Why every Hollywood project needs an Effie Brown (“Project Greenlight”)

Producer Effie Brown had already been turned into a .gif by the first episode of HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” where she and Matt Damon had an exchange over the meaning of diversity that launched a #Mattsplaining hashtag. (He interrupted her, which set social media afire.) 

That was just Day 1.

You can almost hear Effie thinking,

You can almost hear Effie thinking, “I can’t BELIEVE what I’m hearing right now.”

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been working with Effie on a project for more than a year, and I was well acquainted with her catch-phrase “Duly Noted” and her candor on all matters, including race and diversity. And Effie isn’t in “Project Greenlight” for the money (as she breaks down in this Indiewire interview).

As always, Effie (who produced Dear White People) wants to make a difference. Effie hired a diverse crew including people of color and women–which particularly jumps out while watching the show because the movie itself, The Leisure Class, is so white. (The original script for the competition featured a black woman prostitute, and Effie raised immediate questions about how her character would be treated. That’s what led to the Damon exchange. For unrelated reasons, the director, Jason Mann, lobbied to use his own story instead.)

In the latest episode Sunday (titled “Hot Ghetto Mess” for reasons as yet unclear, but that’s a story for The Washington Post), Effie halted a scene when she realized a black extra had been asked to bring in bags dressed as a chauffeur. “The only black person in this movie is not going to be a chauffeur,” she explained to the assistant director (who was black himself). The extra playing the chauffeur was switched.

Effie had been very clear that black extras were not to be cast as “the help.” She explained further in an on-air interview:  “A butler. A chauffeur. These are tropes that we have seen time and time again, and I think those images are done. It’s time for us to tell a different narrative.”

When I tweeted my support for Effie, a troll immediately jumped on her for getting an actor “fired” for the sake of diversity–which isn’t what happened. (The extra wasn’t fired.) What did happen is that Effie scored a point against ongoing stereotypes in cinema–stereotypes that are so long-standing and culturally pervasive that many people in the industry won’t even see them.

The reality is, every Hollywood production needs an equivalent of Effie Brown at the table–ideally, more than one person with an unflinching grasp of how film and television can be so tone deaf to inclusivity. People from disenfranchised communities have a particularly hard time breaking into Hollywood, which is built on relationships and access. Many film and television internships don’t pay, for example, so interns have to be able to afford to invest that time just get in on the ground floor. That’s just the start of the closed doors. And producers who say they “can’t find” crew members, writers or actors of color don’t have Effie Brown’s contacts or, more importantly, her sense of mission.

And no, it isn’t comfortable. Sometimes even when women or people of color are represented behind the camera, or in the writer’s room, they are often alone–so they might not have the guts, or weight, to speak up or have impact on questions of representation. Effie does. (Here’s NPR’s story “On Wyatt Cenac, ‘Key & Peele,’ and Being the Only One in the Room.”)

If “Fear the Walking Dead” had had an Effie Brown at the table, there’s no way the first two episodes would have been slammed for their treatment of black men, or included the portrayal of (yet another) drug dealer by a black actor. (That showrunner blamed casting and talked about giving talented actors a break, but talented black actors can also get breaks in parts where they don’t die so soon, and aren’t walking stereotypes.) I ranted about those episodes in this post HERE. 

The list goes on. From the Native American actors who walked off of the set of an Adam Sandler movie to the ire Johnny Depp created by casting himself as Tonto to a federal investigation into sexism in Hollywood, today’s social media gives viewers a much wider platform to complain about how they are represented (or ignored) in TV and film. Embarrassment over diversity issues will continue to plague projects that don’t grasp the need to reflect diversity from within.

And speaking up isn’t easy. Years ago, I was I taping an awards show where I was a presenter, and I saw an upcoming line in the script comparing ethnic groups that struck me as borderline offensive. The line was supposed to be read by a black actress who was a minor (which only made it more inappropriate to me). I had no authority, but somehow I heard myself telling a woman in the control booth to cut the line (“I wondered about that myself,” she said), and she conferenced with the producer who had written it (who was himself black). The line was cut.

Later, I wondered what had possessed me. That wasn’t my show! Would the producer hate me forever? (The answer was NO, we’re cool.) But in the heat of the moment, I hadn’t thought about that. All I’d thought about was the integrity of the program.

Granted, that was a different situation–I was just passing through that taping, so it didn’t represent my livelihood. I wasn’t worried that I might get fired, or that my reputation might be tainted and I would never work again.

I wasn’t arguing my point on camera with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

But Effie Brown does, and can. Which makes her worth her weight in gold.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Click HERE to join her mailing list. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The beginner’s guide to making a movie with iMovie on your iPhone or iPad

Every fiction writer should experiment with screenwriting to learn about visual storytelling–and I believe all screenwriters should make their own film at least once. Luckily, making movies has never been easier, even if you have no experience.

This is a step-by-step guide to making your own trailers and movies with the iMovie app for iPhone and iPad ($4.99).

Although I am a screenwriter who co-produced a short zombie film in 2013 (Danger Word), I had never MADE a short film myself until a couple of weeks ago. I shot and edited (and starred in) a short horror film called “Lost,” which has a social justice message. It was great fun to film and edit on my iPhone, though many will prefer the larger iPad screen.

My flim is only nine minutes long. If you can, check it out before you read on:

I know it isn’t perfect. Every time I watch it, I notice something else I want to change. But I’m totally geeked about the fact that it exists–it’s out on YouTube just like a film with a full cast, crew and budget. And I made it literally from the palm of my hand.

I’m sure there are other video editing programs out there, but I have an iPhone 6, so I used the iMovie app. (The Sundance film Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5s, so you don’t need the latest phone.) My mini tutorial here will be focused on the iMovie app and its editing capabilities. I have not experimented with other apps or video editing programs.

Start small — with a trailer 

Even a nine-minute film is ambitious, and I would not have had as much confidence while I was shooting if I hadn’t started with iMovie trailers from templates. I’ve shot personal trailers I won’t share here (my son’s basketball game, for example), but I cut my teeth editing trailers for my books My Soul to Take, Devil’s Wake and Ghost Summer. The latter was a DIRECT inspiration for my short film: I found a spooky location I liked, and I wanted to build it into a longer video.

With the first trailer, My Soul to Take, I cheated and shot it all in one take. That’s the easiest way. No editing needed.

But most videos will need editing, and the iMovie trailer templates are a good tutorial on how to order your shots, choose which shots to use, and create a narrative from your footage. (Raw footage often won’t tell a story until you order it and give it meaning in context. My son’t basketball team never won a game, but my trailer made them look like champs.)

I won’t spend much time on trailers. You can watch YouTube videos on creating movie trailers. I also did not use the full iMovie program on my desktop–just the app–so its functionality was more limited. You can check out YouTube videos on how to use the full iMovie program. Apple also offers workshops on iMovie.

Trailer basics:

Push the

Push the “+” button to create a movie or trailer

When  you sign into the iMovie app, you press the “+” sign to create a New Project. (Or press “Theater,” which will take you to a “+” sign option.) You’ll have a choice between creating a MOVIE or TRAILER. For practice, choose TRAILER and start having fun. The prepackaged trailers don’t give you as much creativity, but they look and sound like authentic trailers.

Once you select Trailer, you’ll get a menu of trailer styles, from Adrenaline to Family to Bollywood. Pick the style that best suits the project you would like to make. (If you like horror, pick Spooky.)

Now comes the editing work: you’ll see a basic storyboard with empty video spaces for the clips YOU will provide. Be sure to keep all of the video clips you incorporate in your trailer or movie even after you have finished your project, until it’s uploaded or downloaded–if you erase the original footage, you’re also erasing the footage in iMovie. (I learned this the hard way.) 

Now you have your work space. Touch the first blank footage spot in your storyboard and you’ll get a menu of choices. All of my video clips were simply in my phone’s camera roll, which is where yours are likely to be. So, you can scroll through footage you’ve shot and try to decide what should go where in your trailer. (This is also true when making a regular movie, not just a trailer, but you won’t get the suggested shots and lengths. You’ll be on your own.)  

Now you're ready to start!

Now you’re ready to start!

Bit by bit, if you follow the guidelines, you’ll see an actual trailer taking shape, complete with opening titles and a fancy thematic presentation that can entertain friends and family.

Or, if you’re actually promoting a book or film, your trailer can be the real deal: a teaser to help motivate interest in your project. I have done both kinds. Both are great practice for the short film you’ve always been dying to make.

Again, this isn’t a full trailer tutorial. This is just covering the basics. Like me, you will find yourself racing to YouTube to find videos on how to navigate the program. But the iMovie app is fairly intuitive (more so than the full program, in my opinion), so you should get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Shooting your short film 

If you already have some video editing experience, you might want to skip making a trailer and get straight to original filmmaking.

Be realistic. You have an Oscar-worthy film in mind, but you’re a newbie. Just have fun making your first one while you build your experience. I chose a found footage horror style because I wouldn’t have to recreate many traditional camera angles (with cameras that can pan or pull back more smoothly). I also chose an isolated location (a hiking trail) so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with bogies (people wandering into my shots) or endless explanations. I really wanted the editing experience, so I craved a simple shoot.

For some of you, that might mean a scene in one room, limiting your film to a simple location. Maybe a couple is arguing or experiencing an intruder or a paranormal event in their bedroom. Think of the short old-time radio shows like “Suspense” and TV’s “The Twilight Zone” how they created stories with limited time and locations. What is your film equivalent?

Filmmaking is all about the art of illusion. Instead of wishing you could shoot in a mansion, try to think about alternatives. Maybe someone will give you permission to shoot a mansion exterior, but the interior shots are in that great dining room in your mother’s house she only uses for Thanksgiving.

What can you subsitute for the thing you really want? How will you create your illusions? Be creative!

I did not explore ALL of the functionality of the iMovie app. Don’t feel frustrated if there is missing information here. I learned one piece at a time, one Google search and YouTube video at a time. This is a basic primer.

Here’s a list of apps for filmmakers you might find helpful. (But see Rule #1 below. I did not use these.)


  • Try not to spend a cent. Your iPhone was expensive, and the iMovie app is $4.99. You’ve spent enough. Unexpected expenses will crop up (I had to call Uber when I got lost hiking once), but have the mindset that you’re going to spend as little as possible at every step. Wait until you’re more experienced to start spending money.
  • A successful shoot is all about planning.  Whenever possible, don’t “wing it.” Whatever can go wrong will go wrong anyway, so your plan is the only thing between you and chaos. Have a “shot list,” a list of the shots you need to complete on each day of your shoot. (There’s an app for this, but see Rule #1. Paper and pencil also work.) Give yourself time between takes to set up shots. Phones will ring, power will go off, people will interrupt you–so be prepared for contingencies.
  • Keep it moving. Don’t fall in love with your visuals and linger forever. Don’t let characters sit too long in static conversation; mix up the camera angles or focus on an important item to enliven the visuals. Then trim, trim, trim.
  • Make your film look pretty. Filmmaking is Photography Plus–so there’s a reason Hollywood films have large, sprawling sets. You won’t have the budget for helicopter shots, but try to find the beauty in each angle, each shot. Don’t let loose wires and misplaced shadows ruin a great take. KNOW what’s in the frame before you push “record.” If you can’t find the “big” beauty in a shot, look for smaller snatches of beauty. Along those lines…
  • Light your scenes well. Even shooting outside, I had to do retakes because of shadows across my face, etc. Poor lighting dulls colors and details and makes your film less interesting–or sometimes impossible–to watch.

Which leads me to…


  • A bad or uncompelling story. 

Many readers of this blog are writers, so don’t skimp on the script just because it’s a short film you’re making with your phone. In today’s social media environment, you never know what might “go viral”–so give your film a chance. I use a free program, writerduet.com, to write my screenplays. (If you’ve never written one, that’s where you start.) Begin with a “logline,” a couple of sentences about what your film is about. Then expand it to a treatment–what happens in each scene–and then add dialogue last. Watch short films to see what other filmmakers are doing with the medium.

The rule of thumb is that if you want a six-minute movie, write a six-page script, and so on. (It’s not a perfect rule, but it’s a guideline.) If you’re not a writer, find a short story you like and approach the author about a free option. Many writers will be flattered that you want to make an adaptation of their short work, even if it isn’t for pay. Do not adapt works you do not have permission to adapt.  

  • Bad acting.

I know — you’re not Quentin Tarantino yet, so you can’t find A-list talent to star in your short film. But there are good actors everywhere, and many are eager for a chance to get any kind of film experience. The problem is, instead of looking for the best actors we can find, we tend to look for the best actors we know. My son has worked with me on trailers, but I would look at a children’s theater for a child actor to carry a film. Or a local talent agency. Or a school drama program. Or ask parents at my school PTA. I may not find perfect casting, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

Using actors we know well can sometimes pay off great: We’re giving a friend or loved one a break, we’re keeping harmony on the set, and we’re sharing a bonding experience. But few things will ruin a film faster than a terrible casting choice. And not all relationships can withstand the pressures of filmmaking–even a small film. (I was very nervous about starring in “Lost,” but I decided I could make it faster if I didn’t look for an actress. My passion for the film’s subject — and weariness on the hiking trail — helped me produce the tears I needed on demand.)

Try to be objective. Do video screen tests, when possible. Good acting is half the battle. And make sure they don’t look at the camera unless you’re breaking the fourth wall for a direct address, or documentary style. 

  • Not enough coverage. 

Let’s say you shot your footage while you were in Miami, but now you’re back in Iowa and you have no access to a beach. But you forgot to shoot the important scene where your heroine swims from the ocean to the sandy shore. Unless you do reshoots, lack of coverage often means reimagining the scene–and sometimes improving it. But it’s never fun to realize you didn’t get enough shots to convey your story. Gaps in your footage will create confusion you may not be able to fix in editing, literally What’s going on? Where’d she come from? (I returned to my location for reshoots when I made “Lost,” so try to shoot somewhere reshoots would not be a hassle.)

  • Poor visual quality. Unless you’re doing a shakycam style on purpose, your camera should not shake. Invest in a cheap iPhone (or iPad) tripod so your camera work will look professional. Fill up the screen with rich images.

As your process goes on, you will learn what footage to fight for and what to let go.

  • Poor sound quality. 

Too many novice filmmakers underestimate the value of sound quality. The iPhone has terrific microphone access both in the camera itself and in the iMovie app, so there’s no excuse for poor sound. You can buy filmmaking apps that would improve sound, but even if you go with the basic setup, the mic on my iPhone was sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of a beetle’s legs crackling small twigs, shot up close.

Rules of thumb: Make sure your microphone is close enough to pick up strong sound. (And even if your sound is too low, as my cat’s mew was near the end of my film, you can adjust the volume of the clip in iMovie to make it louder–but you’ll make any background noises or hums louder too.)

Make your actors PROJECT. Just like I tell my screenwriting students about writing dialogue, acting is not conversation–it’s a RECREATION of conversation. That means slowing down, more careful enunciation, a few more subtle pauses, fewer “uhms.” All the while making it look and sound natural.

Check your footage as you go to make sure you’re satisfied with the video and sound quality. With a film crew, you would have a unit dedicated to creating great sound, and then a sound editor later to make it sound ever better. With “Lost,” I did it all myself. (And I have a passing airplane hum in in important shot I can’t do anything about. I would have lost too much I wanted if I’d muted the sound in the clip. Plus, I didn’t notice it until later.)

A note on cars and driving: Moving cars have a loud hum. Often, filmmakers will record sound later to recreate a conversation in a car–which is what I did in “Lost.” The opening phone conversation in the car was recorded over the video footage. (In our Danger Word short, actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott spoke only after their truck was parked, for example.)

  • Missing foley (Don’t forget the footsteps!) 

iMovie allows you to record sound over your video, even if you don’t mute the original sound. I was shooting in woods full of crunchy leaves, so I had plenty of footsteps. But I did notice a scene that was more like a still photo with no sound, and it didn’t fit–my character would have been in motion around the camera she had “set aside”–so I went back to shoot ambient sound for that scene. That’s called “foley.” If characters are walking across floors, or someone is approaching, amplify sound so that it will stand out. Footsteps matter in creating the illusion. If someone is preparing food in the kitchen, add a bit of clatter if it isn’t there, or running water. I added a cat’s mew to broaden the scene outside of the shot and lead the appearance of a cat on the bed, which might have looked odd without the preceding mew.


This may seem obvious, but a ringing phone will stop your video during a shoot. Put your phone in airplane mode when you’re shooting. Also be sure that you do not have your phone in “selfie” mode–I lost a great take because my camera was facing the wrong way! (I didn’t have a crew or cast, so I was both videographer and actress and couldn’t see it in progress.)


Don’t wait until the film is entirely shot before you start editing. I edited “Lost” as I went to see how the footage fit together, and to suggest story changes I hadn’t thought about when I wrote the script. Because it was set on a hiking trail (and I often literally could not FIND the location I’d written into the script), I ended up doing a lot of improvisation during the shoot. Editing as you go will give you an idea of necessary reshoots, or give you ideas to tighten or reshape your story. 

If you select Movie from the “+” menu, you’ll also get a list of themes and options. Depending on which you choose, the movie will have a very different look: from a CNN iReport to a travel video, etc. I always choose SIMPLE, which gives me a clean work space. This is how it looks when you first start a “Simple” movie:


Opening titles (secret hint)  

You can create your movie to fade in (with the gear tab on the right side, which has a few other options), but the app does not include a black screen for your opening titles, i.e. your movie title, who is directing it, your stars, etc. You can add text over any video image, but in my film I wanted to open with a simple white-on-black title: “A film by Tananarive Due.” (I also made a separate producer’s logo video I have used for a couple of different projects, but you don’t need to. If you want to make one, it’s just a mini movie you import like any other video footage once it’s on your camera roll.)

So here’s a quick hint: Cover your camera lens to create a black screen, about 15 seconds. You can go back to that footage to create closing titles too–although I didn’t see a way to make them scroll on the app. (Also, remember to turn down the VOLUME on your black screen, since sound will be captured even if the screen is black.)

Use the top “Add Media” symbol above to access your camera roll and import the black video footage. Then use the “T” symbol to add text (more on that below).

With text on the black screen, your opening title will look like this:

film by Tananarive Due

Now it feels like you’re making a movie!

In the photo below, I have already imported my video and recorded some sound. As you’re working, here’s what your iMovie work space will look like. (When you tap the “?” key in the top right side, hints light up like this:


In the photo BELOW, notice the symbols on the right and left side of the images: these are your editing tools. Once you have selected a clip, the clip will light up in yellow. (This will be familiar if you’ve used the bigger program.) Once a clip is in yellow, you can trim it, edit the sound, or edit the image (slow motion, speed it up, freeze it, etc.)

Now you're ready to edit

Now you’re ready to edit

See the sybols on the lower left:

SCISSORS: Trim your clip down.

CLOCK: Change the pacing of the video.

AUDIO: Adjust the volume in the video clip, or adjust the sound.

T: “Text” — This is where you add text either in the center or bottom of your video, usually at the beginning and end.

The last symbol will give your video different hues, shades, etc. I usually prefer to work from the raw footage. Overdoing stylistic tricks like different hues, etc., may be distracting and look amateurish. (I only changed the hue once, for a flashback.) But take a look and see how the different filters change the appearance of your video.

How to trim a video clip:

Admittedly, trimming clips is my biggest frustration with the iMovie app–and will be the thing that drives more experienced filmmakers crazy. It isn’t super precise. When you tap the clip you want to trim, it will show up in YELLOW (as in the photo above). Tapping the SCISSORS icon puts you in trim mode. While the clip is in yellow, swipe your finger down vertically to trim it. It won’t always work the first time. There’s a magic touch involved. And it’s way easier to trim a clip down the center than it is to just lop off a second or two at the beginning or end–if it’s too close to the beginning or the end, it may not work. You will want to play with this and experiment.

Once you have successfully trimmed the video, the part you lopped off will show up in its own editing box. You can tap it to turn it yellow to DELETE or to edit it–say, if you wanted to add a sound effect or text only to that portion. (Unless you delete a trimmed video clip, it will still play in order in your movie, as if it was never trimmed.)

The more precise you want your trims to be, the more time it will take to play with the app to learn the magic touch.

Don’t forget to edit the TRANSITIONS. (See the tiny boxes between clips–they are “fades,” “wipes,” etc.) You edit the transitions the same way you edit the video clips, by tapping the symbol between clips until it turns yellow and offers an editing menu. Experiment a bit to see how they look. You can always change them later.


Again, I suggest using the first option, NONE, for a clean edit the way most pros do it. In horror, I have used the Theme (“star”) transition a couple of times to draw attention to something scary–it’s a nice little effect–but too many gimmicks will make your film look amateurish, like saying “he exploded” instead of “he said” in your writing. Your viewer does not want to notice your transitions. The story is the most important thing.

 So, that’s how you edit your movie. One clip at a time. One transition at a time.

A few words on sound editing: 

The iMovie app has music and a few canned sound effects you can add to your film. The “Add Media” icon you use to import video clips will also take you to a sound menu. I have used the “Giggle” sound effect twice, but the options are very limited. More often, I have recorded my own sound over an existing clip to enhance it. Choose the spot on your video clip where you want to add new sound, press the MICROPHONE icon, and wait for the prompt to record. You can replay your recording before saving it and keep recording it until it’s right. (Notice all the added sound below, in blue and purple strips.)


Theoretically, once a sound clip is in yellow (like the one above), you can slide it from either end to trim it (careful!), or even hold it to drag it to another spot in your movie. But be careful with sound editing in the iMovie app. I have accidentally erased sound clips, or accidentally moved a clip that was too small to erase and would not light up in yellow. I suggest recording the sound exactly as you want it in your film and limiting any attempts to trim or move it once it’s recorded. And if you’re recording new sound to REPLACE the original sound, don’t forget to go to your original video clip, tap it to turn it yellow, and then MUTE the sound. Otherwise, your new sound will blend with the original sound. (You can adjust the volume of either/both.)

Your end credits 

I haven’t found a way to recreate traditional rolling credits in the iMovie app, but you CAN use your black video footage I suggested at the start to create new title cards. iMovie offers a variety of styles for text, both at the bottom of the screen and the center of the screen, so have fun experimenting with the style that works for you. (Hint: Don’t linger too long.)

VERY IMPORTANT: Once your video is finished  

As I said earlier, even once your project is finished in iMovie, do not erase the original footage from your camera–or it will wipe out the footage in iMovie too. Definitely save a copy of the finished film on your camera roll. Your movie is not truly “saved” as a final project until you remove it from your phone or iPad. For me, the easiest way to do this is to upload it directly to YouTube.

But I have never been able to get the iMovie app to work properly to upload to YouTube directly. In fact, uploading any project more than a couple of minutes long to YouTube can be a major hassle.

So here’s a workaround: get a FREE app called YouTube Capture, which is the most consistent app I have found for uploading longer videos. First, link YouTube Capture to your YouTube page. (If you don’t have a page yet, you’ll need to create one.) Once you have saved your iMovie project to your camera roll, open YouTube Capture, tap on the video you want to upload, adjust the settings (Is it Private? Public? Unlisted? You can always change this later in YouTube), and start uploading.

(HINT: In settings on YouTube Capture, the default is to add Video Stabilization and Color Correction. Because I shot a found footage style, shaky cam movie, I did NOT want video stabilization. But I always opt for color correction. In your video, these defaults may not matter.)

Make sure you’re connected to wifi to upload your video. When possible, I even suggest babysitting the process, tapping on the screen occasionally to keep it from going black, because sometimes the app will glitch when your phone sleeps. Depending on how long your video is, uploading might take from five minutes to thirty minutes. If YouTube will not allow you to upload a longer video, you may need to go to YouTube SETTINGS and authorize YouTube to allow longer videos. 

Once your app says the video has uploaded to YouTube, it will take time–sometimes a long time–for YouTube to finalize it. But then it’s done! Show a few friends, get feedback, and go make changes in your iMovie project to upload again if you like.

As I said earlier, this isn’t a comprehensive course, but it should be enough to get you started.


Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner. She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has also taught screenwriting. Join Tananarive’s email list. 


Filed under Uncategorized

On blending art and social justice: my short film, “Lost”

A still from my short film

A still from my short film

Recently, I took part in a conference at Princeton called “Ferguson is the Future,” which blended speculative artists with social justice activists for a magical weekend of sharing and dreaming. Whether it was on panels or only in our minds, as artists we all confronted the question of how we might use our art to broaden our impact in true life world-building.

Days later, I took my iPhone to a local hiking trail and started shooting a short film called “Lost”–about a woman, you guessed it, who gets lost on a hiking trail while she’s trying to find her office team-building retreat. (I actually got lost three times shooting the film, but that’s another story.) The woman happens to work for a private prison company, and the rest is…well, you’ll see.

Because I love horror, my idea was to shoot a found footage-style movie–but I also wanted to add a social justice theme highlighting an issue of critical importance to me: mass incarceration. The United States has imprisoned more than 2 million of its people, giving us the highest incarceration rate in the world. This national tragedy has resulted from systemic bias against minorities, particularly with harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in the nation’s “War on Drugs.” (Read more about mass incarceration HERE.)

I am a novelest-turned-screenwriter who has had scripts optioned within the Hollywood system, and in 2013 my husband/collaborator, Steven Barnes, and I co-wrote and co-produced a crowdfunded short zombie film called “Danger Word,” starring Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott. I’d had the benefit of being on director Luchina Fisher’s set to see how all of the pieces fit together to turn a script into a film.

But “Lost” is the first time I’ve directed or acted in a film myself. My reasoning was simple: I was fired up, I wanted to tell a story, and I didn’t want to let the lack of a budget, director, crew, cinematographer or actress stop me from making a film. I’ve written about how much fun I had shooting book trailers in my previous post, and this would just be a like a trailer–except longer. (I will blog more about the logistics of making the film on a future post.)

I’m fortunate enough to have an iPhone 6 with iMovie, and that was all I needed. In the hands of a more seasoned director and editor, the iPhone CAN create cinema quality films. (The Sundance darling “Tangerine” was shot on an iPhone 5S.) In my case, I wanted to tell a simple story that would both entertain and inform, primarily through social media.

All of my work, including my novels, has a certain spoonful-of-sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down quality. History, for example, is often at the root of issues my protagonists face in the present. As I mentioned at Princeton, I was raised by two activists: civil rights attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due, who spent 49 days in jail for sitting in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida–along with her sister, Priscilla, and a few other students from Florida A&M University. I was raised at my parents’ knees with stories of individual courage in the face of great odds to try to build a better world.

My mother, Patricia Stephens Due , arrested in Florida in 1963

My mother, Patricia Stephens Due , arrested in Fla in 1963. CREDIT: Florida Memory Project

But my parents never scoffed at my dreams of being a writer, even when I was writing about talking cats or children stowing aboard space ships rather than stories of racism and struggle. As my mother often told me, the civil rights orgnanization the NAACP always invested in the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch because its leaders understood the importance of images in creating a brighter future.

Filmmakers like Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) and Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowehere and Selma) have been deeply inspirational in the ways they combine art with messaging. And Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by transit police, helped spark a national conversation about police abuse before Ferguson.

As we all discussed at Princeton, Afrofuturism–or black speculative fiction–lends itself particularly well to questions of dystopia and societal change. Whether it’s the near-future bleakness of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the alternate slavery history in Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood, or the sumptuous world-building in N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, speculative literature arms readers with a lens through which to view–and, hopefully, to improve–the world we live in.

Often, my work serves as more indirect allegory. But “Lost” is very specific.

Pioneering science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany has said in an interview that he did not set out to “change the world” in the science fiction he began publishing in the 1960s–and yet, his very presence as a black writer and the casual conversations around race, gender and sexuality in his work were revolutionary. As I said in a recent interview in “The Guardian,” even today the presence of characters of color in fiction (and film) feels revolutionary because we have been erased for so long.

Steve and I wanted to make “Danger Word,” a black horror film, because we were tired of the same old horror tropes that often rendered black characters useless, spiritual guides or purely sacrificial.

But “Lost,” for me, is taking a social justice message one step further–I wanted specifically to address how the black middle class has been asleep on the growth of mass incarceration, even as it affected many of our own families. Whether it was because of shame, indoctrination or helplessness, it took too many of us far too long to realize that prisons had become The New Jim Crow. (I used that term in my 2008 novel Blood Colony, where lifegiving blood from immortals was treated as an illegal drug. And Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the breadth of mass incarceration.)

We are at a crossroads as a nation. With more growing awareness, President Obama’s recent visit to a federal prison (the first by a sitting president), and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform on the street level and beyond, we can all unite to make a difference. Here’s a petition you can sign today to urge lawmakers to embrace criminal justice reform.

Left to right: DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, author Daniel Jose Older, and me.

Left to right: DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, author Daniel José Older, and me.

No one film, or book, or song, will change the world. To me, the true heroines and heroes in social justice are those who are willing to take to the streets, as my mother did, and face arrest, or worse, to raise awareness. Having the chance to meet Ferguson activists DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie was among my high points during the Princeton conference. (Here’s a link to the Ferguson panels. I spoke on Panel #1,)

Fired up from Princeton, with “Lost” I was ready to amplify my social justice message in a short film. And, hopefully, create a short that would also be entertaining enough that people would share it whether or not they care as passionately about ending mass incarceration as I do. Horror or “Twilight Zone” fans, for example.

I hope you will enjoy “Lost.” If you do, please spread the word. And as an artist, consider the ways you might introduce large and small revolutions in your own work–even if it’s only in a single brave choice, a character from an ignored community, or a tiny nugget that will encourage your audience to think about our world beyond your story.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner who teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Join her email list to hear about free gifts and webinars for writers. Upcoming webinar: “Avoiding the mistakes new writers make” (Friday, Oct. 9)





Filed under On writing

My Ghost Summer book trailer: shot & edited on my iPhone! (And 5 reasons trailers matter for writers)

Still from my trailer

Still from my Ghost Summer book trailer

I admit it: when my publicist asked if book trailers actually help me sell books, I wasn’t exactly sure. The trailer I just shot for my new short story collection, Ghost Summer: Stories, simply appeared as an inspiration: I get to make a movie! 

This is my third trailer and my most ambitious: my first, for my African Immortals novel My Soul to Take, was all in one take, so it didn’t require editing. My trailer for my YA zombie novel Devil’s Wake was from an iMovie trailer template I learned how to use during an hour-long Apple workshop.

But for THIS one, I shot all of my footage and edited it from scratch using the iMovie app on my iPhone 6.  All of the images and audio were directly input to the phone. Some audio was free in the app’s library.

The result, I think, is pretty darn scary for 71 seconds and true to the spirit of the stories in my collection, which are a mix of horror and science fiction I have published since 2000. (You can read “Patient Zero,” the story that inspired my son’s image in the trailer, in Lightspeed magazine here. It was included in two best-of-the-year sci fi anthologies when it was originally published.)

My son, Jason, as

My son, Jason, as “Patient Zero”

The trailer isn’t perfect, of course. But after several viewings, I finally stopped comparing the final trailer to the one I’d envisioned, since my talent (my son) was a bit distracted and wasn’t down with retakes. Now I accept it for what it is, not what I imagined. (And he did a GREAT job with the voiceovers and posing.)

Why do I love making book trailers? That’s easy. After twenty years of publishing, the only film adaptation I’ve seen from my work so far is a short film we adapted from a zombie short story in this collection, “Danger Word,” I co-authored with my husband, Steven Barnes. (The film, directed by Luchina Fisher, stars veteran actor Frankie Faison and teenage gem Saoirse Scott.) We crowdfunded to raised money, primarily through Facebook and Indiegogo.

I am a screenwriter as well as a novelist (with a lot of curiosity about directing), so trailers are a great creative outlet. But with a couple of caveats, I think book trailers are a great exercise for all writers who want to both publicize their books and tickle their own imaginations. We’re living in a world where video is of greater and greater importance. To me, no experience can replace reading a good book, so video doesn’t feel threatening–for me, a film adaptation would just be a great chance to sell more books.

Ghost Summer - Final

First caveat: Don’t spend a lot of money. (Or any, if you can help it.) Today’s smartphones make it easy to shoot high-quality video, and there are plenty of YouTube tutorials on how to use iMovie and the iMovie app. Even if you just use a template like I did with my second trailer, it’s a visual expression of your vision.

Second caveat: Don’t expect a trailer to make books jump off the shelves.  I don’t have anything close to statistics on how trailers translate to sales, which was my publicist’s point. Create a trailer in the spirit of fun.

But here are five reasons I think trailers are a great idea:

Trailers are a basic introduction to filmmaking. As I tell my writing and screenwriting students all the time, chances are high that if your work is ever adapted for film or television, you’ll have had a lot to do with making that happen. The more proactive writers are about learning how to deal with the world of film and television, the better the chances of adaptation — including learning how to write your own screenplay. A book is not a screenplay or storyboard, so even if an executive is interested in your book, they often need a visual walkthrough. A creative trailer with a “take” on your story not only grows your skills, but can serve as a mini blueprint. (But make sure candid critics think it’s good enough to share. Pay special attention to sound and lighting.)

Trailers can be a love letter to your fans.  Your readers would love to see a film adaptation of your work as much as you would, so a fun book trailer is another way of dreaming together and enjoying even a short adaptation.

Trailers are great practice for your friends who want to make movies.  The filming of “Danger Word” was a great bonding experience for me, Steve. Luchina, and our editor, Terence Taylor. When I required my screenwriting students at Spelman College to produce a short clip from their screenplays, they drew on friends and family to pull it off. I definitely caught “the bug” on our shoot for Danger Word.

There ARE people who watch book trailers. As you’ll see in this article in the New Yorker and in this article in The Rumpus, “Fantastic Book Trailers and the Reasons They’re Good,” book trailers are actually a thing. They’re used in education as well as for publicity. The Creative Penn also has this article, “Book Trailers and Using Video for Marketing.” As with any other subject, a quick Google search will teach you much of what you need to market your trailer.

All publicity is good publicity. Even previous readers don’t rush right out to buy everything you publish. In sales, popular wisdom says it takes seven-plus contact points before customers are ready to buy. The trailer may not be the final push, but it can be shared, so it can serve as a contact point for more than one person. Any edge in creating buzz helps separate you from the pack.

Give it a try!

Tananarive Due has won an American Book Award and NAACP Image Award. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA and in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her new collection, Ghost Summer: Stories, is on sale now.


Filed under On writing

Ghost Summer: Stories (Sept. 1) — My love affair with short stories, and why you should write them too

Ghost Summer - Final

Like many writers, I began learning my craft with short stories. By the time I finished my graduate English degree, I’d shifted my focus entirely from my unfinished novels to short stories. I needed to master beginning, middle and end.

Finally–a sale! In about 1990, I sold a short story called “Amusement” to a small magazine called Writers’ BBQ. I was ecstatic…and then I learned that the magazine went out of business. No publication for me. Although I continued to write short stories, they were repeatedly rejected. I did not publish a word of fiction until my first novel, The Between, in 1995. After that, my focus shifted back to novels. But I’d honed my craft on short stories first.

And I couldn’t walk away. When Gordon Van Gelder invited me to write for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I wrote a short story called “Patient Zero” that ended up in two best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies. And so it went on, a story here and there, only by invitation: Harlan Ellison (“Señora Suerte” in F&SF), Marita Golden and the late E. Lynn Harris (“The Knowing” in Gumbo), Nalo Hopkinson (“Trial Day” in Mojo: Conjure Stories), Brandon Massey (“Ghost Summer” in The Ancestors and “Danger Word” in Dark Dreams) and of course Sheree Renée Thomas (“Like Daughter” and “Aftermoon” in Dark Matter).  More recently, I’ve published three plague stories for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey for their post-apocalyptic triptych that began with The End is Nigh (“Removal Order,” “Herd Immunity” and “Carriers.”)

I made it a personal goal to continue to write short fiction, not just novels. Why? Because my novels would be swayed by commercial concerns, but my short stories would exist for their own sake. They would most likely reflect my inner 10-year-old and the stories she wanted to write just because.

Sure enough, by the time I was ready to publish a collection, I was told that my longtime publishing house wasn’t interested. Short story collections weren’t considered profitable. And I sat on this collection for some time–years, I confess, because I was busy with my novels. Then I saw a collection called Kabu Kabu that Nnedi Okorafor published at Prime Books, a genre house with an editor I’d known since my very first days as a novelist, Paula Guran. The cover blew me away.

My collection found a home.

As you can see, the cover for Ghost Summer is also beautiful. But I didn’t fully appreciate how apt it is until I re-read my stories and noticed how many of them have child protagonists–from “Patient Zero” to “The Knowing” to “Ghost Summer” to “Danger Word.” They’re not stories for children, mind you (though they’re definitely YA appropriate), but many of these stories are about characters in helpless circumstances who must find their inner strength and light to survive and overcome. Children and adults alike must grapple with plague, apocalypse, possession, monstrosity and loss. Even zombies. (We crowdfunded and adapted “Danger Word” to a short film available for viewing at www.dangerword.com.)

Actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in the short film "Danger Word"

Actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in our short film adaptation of “Danger Word”

Publishers Weekly, in its Starred review, wrote: “In these extraordinary tales, American Book Award–winner Due (My Soul to Take) uses a clear-eyed view of history to explain (but never excuse) the present.” READ THE REST HERE.

Ghost Summer represents the past fifteen years of my short story publishing history, with a few newer ones–and one, “Vanishings,” that has never before been published. (A few erotica stories didn’t make it into the collection because they did not blend well with the other stories. Maybe next time.)

Aside from the creative exercise that has taken me away from series writing and dreams of bestsellerhood, my short stories have introduced me to readers who have never read my novels. My story “Herd Immunity” was a finalist for the 2015 Theodore Sturgeon Award. Short stories published years ago have found new life, and new readers, in reprints.

Admittedly, some of my recent love affair with short stories has been because of time factors: now that I am doing more screenwriting and teaching (I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA and in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles), it takes longer to write a novel. I’m currently working on a period novel set in this collection’s fictitious town of Gracetown, Florida, but I’m sure it won’t be finished until sometime in 2016, much less published.

In the meantime, though, I will continue to publish short stories. I meet an endless variety of new characters in short fiction, and short stories help me remember why I began writing in the first place.

Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in Danger Word

Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in Danger Word

As a writing teacher and personal coach, I’m floored by how many excellent-though-unpublished writers I encounter who are trying to learn craft in the endless creative caverns of a novel rather than concentrating on short stories first. It’s akin to screenwriters who leap into features without writing a few shorts. The reasons: writers tend to write what they read, and there’s very little money in either short fiction or short films.

But I would not be the writer I am without my love of short stories. They demand clarity of thought and theme, more careful use of language, and the ability to draw readers into a world in only a page. Or a paragraph. On the practical side, they also take much less time to write, they can be published almost immediately (compared to a long wait with a novel), and they attract readers who otherwise might never find you.

So, I take my own advice: as I continue to work on my novel-in-progress, I will keep publishing short stories. If I keep working at it, I hope to get even better. And it won’t be fifteen years before I publish my next collection.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She has won an American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Learn more about her work at www.tananarivedue.com


Filed under On writing

3 Things I Learned from Moderating the “Empire” Writers Panel

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Saturday, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating of writers from the hit show “Empire” at L.A.’s Leimert Park Book Fair: Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James, Attica Locke and Carlito Rodriguez.

For an hour, the writers spoke frankly about their own careers, their experiences in Hollywood, and what it’s like to work for mega hit show “Empire”—which simply must be one of the best writing environments in television. As in…Best. Job. Ever.

They laugh all day. Yes, they argue. Yes, they get the job done. But they have “Good Times” sing-alongs. Their stomachs hurt because they laugh all day. One of the writers actually said this.

But I digress.

Leimert Park Book Fair

Leimert Park Book Fair

As a novelist who is also writing screenplays and pitching my novels for TV and film, I’m always eager to hear the secret to success from veterans—just as I listened eagerly to Anne Rice when I interviewed her in 1992 as a newspaper reporter dreaming of becoming a novelist. From Rice, I learned that I should shed my reservations about writing about the supernatural. I never confessed that I wanted to write novels, but Rice told me that she had learned to laugh off the stigma of genre because her books are taught in universities. That realization was a breakthrough, and I wrote my first novel, The Between, within nine months of our interview.

The “Empire” panel may provide its own kind of breakthrough—helping me focus my resolve to work harder, and smarter, to break into television and film.

The first thing that stood out: the collective EXPERIENCE in the room. Attica Locke had never worked in a TV writers’ room, but she’d spent years writing unproduced scripts for studios. (She only started writing novels–which are acclaimed–because she couldn’t produce her own politically charged legal thrillers like her new novel, Pleasantville.)

Even other writers with little television writing experience brought experience from other realms: Carlito Rodriguez was editor-in-chief of The Source. Joshua Allen was a playwright. Even young writers like identical twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James had years of experience in television. Everyone on the panel earned their seat at the writers’ table after years of striving and not despairing at setbacks—Allen worked on “Hostages” for a year, for example, and then it was canceled.

And most writers had waded through the experience of being “the only one in the room,” as discussed in a recent NPR article based on comic Wyatt Cenac’s anecdote about Jon Stewart shouting him down when Cenac was the only black writer in the room on “The Daily Show.” You’re the only person of color at the table. Or the only woman. Or the only [fill in the blank.] Carlito Rodriguez joked that he is black, but he is also Latino—“which still makes me the only one in the room.”

They, too, have learned how to choose their battles and experienced the extra stress in their bones. But now, they say, they feel like they have found family.

Eric Haywood, who previously wrote for “Soul Food” and “Private Practice,” rightfully pointed out that “Empire” benefited from the pioneering work of Shonda Rhimes. (I would compare Rhimes’s impact on television to what Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale did for black writers in publishing.)

Here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Write more. So you finally wrote that screenplay? Congratulations. Now move on to the next one. My screenwriting time competes with my prose writing time, but I want to learn to better set aside time for both. One screenplay will not build a career in Hollywood. Neither will two. Or three. Remember how much rejection you face with your prose? Expect more rejection in Hollywood.

2. The Way is in Training. I have never taken a Sundance lab or even a two-day boot camp with Robert McKee. Collaborating with my husband, Steven Barnes (who has extensive TV writing experience), I have learned to write screenplays by writing screenplays (with smart notes from producers), reading screenplays, and reading books about writing screenplays. I write good scripts, and I love teaching screenwriting, but I can always learn more. With an 11-year-old son, two part-time teaching jobs, and a life as a novelist, the focused time, energy and effort even a short a class demands would be good for me.

3. Network, network, network. Because I already have cultivated industry contacts over fifteen years as an author trying to adapt my books to film or TV, I tend to be too low-key about following through after new connections. I collect business cards I often don’t end up using. I let email chains die. I’m a bit shy, so I’m not a naturally social person—I’m a writer!—and I live too far outside of the city to take a drive to L.A. lightly, whether it’s for lunch or—dear Lord—a meeting. But everyone knows Hollywood is built on lunch and meetings, so am I serious or not? I may not be able to do everything, but I need to be more active in the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA). That’s a start. And lunch now and then with new people wouldn’t kill me. (Find a way to improve your version of networking, i.e. attending a film festival with accessible panelists.)

These principles aren’t new to me. They’re not new to you either. But sometimes it takes a panel of writers to help clarify what we already know.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA and creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her short story collection, Ghost Summer, will be published Sept. 1. 

Leave a comment

Filed under On writing

Charleston (a poem)


June 18, 2015


–For John Due and Patricia Stephens Due

And the 9 Homegoers at Emanuel AME Church

Candles - 9

Because I was hurting and knew he was too,

I spoke to my 80-year-old father today—

The man who served beside my late mother in

America’s undeclared war on Her Own,

Whose heart sped in Florida and Mississippi,

Whose daily waking world is retold in my history books–

And he was too busy to talk,

On his way to a meeting,

Going about his business,

Because he knows Freedom is a journey,

Never a destination,

And because the Movement toward liberation

Is what keeps his heart Alive.

© 2015 by Tananarive Due

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized