In late 2016, I came across one of those social media oddities that can really make your day: a fake movie trailer for the variety of film you always wish film studios would develop and push nationally. It was a satire of with such deadly accuracy that it zoomed past hilarity to hit somber dread, which in turn heightened the humor. It was stunning. And, as it turned out, what I was seeing wasn’t a spoof.
After experiencing the initial trailer for Get Out, and confirming its veracity with other creative types of diverse ethnic backgrounds like myself, well, I experienced trepidation walking into the theater on opening day. The showing was at 1:45 in the afternoon during a work day, but instead of finding an empty theater there were 50-60 other audience members. Clearly the enthusiasm wasn’t contained to just the arts community.
Despite initially being impressed—or perhaps due to that strong, positive impression—I was unwilling to believe the filmmakers would carry through on the promise delivered via trailers and pre-release hype. Too often films fail to contain more substance or thrills than their cleverly cut commercials offered to begin with.
Especially in this case, right? I mean, if you’ve seen any of the publicity you understand Get Out focuses on the African diaspora attempting to navigate our contemporary “post-racial” United States. They couldn’t really be permitted to fully go there, could they? Even if they did, it couldn’t happen with intelligence or enough restraint to come off as anything more than ham-handed lashing out.
Martin “LilRel” Howery is a scene-stealer with his charisma and delivery, but without the sharp dialogue to make it work he’d have been a flat character at best, or stereotype at worst, of the variety we so often see in “black friend” characters.
Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, playing the love interest’s parents, turn out to be a brilliant pairing. Their background in both drama and comedy brings moments to the film that rival the best they brought to work such as The West Wing, Being John Malkovich, Cabin in the Woods, etc. They have a knack for helping director Jordan Peele find the uncomfortable in otherwise happy moments, and the disarmingly humorous and relatable in alarming situations.
As the protagonist Daniel Kaluuya delivers a performance so understated that you forget he is acting, delivering the full emotional range from grief to love to rage, but shining just as strongly existing in the mundane moments we all share, and making those believable is his most important strength because it is in these “in-between” moments the film builds intensity.
It would be easy to go the route of a typical slasher, torture porn, or supernatural FX blowout. Instead Get Out uses moments of silence to unnerve, and seriously…when all conversation stopped during the party scene the audience was unanimous in our “Nope, y’all are too much!” response. Gratuitous content is avoided, with most violence occurring out of the frame, and an absence of nudity or sex scenes. Instead of hyperkinetic jump cuts to raise our heart rates we have lengthy closeups up weirdoes dragging us through painfully awkward conversations to increase apprehension.
In addition to avoiding common pitfalls of horror, the black characters disappearing in last 20 minutes of major films like Sicario and Jurassic World after being scared into submission were not here…no white savior.
When it comes to what the film is really saying we could get deep. On examining the speculative element we experience the reproblematization of black autonomy/identity, the theories of Marshal McLuhan re: The Media is the Massage/cool media, “the opiate of the masses,” or—perhaps most disturbing of all—the story as a condemnation of us as a society, and blacks in particular, for sitting back and watching as our people are literally killed in the streets with no recourse. But that’s a discussion best left to academic journals. Suffice it to say: this movie is creepy as all get-out, and not in a way that makes you feel like a cheese ball for enjoying it.
When it comes to the dangers racial bigotry poses to our entire society I’m continually chastened—both publicly and privately—not to rush to judgment, be grateful things aren’t worse, and if I don’t like it go make my own. One problem is that when we do “go make our own” there is a backlash against accepting any part of how we express our experience, because observing racism is “racist”—a delegitimizing accusation already levied against Get Out by multiple outlets. The other problem is the rest of Hollywood’s productions stand in even more stark contrast than previously. If high caliber entertainment with desegregated casting can be made…then why isn’t it?
After Mad Max: Fury Road came out I had discussions with women who were in tears. Not because they were saddened or angry, but due to being so overwhelmed by seeing a major motion picture about women with portrayals and story construction that didn’t revolve around Hollywood stereotypes of women. I’m not saying folks left the theater in that state. Get Out was excellent, and while there was exuberance aplenty from the crowd as we filed out there were no tears.
Now if we can just work on ageism and ableism in film. Yes, Fury Road missed a huge opportunity for Hollywood, and society, by casting somebody with two arms as Furiosa, but I digress. The point is we’re moving toward richer entertainment experiences, but have to continue that momentum. A key to that will be the sophistication of the filmmaking itself.
When considering the framing, use of sound design, transitions, and attention to detail—in addition to more obvious elements such as the screenplay and performances—I find it difficult to believe this is Jordan Peele’s feature film directorial debut. Not satisfied which that accomplishment Peele also managed to create something that succeeds as both a horror/thriller and a comedy.
It’s my hope Peele not only continues to deliver, but those in minority groups inspired by him help make inroads in horror, and the other speculative genres as well. Because I’m telling your right now that guy can just take my money.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The boat with the dinosaurs just landed, and a lone guard makes his way up the gangplank. As the camera moves in, we see the guard is…
Photo courtesy of Jurassic
Nate Lahey from How to Get Away With Murder!
In actuality, his name is Billy Brown, and he’s been acting in TV shows and films since 1993. He’s been in Cloverfield, Star Trek, Sons of Anarchy, and Dexter, among others. He’s also done voiceovers for the Superman, Matrix, and Terminator 3 video games, and voices the Vampire King in the cartoon, Adventure Time.
So if you’re watching The Wild Thornberrys movie and the rhino sounds familiar, you’ll know who it is.
Having trouble coming up with characters, or even plots, for your next book? Try an archetype. What is an archetype, you ask? It’s a pattern or model of an idea or image, or a recurring symbol in literature or art. In literature, for example, there is the hero/heroine, trickster, or mentor. But in this media-laden existence that is American pop culture, it may be easier to categorize your favorite book, TV, movie, or comic book characters. Oh, and don’t forget real persons. Remember reality? Start a book by picking a few of these archetypes, discover their motivations (plot driver) and add the details along the way.
Brilliant Doctor/Lawyer with Flaws:
Dr. Susan Calvin of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series books is a gifted robot psychologist who is physically plain and socially challenged. She feels more comfortable among robots than people and has a tendency to isolate herself in her lab, yet susses out the most baffling cases of robot behavior.
Dr. Gregory House of the TV show, House, experiences constant leg pain for which he overdoses on Vicodine. He continually manipulates his employees and friends to prove his worldviews while solving medical mysteries.
Attorney Keegan Deane of the TV show, Rake, is a criminal defense lawyer that expertly handles the most challenging cases while battling his own sex and gambling addictions.
Not Too Smart, but Instinctual
Cat of the TV show, Red Dwarf, is a humanoid evolved from a cat over the course of 3 million years. He is superficial, interested mainly in his hair and clothing, but can smell danger from miles away.
Leela of the TV show, Dr. Who, is a “primitive” warrior descended from a planetary survey team from Earth who becomes the Doctor’s companion. She wears animal skins and carries weapons, and has a highly evolved sense of danger.
Melody Valentine of the comic book/TV show/movie, Josie and the Pussycats, is portrayed as the “ditsy blonde,” but has a sharp instinct for figuring out people and their real agendas.
Collector of Broken People/Things
Olivia Pope of the TV show, Scandal, employs a team of “gladiators,” all of whom she rescued from dire circumstances and who help her to “fix” the mistakes their clients make. It takes a while for her to realize how broken she is, as well.
Michael Stone of the TV show, Hustle (UK), leads a team of con men, or grifters, who seek to steal money from the arrogant and dishonest. They hold to the honor code of not cheating the honest, but have no qualms about stiffing their favorite bar owner.
The Island of Misfit Toys proves that the collector doesn’t have to be a person. In the TV movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all the unwanted toys are gathered on the Island until the King can find a home for them. When Santa comes to rescue them, they realize that one doesn’t have to be “normal” to be accepted.
Ichabod Crane of the TV show, Sleepy Hollow, has been sleeping for more than 200 years and awakens in modern-day New York. He must use his knowledge of the past to help defeat an enemy who threatens the future.
John Blackthorne of the book, Shogun, is an English pilot who lands in feudal Japan (1600s). Japan’s customs are alien to him, and he must use his wits to learn Japanese language, customs, and etiquette without getting himself and his men killed.
Marty McFly of the movie, Back to the Future, is accidentally sent back in time to the 1950s, meets his future parents, but becomes the focus of his mother’s romantic interest. He must manipulate circumstances to get his parents to fall in love and make it back to the 80s.
Storm of the comic book/movie, X-Men, served as a team member for years before being promoted to team leader after Cyclops left when Jean Grey died. Storm is hesitant about assuming leadership, but soon proves herself many times over as a capable leader.
Aragorn of the book/movie, The Lord of the Rings (trilogy), is heir to the kingdom of Arnor/Gondor and whose identity is hidden after his father was killed by orcs. After he comes of age, he purposefully does not seek to assume the title of king, as it would divide the land, which needs to unite in order to defeat Sauron.
Albert Windsor of England becomes King George VI after his brother, Edward, abdicates in order to marry a divorcee, Wallis Simpson. King George sobs at the prospect of becoming king, but manages to increase the popularity of the monarchy during troubled times.
Do you see a pattern or common threads among the characters within the above categories? You can begin with simplified personality traits, or your own archetypes, as you write, and then flesh them out once you discover their own hidden agendas, motivations, quirks, and flaws. Use their inner desires to drive the plot, and antagonists’ counter-desires to provide roadblocks. Before you know it, you’ll be hurtling toward finishing your book…and wondering what other capers these characters can get up to.
Change is the nature of our society. Nothing stays the same. New combinations of things under the sun are broken down and reformed every day, only to be remade the next day.
In genre fiction, more stories featuring diverse characters and cultural elements are finding their way into the mainstream. Old and worn are the traditional European-based sword and sorcery tales. Diverse readers crave to see characters that reflect their appearance, mores, and culture.
As far as fantasy is concerned, change is coming in YA fantasy, because I think younger people are more willing to entertain change. They’re growing up in a more diverse culture and open to seeing that diversity reflected in their media.
A major problem is that years ago, children were not usually taught history from the person of color’s point of view. I was grown before I knew about Alessandro de’Medici, the Duke of Florence; Saint Maurice of Switzerland; or Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. By the time yesteryear’s kids grew up, they believed they knew exactly what shaped Western culture, and when they found out that yes, Blacks and Asians and women and others besides white males also played prominent roles in history, it upset their world view. And people are loathe to change. They don’t like it.
I think that diverse books will allow readers with different abilities, backgrounds, and cultures, to see themselves reflected in the books they read. And diverse authors may encourage readers to aspire to become writers of diverse books themselves. I know some writers may be hesitant to write about other cultures for fear of offending someone, but if they intend to become serious writers, they will have to learn how to research other cultures and incorporate that knowledge, in some way, into their writing. For example, don’t assume that the same standards of beauty cut across all cultures. I have a cousin who’s 6’3” and model thin, and felt she was discriminated against in the Bahamas because she was not overweight. I watched a documentary of an African man who wanted his wife to weigh 200 pounds for their wedding, so she sat in a hut and drank goat’s milk for weeks.
The incorporation of research makes for richer prose. If you’re worried about offending someone of a particular group, get on the Internet and ask someone to read some of your work and offer advice. Read the works of other writers of color, or women, or those who are differently abled to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Also, read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.
I know it’s all about money in the world of publishing. But a recent Pew study showed that the most likely reader was a college-educated Black woman. I think there needs to be a paradigm shift across the industry, from the CEO, to the acquisitions editor, to the copy editor, to the book store owner. New audiences may require new marketing methods, but as I said before, change is the nature of our society.
One way to help bring about positive change surrounding diversity in fantasy is for editors of anthologies and magazines to solicit stories from diverse authors to let readers know about the existence of writers from different cultures and backgrounds. I think the traditional publishers aren’t taking risks as they would during flush economic times, so people looking for something different are starting to turn to small, independent, and self-publishers.
And if you want some recommendations, try Abengoni: First Calling, by Charles Saunders, who has been writing diverse fantasy since the seventies. There’s also The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell, Changa’s Safari by Milton Davis, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers, Taurus Moon: Magic and Mayhem by D. K. Gaston, Ghosts of Koa by Colby R. Rice, Sacrifices by Alan D. Jones, the Scythe by Balogun Ojetade, Sineaters by Kai Leakes, the Seedbearing Prince by Davaun Sanders, and The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan by Zig Zag Claybourne.
Publishers need encouragement to develop and distribute diverse books. If you find a diverse book you like, call or write the publisher and let them know you appreciate their efforts, and tell them you’ll purchase more books like that.
And even though more diverse characters and cultural aspects may populate speculative fiction books, the important elements of keeping the reader engaged and delivering on expectations will remain constant. As Barbara Deming once said, “The longer we listen to one another—with real attention—the more commonality we will find in all our lives.”