You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

‘About Last Night’ Screenwriter On Racist Jokes She Confronted While Reimagining Story w/ Black Cast

'About Last Night' Screenwriter On Racist Jokes She Confronted While Reimagining Story w/ Black Cast

Leslye Headland, the screenwriter for the About Last Night remake, which opened over the weekend with a healthy $27 million box office take, in the number 2 slot, penned a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, which was published on their website over the weekend, in which she waxed on her attempts to reimagine the original 1986 romcom, with an all-black cast.

I should note that Leslye Headland is a white woman by the way, since it’s essential to the overall piece.

Also worth noting is that the 1986 romcom that the 2014 film is based on was itself an adaptation of Sexual Perversity in Chicagothe 1974 David Mamet play which presented intimate relationships as minefields of buried fears and misunderstandings.

Most notable, but not at all surprising (to me) in reading screenwriter Headland’s Hollywood Reporter piece is her revelation that, when she shared with her white peers that she’d been asked to rewrite the Mamet play as a movie with an all-black cast, they made her feel uncomfortable with racist and hurtful jokes, as if to imply that the job – because it would inevitably be labeled a “black film,” which, as I’ve learned is anathema to some – was somehow inferior.

To wit:

I had some very interesting reactions to the casting specifically from white people who work in the movie industry. While I was doing the rewrite, I got dozens of really mean jokes most of which I don’t feel comfortable putting into writing here because they were sometimes racist and always hurtful. The most clever one (still lame) was: “How’s your David Blamet script going?” It was like my script was suddenly not as good or less than or just plain not cool because of the casting. Whatever. Those people suck. This was all happening while I was promoting a film I wrote and directed, Bachelorette. The questions I was repeatedly asked during that press junket were about the trend of “Women in Comedy.” Now the trend is “Black Films Perform at the Box Office.” This kind of marginalization represents the same narrow-mindedness that sparked the racist “jokes” I got during my rewrite. When anyone marginalizes the success of a female-driven comedy or an urban comedy, there’s something more sinister at work. These types of comedies are treated as fads because the stars of these films and the protagonists they portray would usually be sidelined in mainstream cinema. So if the success of films like Bridesmaids and Think Like A Man lead to more films with female or black leads, well, crap … That might mean more scripts that represent minorities as people. Realistic, sympathetic or compelling PEOPLE. Instead of banishing them to one-dimensional joke-machine supporting roles to the white male characters.

Like I said, nothing shocking here (to me). These are matters we’ve discussed ad naseam on this site: the marginalization, broadly. But of specific interest to me is, again, the idea that a film with an all-black cast (or a “black film,” although, for some, there’s a difference), is, in essence, inferior, for no other reason than because it is what it is – a film with a black cast, or a “black film.”

In reading Headland’s piece, I remembered a discussion I initiated on this blog last year, asking whether the classification of a film as a “black film” was erroneous and limiting. I was actually very surprised that many said that they believed it was, which I’m still puzzled by, I must say.

Following much of the conversation around Best Man Holiday, I highlighted what I observed to be a concerted effort to emphasize the universality of the film’s themes, in part as encouragement for non-black audiences to want to see it, eschewing what might be considered its reductive categorization as a “black film” by the mainstream press especially (or as USA Today put it, a “Race-Themed” film, much to the consternation of many).

The discussions around that movie, as well as Headland’s Hollywood Reporter piece, inspired some thoughts in me…

In the 4 1/2 years that I’ve been writing for this blog, I’ve been introduced to black filmmakers who summarily reject the classification “Black Filmmaker,” seemingly reinforcing the importance of their creativity over their race or ethnicity. As some have and would say, “I’m a filmmaker who happens to be black instead of a black filmmaker;” or, “I make films that happen to have black people in them; not black films.”

Discussions about how we define terms like “black cinema” have been had aplenty here on S&A over the years. Just as we are a diverse and varied people, so are our definitions, which should be expected.

Some have questioned whether we should even use classifications like “black film” or “black filmmaker,” with suggestions that they are, in effect, limiting, and somehow antithetical to the advancement of the American post-racial dream MLK vocalized decades ago, and that suddenly seemed within reach (to some) with the election of Obama as president in 2008.

That black filmmakers (or filmmakers who happen to be black, whichever you prefer) have been, and really still are typically restricted in the kinds of films they are “allowed” to make – especially within the Hollywood studio system – has been well documented. And I fully understand the desire to want to be free of that kind of creative marginalization, especially when one’s white filmmaker contemporaries aren’t so shackled (pun intended), as even what once used to be somewhat sacred ground for the black filmmaker (i.e, black films, or films that tell stories about black people), isn’t quite so anymore.

My colleagues Andre Seewood and Tanya Steele have both addressed these matters in separate posts: see Andre’s Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies, and Race Traitors: White Filmmakers Who Make Black Films; and see Tanya’s Tarantino’s Candy (Slavery In The White Male Imagination), to start.

But are we allowing someone else’s myopic perceptions of us to influence how we navigate these categorizations? I think we all are aware of race as we know it being essentially a social construct, but, is it really possible to undo centuries-old *damage,* and is it even desirous at this point to reject the “black” that precedes nouns like “filmmaker,” and “film,” or are there advantages and even necessities to embrace instead?

And what does all that mean for a site like this that champions “black cinema,” or in the case of personal identity, you and I as “black” men and “black” women? Do you identify yourself as a black man/woman, or a man/woman who happens to be black, and what does the difference signify to you? Or do you reject the classification completely, because you believe, just like the term “black cinema” it’s limiting, and instead prefer to simply be referred to as a man or a woman, without the so-called *burden* as some would consider it?

If you’re a creative (filmmaker, writer, actor, producer, etc), do you loathe being labeled a “black” creative, and whether yes or no, why?

Do you consider “blackness” limiting, erroneous and inferior?

Yes, we are all human beings first and foremost; Underneath the coat (or armor, depending on your POV), there are universalities that all of mankind recognizes and appreciates. But is there indeed a definitive “black experience” that unifies us as a group, or, in terms of art (specifically cinema), a “black aesthetic” that is instantly and even innately recognizable by members of the group, that contrasts other experiences and aesthetics, and is there anything wrong in acknowledging that, regardless of what the implications in doing so are to others? In the case of Leslye Headland, and others who are hired to work on projects centered around characters of African descent, the implications being that their white peers (and possibly as a reflection of the white executives who run the industry, as well as white audiences) regard the work as somehow inferior; or as Headland said above, “It was like my script was suddenly not as good or less than or just plain not cool because of the casting.”

And it appears it’s thanks in part to that kind of thinking – especially if, as I noted, it’s reflective of what the so-called gatekeepers (who are majority white), and white audiences believe – that some of us reject being identified as black filmmakers, or our work labeled black film. 

But, in the end, who really wins? Where’s the compromise? What are you having to give up in return for broader acceptance?

Read Headland’s full piece HERE.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged