Thursday, January 05, 2006

A black guy, a Chinese guy, and a Jew walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What is this, a joke?"

If Alex Epstein, Craig Mazin, and John August think it's an important topic, then by gum, that's one bandwagon I'll gladly dive aboard.

First off, what's the issue at hand? I suppose it's a question of how to address the ethnicity of your characters. I think August is right in that readability is an important practical issue that can be helped by picking distinct non-whitebread surnames for secondary characters. But this is only the case because most of the people reading the script will be white.

The real issue is that most screenwriters are white men. Most studio executives are white men. Most directors and Big Movie Stars are white men.

Now, wait a damn second. What do I mean, "issue?" Do I mean "problem," as in something that needs to be fixed? Or am I just talking about the current state of things, without judgment?

Why do we write screenplays? The desire to express ourselves creatively in general, the desire to be a part of filmmaking in particular, the desire for lots and lots of money. I suspect that these are all motivations for all of us in varying degrees. I love creating, and I love movies, and I also love money.

What does it matter to me whether my characters are all named Smith, Brown, and Johnson, or whether they're named Yamaguchi, Nmebe, and Ramirez? At its base, nothing, particularly. When I first conceive a character, unless a particular ethnicity or gender is immediately an important part of that character, I automatically envision them as a white man. Not consciously, but when I think about what the character is going to do now that I've created him, in my mind's eye, he's white.

Why? Probably because I'm a white man, and being a white man is what I'm most familiar with. Most of the people in the office I work in are white; my whole family is white; most of the people where I live are white. Doctors, cops, judges, thugs, villains, heroes -- with rare exceptions, in my mind they're white guys. Or white women, if the gender matters.

Their ethnicity only changes if there's a reason for it. Like John August, I usually don't even specify it. I don't do the ethnic-surname thing like he does, although that seems like a very good idea. But the main characters in my spec scripts are probably always going to be white people. Is it a great idea to "ethnicize" the secondary characters, when the main characters are all white?

So why don't I just write non-white main characters? Because I know what it means to be white; it's what I'm most familiar with. And the journeys of the main characters are the most important element of any story. It follows that it will be much easier for me to write stories about white people than it will be to write stories about non-whites.

I'm not going to get into the social-justice issue; I hear enough about social justice from my wife. ;)