I used to call it the Idiot Minute. Maybe I did. Maybe I called it the Idiot Beat.
What matters is that it happened enough that I had a name for it at all. It was the moment just after walking through the door for a meeting with some unfamiliar, low-level studio slick-in-a-suit or D-girl No. 43 when their head would do a double take and their eyes would wordlessly but loudly wonder: “He’s black?”
When I came to the city of Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune and broads who’d throw themselves at me ’cause I had a nice car, I knew that black writers who earned so much as a decent living wage were rare.
Didn’t know how rare.
I learned they were rare enough that me actually landing an agent and getting pitch meetings was the equivalent of taking a Freedom Ride: I was heading into unknown and segregated territory; middle-aged white-male writers over here, please. Everybody else . . .
Thing is, unlike the Freedom Rides, I’m not talking about the rural South, 1962. Try right here, 1994, when I first started making the “Pleased to meet you, won’t you hire me to rewrite your crappy movie” rounds.
Six years ago.
Not that long. Forever.
Little more than six years ago, Run-DMC was considered hardcore rap, New Jack City was the first — not the thousandth — Black People Shoot Black People, Don’t They? movie, and Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society and all the rest of the black movies that were so cool they didn’t use all the letters of the words in their titles were just a blip on the entertainment horizon. Back then, the black writer was a new and exciting kind of thing, a cultural phenomenon brought on by post-’80s creeping PC-ism, as well as by the burgeoning success of black film and, on TV, The Cosby Show.
Television’s where I landed my first paid, professional writing job. It was on a show called Rhythm & Blues. It was short-lived. Not short enough. The premise of the show revolved around a white radio DJ who saves a failing Detroit R&B station. The National Broadcasting Co. was very excited about the program. It was taking ã over the slot previously owned by A Different World, which was moving into the slot previously owned by The Cosby Show, which had, the previous season, ended its run. No matter that it subscribed to the age-old but apparently forever-stylish notion that black people needed white people to swoop in and save us from ourselves, the brain trust at NBC — flush off the success of Supertrain — was convinced Rhythm & Blues would be a hit. And the show might’ve been a hit, too.
Except, between the time the testers tested the show and when it aired there were a couple of minor incidents that took place in Los Angeles. One involved Rodney King getting reduced to Silly Putty on grainy videotape, the other involved a good chunk of the city getting barbecued live on CNN for four days running. Thanks to that little piece of “civil disturbance,” America’s perception of race relations changed. At least, America’s perception of what kind of race relations they wanted to watch on Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. changed. Rhythm & Blues lasted all of four-too-many episodes. But in that life span of a tsetse fly, I learned my first lesson about being a black writer in Hollywood: There weren’t many black writers in Hollywood. Maybe it was more like a refresher course, but it was a fact that got made crystal clear to me in one queerly true moment. We were pitching out ideas for a Thanksgiving episode of the show, and one of the white writers on staff asked me, “Do black people celebrate Thanksgiving?”
That the question was asked was a little disturbing. What was more disturbing was that the question was asked by a decent, well-meaning guy. And if black writers were so alien to the decent, well-meaning people in Hollywood that they didn’t know how we spent the third Thursday in November, to the bigots we must’ve been downright mythical — like unicorns or Cyclopes or compassionate conservatives. It made me wonder what chance I had, what chance any writer of color had, of making it to the end of the Freedom Ride.
But the movement that was black entertainment was not to be denied, and real soon we were all over the airwaves. Programs like The Fresh Prince, Martin and the groundbreaking Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper (bringing that we’re-not-using-all-the-letters-of-our-title coolness to television) were hits and employed diverse staffs. But even with that, black writers were living in a Livin’ Single, Livin’ Color professional ghetto.
Forget about it.
Don’t think so.
Our choices were limited to either writing on the black shows, or writing on the black shows — mostly harmless programs that on occasion found a way to offend every segment of society. To whites, they were too ribald. To blacks, they were too minstrely. To me, they were too insignificant to bother stressing about; nothing more than an onscreen credit that was like a foot jammed in the door that led to better things. Beyond the tenements of small-screen sitcomery were big-screen crossover jobs — writing films that were not race-specific, but simply race-inclusive for a worldwide market. It’s what every writer wanted. Anyway, it’s what I wanted. But to get those jobs you had to get the B.S. development meetings, and when you got those meetings you got the Idiot Beat: “He’s black?”
I was going around Hollywood with the manuscript for my first novel, Stray Dogs, which would eventually get made into the runaway underachiever U-Turn. It was a story of evil women and stupid men and what happens when their kind mix it up in the desert.
Sex and murder is what happens.
Anyway, studio types were starting to dig my take on the world, and I was getting people besides the guys at the copy shop to read my work. My then-agents landed me a meeting with some fringe producer guy. I walked in the door.
An Idiot Beat later . . .
The fringe producer guy was going on and on and on some more about how he couldn’t believe a black guy wrote this manuscript and it just didn’t seem like what black people write and he never would have guessed I was black and how he’d have thought if a black guy had written something it’d be something more black . . .
Maybe I should’ve gone out with The Unbearable Lightness of Being a High Yellow.
I wrote what I liked. I didn’t know there was a standard “black” manuscript I’d diverted from. Apparently, unknown to myself, I was trying to break out of the mold they’d put us in, and that had Hollywood flummoxed.
For a good while, a version of that story was put on a continual loop in my life: Get the manuscript out, get the meeting, get the Idiot Beat. And when you got that, you got a harsh reminder that hit like a slap in the face from a hand with a brick: As if it wasn’t hard enough getting work as a writer, there was that other, extra thing you had to contend with: “He’s black?”
Yeah. I’m black.
Now people know that. Over the last six years, I’ve been good enough — or lucky enough, or some cocktail of the two — to get enough novels published and episodes of TV produced and movies made that the D-girls right on up to the studio slicks who’ve got their fingers on the green-light button know before they even call my 10-percenters offering me work: “He’s black.”
Not that I don’t still have my queerly true moments of Showbizery. One time, this suit pitched me a movie about some black guys in the Navy — Navy janitors, he told me with a straight face — who steal a submarine. He insisted the movie be called Das Booty.
But on the plus side, my stature allows me subversion. When I turn in the rewrites the studios overpay me for, characters who were once nondescript are suddenly, quietly — in my best Toohey-istic fashion — characters of color.
Is it much?
Is it something?
The fact that I’m in a position to do anything at all, the fact that I no longer have to deal with the Idiot Beat, is something of a minimiracle owed mostly to the fact that I’m not black anymore.
I’m sorta not.
At a certain point — for Eddie and Will, for Lee and Singleton, and, in a different way, on a smaller scale, for guys like me, black = green, green being money, and that’s all that matters. Well, in a perfect world where people were so greed-driven they didn’t care what color you were, that’s all that would matter. We don’t live in a perfect world. We live in Hollywood. I’d like to think the Idiot Beat isn’t out there anymore. Unfortunately, I know the idiots are.
In addition to writing the original screenplays for Three Kings and U-Turn, John Ridley is the author of the novels Everybody Smokes in Hell and Love Is a Racket, as well as a writer and supervising producer of the NBC series Third Watch and a regular commentator on National Public Radio.