Slavery by Another Name – Pulitzer Adaptation

 

Logline: Forty years after the Civil War, a black farmer is kidnapped and sold intoslavery.  Unknown to the U.S. Attorney of Alabama, this is but one slave of thousands across the southern states.  Can one man fight the slavery-addicted society he was raised in, as well as his own rigid government, and bring justice to a race, without destroying his entire political career… and life?

SynopsisAt the turn of the 20th century, in a rural Alabama still shadowed by the Civil War, a black farmer is snatched from the bedside of his dying wife and sold to a barbaric plantation owner.   When President Roosevelt orders an investigation into allegations of slavery, the U.S. Attorney of Alabama, WARREN REESE, must swallow his own distaste for the black community to do his job and secure his campaign for governor.  The horrors he discovers are far worse than anything he could have imagined: black men in chains, bruised, scarred, underfed, with bones bulging under their skin.  But the plantation owners are ruthless, stubborn and always a step ahead of Reese.  Faced with the impossible odds of fighting a slavery-addicted society, Reese must push past his own deep-rooted prejudices, join forces with a defiant African-American farmer, and find the courage to do the right thing.   He organizes a dramatic rescue of the remaining hidden slaves, but gaining their freedom has unexpected costs.  Can he get these plantation owners to trial, and if he can, will he be able to convince a jury of their peers that the only way of life they’ve ever known is illegal?  He will have to face his biggest opponent in a courtroom yet: Prejudice.

Every screenwriter has that familiar dream of crafting a script that will change their life, and hopefully, have an emotional impact on an audience. Often the vision comes from your own creative, twisted, insecure head, but sometimes it’s a book you see on a shelf that grabs you and screams, “Adapt me!” If it’s the latter, the first challenge becomes getting the author to agree when, heaven forbid, you have no money to offer, or worse… you’re an unproduced writer. Quiver. Now that elusive book is no longer screaming, it’s taunting you, giggling, “Good luck, chump.”

In 2008, my husband handed me an article from The Wall Street Journal, introducing Douglas A. Blackmon’s historical exposé, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. I immediately grabbed the paper, started researching Doug, read countless articles about him and by him, and bought the book. My passion intensified for the project. I could visualize the dramatization of this intensely grim and horrifying time in our nation’s history. SCHINDLER’S LIST meets ROOTS. I guarantee you, should you read this book, you will not only learn lessons untaught in your history class, but you will also never look at the racial divide in our country the same way again.

I spent six months thinking about the story, dreaming about it, wondering how I was going to make this happen, but I was going to adapt this book, and wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. But, while time was ticking, the book made the New York Times Best Seller’s list. I had to act before Hollywood found him.

Easier said than done. I had one great obstacle – myself. The truth was, I had always let people say “no” to me. Hell, I made it easy for them. But, this time had to be different. I had such intense passion for this project. I knew I could win this man over, in part, because I knew how to pitch.

I was a pitching virgin as I entered my first Great American Pitchfest in 2007.  The hallway outside the ballroom was abuzz with new, eager talent. Everyone’s head swirling, not wanting to be writer roadkill, curled on the floor in a fetal position getting kicked by rejection after rejection. We stood in our lines, intellectual engines humming, waiting for the infamous cowbell to ring so we could spring toward a producer’s table, palms sweating, hearts pounding out of our chest, praying like hell our nerves didn’t show.

The beauty of Pitchfest isn’t just the weekend of networking; it’s what comes after. There’s something that happens to a writer once they’ve experienced mass-pitching. It forever changes you. Typically, the newbie writer locks herself up, writes a masterpiece, and sits in her home or office hoping someone will magically find her. The reality is, no one is going to find you. You have to make yourself be seen and heard. You have to earn that validation. The single greatest lesson I learned from Pitchfest – don’t take “no” for an answer. If one person rejects you, be polite and gracious, but then dust off, get back in that line, and wait for your next cowbell. It’s just like dating. Not everyone will be a good fit. You have to kiss a lot of frogs, and sometimes humiliate yourself, but once you find an organic connection, it’s magic.

Taking all my experiences in hand, I prepared myself to kiss the next frog: the author of Slavery by Another Name. Okay, maybe not literally kiss him, but I was certainly going to pitch my heart out. After six months of stalking from afar, I decided I had nothing to lose. I picked up the phone and called the great Douglas A. Blackmon, New York Time’s Best Seller, Atlanta Bureau Chief of The(almighty… gulp) Wall Street Journal and left him a voicemail. I will admit, I contemplated drinking a rather large gin martini while doing so, but thought it best to keep my wits about me. I then went on the book’s website and sent what I hoped was an engaging email. Guess what? He called me back! You can’t imagine my shock when I heard his voice. He graciously spent 30 minutes on the phone with me. My favorite part – he asked, “Should I know you… are you famous?” To which I responded, “Not yet, but I will be.” I hopped a plane for Atlanta the next week to meet him, explaining I had business there.  In truth, I had not a single reason to be in Atlanta.  I was bluffing.

I would love to say that upon meeting my brilliant self, Mr. Blackmon jumped at the chance for me to adapt his book, but alas, I do not have the credentials of Paul Haggis, so it took four or five months to convince him. I distinctly remember hearing the words, “Why should I do this with an unproduced writer?” The words “unproduced writer” stung like a swarm of killer bees. It was my reality check. I had nothing to offer this man except my passion for his work. But in the end, it was exactly that passion that won out… that and extreme patience.

Doug did assert one condition, however: That we write it together. Between you and me, it was all I could do not to leap off my seat and yell, “COOL!” like a pathetic groupie. Instead, I harnessed my writer insecurities, and confidently stated, as if validation like this was an everyday occurrence, “That would be wonderful, Mr. Blackmon.” I couldn’t ignore the fact that while I may have more experience screenwriting, he has been a professional writer for decades. I recognized that to partner with a writer of his caliber was a dream come true. Pinch me. Okay, not so hard.

Together, Doug and I are finding a wonderfully dramatic story in his historical research. The challenge is to nurture the real-life characters, enabling them to resonate on the page as well as in our audience’s soul, all while exposing the horrors of the post Civil War era. We are both fully committed to honoring those black men and women who suffered abominably.

Lesson to learn: Pitch and you shall receive. Yes, I was in the right place at the right time, I knew how to ask for what I wanted, I recognized a great story when I came across it, but I had the patience to wait until the author felt comfortable with my talents before he would commit. Sometimes a pitch is five minutes; sometimes it’s five months.

Despite my undying efforts to gain this project, I am forever mindful that Doug has graciously allowed me the opportunity to be on this train with him. He took a huge risk placing his “baby” in the hands of an unproduced writer. For that, I am deeply humbled. Let’s hope I can take “unproduced” off my title in the near future.

While we were deep into the adaptation, Slavery by Another Name won The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2009 General Nonfiction prize to Douglas A. Blackmon

April 29, 2010: We finished a solid first draft and submitted to Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

P.S. I wanted to share with you all a poem by the talented @WordSmithSpeaks, who inspired me every day to push past my fears and bring the truth to light.  His poem is entitled “Thank You“.

Watch him recite the powerful poem Thank You (in blue) HERE.

I thank him for his support and heart.

One response to “Slavery by Another Name – Pulitzer Adaptation

  1. thank you for your kind words (and for sharing my words).

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