentioned Akeelah and the Bee before (Starbucks will be promoting it!) but I didn't realize that it was a winner of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, one of the top screenwriting prizes out there (it's administered by the Academy Award folks.) The only requirement is that an entrant can not have earned more than $5,000 as a screenwriter (not a problem for most of us!)Akeelah was written and directed by Doug Atchison (yes, that's him in the picture above with KeKe Palmer.) In the current issue of Creative Screenwriting magazine, he talks about winning the Nicholl, the "tremendous interest in the script," and the problems he and the producers faced trying to get the movie made:
"We basically got turned down by almost every studio because of the nature of the project. Everybody loved the screenplay, but there's never been a theatrical release by a major studio that starred an eleven-year-old African-American girl who's in every scene of the film, and people were hesitant to do things that are new and unprecedented. Furthermore, I wanted to maintain the racial makeup of the cast as I had written it, and people were resistant to that."
He goes on to say how nearly every studio or exec he met with wanted more white characters in the film - particularly Akeelah's mentor/coach Dr. Larabee (played by Laurence Fishburne who is also a producer of the film.)
The problems Doug ran into are, basically, the worst nightmare of every screenwriter. I remember seeing the log line (description) for a screenplay based on a popular black novel. Instead of being the story of one black woman with a black best friend, it was changed to the story of two women - and the best friend was suddenly Jewish. I have no idea whether that was problematic for the author, but to me, it changed the whole dynamic of the story. That's not true all of the time - just most of the time. When a character is revealed to a writer (and that's usually the way it works - you call yourself inventing characters, but essentially, they reveal themselves to you) their basic character traits are usually in place. Also, the race of the character plays an important part because it will influence the way the character sees themselves, how they are perceived by other characters and how they will behave. If you've got a story about an eleven-year-old black girl in South Central Los Angeles trying to get into the most prestigious spelling bee in the country -- race makes a difference. This would have been an entirely different film if Akeelah's coach/mentor were a white man or a white woman. It would also be very different if the coach were a Latina or a black woman born in Nigeria and raised in the U.K.
In any event, let's show Hollywood that we really do want more than pimpin' at the box office. Mark your calendars: Akeelah and the Bee opens April 28th. And don't forget the rules of black movie going (even if you aren't black!)
1. Go on the first weekend.
2. Shut up so people can hear the movie.
3. Check your ticket stub!