Geoffrey Fletcher's adaptation of the novel Push into the movie Precious won him an Academy Award. The first African American to earn a screenwriting Oscar, he says that his long journey to success was marked by disappointments that ultimately made him a better storyteller.
Last week Fletcher was in New York City with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' "Discover the Academy" program, talking to college students about what it's really like to work in Hollywood. He chatted with The Root about his response to criticism of Precious, the ability of film to bridge cultures and whether black filmmakers should have to do image management for the African-American community.
The Root: You were the first African American to be awarded a screenwriting Oscar. What took so long?
Geoffrey Fletcher: If you consider the proportion of African-American screenwriters whose films get produced, I guess, statistically speaking, the odds were always difficult. And people say it often, but I really owe a lot to those who came before me — I believe there were five of them. And I think if I were the first nominated, I might not have received the award.
I often wonder why so many things take so long. And then, just when you think progress is being made, something will happen to make you wonder.
TR: You're a Harvard graduate, and it's been noted that you wrote really effectively in the Precious script in a voice that's very different from your own. Do you think that ability to bridge cultures is something that's required for success in screenwriting?
GF: People look at Precious as such a specific character, and she certainly is, but there's something very universal about her as well. And with so many of the characters in the history of storytelling, that’s the case. People who didn't look like her come up to me and say, "I am Precious."
It's the same reason we can cry for ET or be so moved by a documentary about penguins or feel such humanity from an animated film. We've all, most people, at one point or another, felt underestimated or invisible, and that's how I often felt trying to get into the film industry. Regardless of the fact that I grew up with much more opportunity than Precious, there are things about her experience I can relate to so immediately.
TR: There was some criticism of Precious' focus on black-family dysfunction and some concerns that it would lead to racial stereotyping. More recently, similar criticisms have been lodged against movies like The Help, and even Tyler Perry films. Do black people behind the scenes in Hollywood have a responsibility to manage the image of the black community?
GF: There needs to be in general a greater number and greater range of [black] films. I think whatever criticism Precious faced, it would face a lot less if other strong films about different areas of the African-American experience were out there and received a strong release with marketing. Precious is just one African-American story.
TR: You're talking to a group of Columbia University students through the "Discovery the Academy" program. Do you have any special message or lessons for African-American students?
GF: I think that — and I usually say this in a general sense — but I always emphasize knowing one's craft and exploring every potential opportunity, taking nothing for granted and proceeding with focus, humility and confidence.
TR: How have those things worked for you in your career?
GF: Over the years I'd heard "no" so many times, but I kept writing on my own time while I took a variety of jobs outside the industry, and I kept making short films and I kept just trying every opportunity. And what I learned through those experiences, even though there were periods of disappointment, was that it was also making me a better storyteller. And so many good things that we bring to our art come from other places.
Those various jobs I had were wonderful, interacting with people who faced everyday challenges and joys. I was an assistant, I was a temporary employee, I had an internship — that one was in the industry. But I did everything from picking up dry cleaning and tailoring to making deliveries. For a couple of days I was a landscaper, and they didn't even give us gloves. [Laughing.] And I'll tell you, every one of these jobs — particularly the office jobs, the colorful characters there — I will never forget. It was real stuff that it's hard to get from just watching films or just interacting with other filmmakers.
TR: What are you working on now?
GF: I just finished directing a film called Violet & Daisy, which will be out in the fall. And I'm writing a script for [director and producer] Doug Liman. It's about the 1971 Attica-prison uprising.
TR: Do you think it will make as big a splash as Precious?
GF: I hope people come to see it because it is an important event in U.S. history, but I never know what will work. My strategy is this: I pour my soul into something and hope people come. If you love what you're working on, there's a great chance other people will, too.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.