By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By anyone's standards, they were brilliant. Though I had recently placed second in an international speech contest and had graduated from a nationally renowned theater school, their litany of achievements and top-drawer schools - Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, NYU, UCLA - sent me spiraling into neurotic inadequacy. I rushed home and telephoned a friend, hoping he would assure me that I somehow belonged.
They - we, rather - were writers: sensitive, idealistic, emotional, analytical, insecure and opinionated. One had to hesitate before speaking to us. Anything one said was certain to be challenged or dissected; the extroverted among us could use our cynical wit to riff off a statement like a piece of jazz.
We were also predominantly minorities and women, many of us on a mission to change an industry that had traditionally resisted change. And now we were "Walt Disney's children."
In August 1990, a messenger had stood in my doorway and handed me a letter and contract from Disney Studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and president Rich Frank. Underneath the Mickey Mouse logo, the letter said I was one of 26 writers who had been selected, out of 2,000 applicants, to inaugurate the Walt Disney Studio's much-publicized writing fellowship program.
Included in this group were self-assured lawyer Takashi Bufford, who would go on to write Booty Call, House Party 3 and Set It Off, one of Hollywood's most profitable movies in 1996; boisterous Tony Puryear, who later wrote the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser; and pensive Luis M. Meza, writer and director of the critically acclaimed 1996 independent film The Staccato Purr of the Exhaust.
Soon after the group's first meeting, I dropped in at the downtown offices of ARCO, where I had worked three years earlier before quitting to pursue my writing career. Moving from cubicle to cubicle, I collected high-fives and congratulations. It was a triumphant moment. The noisy celebration drew more co-workers into the hallway.
"I read about that program in the Times," one of them told me. I nodded. I had clipped the article for posterity. "That minority program," she sniffed.
With just three words and a disapproving tone, she had cast doubt on my legitimacy as one of Walt's kids. For a millisecond, I had the impulse to inform her that, in fact, there were white people in the program. Instead, realizing that I might be seen as implying that the presence of white people was what legitimized the program, I continued down the hallway.
As I spoke with another worker, the woman's words, and her tone, lingered in my ears. Had she read the whole Times article? Hadn't she seen the quote from the Writers Guild, about how two recent surveys had concluded that writers were being shut out of the market because of age, sex and ethnicity? Didn't she think that was wrong? I finally cast her voice aside. She was not going to fuck up my Disney moment. I had poured my life's savings into my new career.
I had gone hungry and ruined my credit rating. I had endured countless rejections. No one had given me shit. I had earned my right to be part of the Disney family.
Seven years had passed last spring when I spotted a print ad for the movie Booty Call at a friend's home. I chuckled at the title. "I know the guy who wrote this," I told my friend. "He's a Disney fellow." I began to cite other major success stories: Tony Puryear; Reggie Rock Bythewood, screenwriter of Spike
Lee's Get on the Bus and producer, along with Disney fellow Natalie Chaidez, on Fox's New York Undercover; Tim Doyle, today executive producer and head writer at Ellen, formerly at Grace Under Fire; Maya Forbes, staff writer on The Larry Sanders Show and later executive producer of NBC's 1996-97 Top 10 series The Naked Truth.
Moments later, a man appeared on television to disparage government programs that assist minorities. As in the case of my former co-worker, there was no acknowledgment that certain fields have long been effectively closed to women and people of color.
"Most of the writers in the program were as good as those who were earning a living at it," says Takashi Bufford. Booty Call had just opened, and Bufford was preparing to direct his first feature, which fell through after Orion Pictures was sold. He is currently writing projects for Warner Bros., Showtime and USA Network, and is preparing to direct again.
"The program provided access," Bufford continues. "Many whites already have access - they go to the same clubs, the same parties. I can't speak for all black people, but I think most black people don't have that kind of access. I know how difficult it was to get read, to meet the right people. I know it's difficult for white people, too, but still, they have much more access than most black people."
When Bufford was to address the 1996-97 Disney fellows ("I wanted to give something back"), he prepared a talk on minority filmmaking. But when he walked into the room, he was thrown for a loop. "There were maybe two blacks, one Hispanic," he says, "and lots of white guys. I had to adjust my talk." The program had become, in Bufford's eyes, "a regular situation with some minority participation."