10 Q’s with Shelby

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Clifton L. Taulbert, author of Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, talks it up with Shelby Jones... Including: turning your novel into a screenplay, minority representation in today’s movies, why no one went to see "Beloved," and how a Greyhound bus can make all your dreams come true...

I was invited to Washington DC's John F. Kennedy Center For Performing Arts for the screening of Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored. At the time, I had not heard of the film or the novel upon which it was based. After watching the film, which starred Phylicia Rashad and Al Freeman Jr., I was thoroughly impressed by the way the story portrayed so many experiences that African-Americans have faced in the United States-especially the South. The film went on to become a critically acclaimed box office success; playing on only 345 screens, it garnered a robust $2.2 million dollars. Today, I consider the author, Clifton L. Taulbert, a friend and an inspiration. I once asked him about his secret for managing one's career, friends and other distracting influences. Clifton responded with the following analogy: "If you want to get to New York, then you board the bus with the people going to New York." His meaning was clear: distractions and hindrances to your success are completely under your control. If you surround yourself with people moving toward the same goal, you'll surely get there-just like that faithful New York-bound Greyhound bus.

1. What inspired you to become a writer?

Writing has always been very important to me. It allows me to create a world of words where all stories are important and valued. I now believe that I was encouraged to write not because I encountered great writers, but because I encountered my great-aunt who wrote and read letters as if they were volumes of books.

2. As you were penning Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, did you think it would become a major motion picture?

I had no idea that it would become a major motion picture. Perhaps I overlooked the importance of the ordinary in our daily lives.

3. Can you describe shepherding your story from a novel into a major motion picture?

After an article was written about the book in the Boston Globe, I was besieged with calls from Hollywood about making a film, but upon reading the book, many felt it was somehow ‘too soft.’ It was embraced–but it was not thought to have ‘the edge’ needed for Hollywood. Tim Reid fell in love with the book, but he did not have the funds to develop a script, so he returned the book and gave me his blessing. I rested for several months before I decided to find a scriptwriter to do the book on spec.* When that was done I took the script back to Tim Reid, who undertook the task of raising financing. It was not easy, however, he finally pulled together a coalition of investors that funded the filming of what is now being considered a classic.

4. Were you satisfied with the final product?

Tim Reid promised me that the film would capture the grace and dignity of a people who lived their lives in a relegated position, but who maintained a vision for their children’s lives. He kept that promise.

5. Do you have any regrets concerning the whole process?

I regret that the money was not available for marketing.

6. Young writers are sometimes torn between writing a novel or a screenplay. Any advice on how they should proceed?

Writing is so personal that it is difficult to recommend to others what to do. I usually say: ‘Write for yourself. Revel in your story and forget about money. Write until you have no more to say and you feel good about the process.’ Every story that lives inside of us is not for publication. Sometimes, we write for ourselves.

7. Do you think African-Americans and other minorities are represented properly in motion pictures?

Last evening I watched an old movie with an all-white cast and really enjoyed the coming of age of the young boy and how the dad and the mom interacted with each other. Then I looked at my wife and said, ‘I guess [African Americans] never dated, or bought a new suit, or flushed when meeting a new girl, or tried to make money selling Snake Oil. I guess we never laughed, and black girls never wore lace and bonnets, and we never sat at a table together to discuss the world at large.’ It seems as if we have seen our laughter of love and life through the faces of others. The film industry has successfully circumvented the stories of half our society.

8. With respect to the theatrical release of the film "Beloved," many in Hollywood thought the subject matter of slavery is what kept people from the box-office. What are your thoughts about this supposed fear that lurks in the minds of blacks, whites and others in today's society? Are we afraid to deal with the dark past through television and film?

Slavery plays out in our minds every day. We know the story. We see it in the mirror each time we shave, or put on make-up. We are never far removed from it. It's not America's dark past, rather it's our present reality. And for many people, the movie house was not intended to be an extension of something we live with everyday. Maybe this is why the movie houses were not filled. But in spite of our legacy, we are also people who deserve to laugh. After all, we tricked the owners of the ships–they never intended their cargo to become their neighbor.

9. If you could institute one nationwide policy with respect to race, what would that policy be?

I am not sure of a policy that would really change the hearts and minds. However, I do know that we need the law to give us time to recognize our capacity to do better as humankind. Our challenge is color and I am not sure what one can say or do to cause a revolution in thought. Maybe we are doing the best we can in light of how well we have learned the lessons of color.

10. How much has your education contributed to your writing and storytelling skills?

The process of education opens one up to a brave new world. Though I was not educated to write, I value my academic experience and can readily see its impact upon my writing. I have deep places from which to draw and imagine, and the educational process contributed to that well.

Clifton Taulbert is the author of four critically acclaimed books: Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, which was made into a feature film; The Last Train North, which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; Watching Our Crops Come In, which the Los Angeles Times lauded as required reading for all Americans; and his latest book, Eight Habits of the Heart, USA TODAY's 1997 choice as the inspirational book to give and enrich our minds. Taulbert has also served in the capacity of co-producer on two films: the film version of his first novel, Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, and the documentary The Era Of Segregation: A Personal Perspective, which won both the Cine Golden Eagle Award and the Silver Medal at the 1993 New York Film Festival.

* "On spec." is an industry term that usually indicates someone has performed a service for free, in the hopes that he or she will be compensated if and when the product is sold. In this particular case, Mr. Taulbert hired a screenwriter to write a screenplay based on his book and paid him for his services after the script was sold.


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