In my first post, Pursuit of the Project, I shared my relentless journey acquiring the adaptation gig for the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name. I naively assumed getting the author, Douglas A. Blackmon, to agree would be the hardest part, taking six long months and the patience of Mother Teresa. How tough could the rest be?
It was time to deliver on my promise and condense a 480-page historical exposé that spanned 70 year’s time down to a feature length script. *bleeps out expletives*
Be careful what you ask for.
Luckily, I had the author himself as my writing partner, The Wall Street Journal senior national correspondent, and the very man who scoured basements of Southern courthouses for seven long years. Surely, that was going to save us time.
Not so much.
Turns out, when one works for the WSJ, they actually expect you to, well, work. No matter how important this script was to us, life moved on and news needed to be reported. Let me assure you, when we were deep in the trenches, I wasn’t very happy with Tiger Woods. Just sayin’.
If this baby was going to get off the ground, I had to plow forward and steal moments of Doug’s time as his schedule allowed. Thankfully, he trusted me.
We found the story’s spine in the U.S. Attorney of Alabama who, in 1903, brought the first white plantation owner to trial for holding a slave… forty years after the Civil War ended. You read that right. It was forty years before any white man inside the legal system had the courage to fight for African Americans’ rights.
The trick was to tell a moving tale, show our hero’s journey, but not make it a history lesson full of talking-head exposition. The book highlighted so many gripping facts that it was daunting deciding what to keep and what to take out.
This is where stalking skills came in handy.
Doug spoke around the country as the book gained popularity. I should mention, when we started the adaptation, the book was on the New York Times Best Sellers List, but had not won the Pulitzer yet. That happened deep into the project, which I’ll share in a later column.
Whenever I could, I went to Doug’s lectures, watched the audience’s reaction and scribbled in my notepad what made them gasp, wince, or cry. I watched through their eyes, not through the eyes of a writer who had broken the spine of the book reading it over and over.
As I witnessed their horror-stricken faces, I was confident we had to forge through whatever the obstacle to bring the truth to the silver screen.
You can’t read Doug’s book or listen to him speak and not see our nation’s history in a new light. It’s not written with blame but with understanding of both the black and the white perspectives. In fact, it is now required reading in many universities across the country. I am so proud and amazed he uncovered what he did, but above all, I’m honored he allowed me on the train ride with him.
I admit, when I started pursuing this project, my initial desire came from the incredible writing challenge and potential career advancement. But my passion had now shifted. I only cared about telling the truth of our nation’s history. Neither money nor fame was on my mind. Our goal was, and is, to change the world’s view of the racial divide.
The bar had been raised.
I clearly remember the night I sat at my desk after seeing Doug speak to a full house at a nearby church. Tears trailed down my face as I flipped through the pages and made a list of atrocities and injustices we could weave into our story, starting with a black man who was ripped from his dying wife’s bedside and sold into slavery. Long after his death, that man would teach the world what really happened.
Whether we were prepared to or not, we were about to become the voices for those who could no longer speak.
Be careful what you ask for. It just may change you forever.