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“Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares” – webinar starts 3/25

What do the works of Octavia E. Butler, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and the music of Janelle Monáe and George Clinton have in common?  They’re all in the realm of Afrofuturism, an arts movement sweeping the world and firing up imaginations of people from all backgrounds.

Get-Out-Horror-Movie-Trailer

Afrofuturism – also known as the Black Speculative Arts Movement – centers black characters and innovative voices in comics, music, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Whether it’s the prophetic dystopia of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, an android slave auction in Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” video, or racism as a kind of demon in Get Out, Afrofuturism explores voices that traditionally have been erased to provide a map through the past and present with an eye toward a better future.

I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA, and for the first time I’ll be co-teaching a 10-week public webinar with pioneering science fiction writer Steven Barnes (“The Outer Limits,” Lion’s Blood) starting Saturday, March 25th : “Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares.” Lectures will be broadcast live online, but if you miss one, you can watch the video feed at your leisure.  This is the last week to REGISTER before classes begin.

This overview course is designed for artists, fans and activists who want to explore Afrofuturistic themes in their own art or simply gain a better understanding the power of Afrofuturism to help drive social change. The course is perfect for writers, filmmakers, musicians and artists of all types who want to explore Afrofuturism and be more inclusive in their works – but you don’t need to be an artist to take the course. (Most of my students aren’t.)

Pumzi

From Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s short film Pumzi 

You’ll get a syllabus of works to explore in your own time, live lectures online, and access to the slew of interviews we’re conducting for the course: interviews include “Luke Cage” writer/showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Oscar-winning producer Reggie Hudlin, Hugo Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor, pioneer Samuel R. Delany, author M.R. Carey (author/screenwriter of The Girl With all the Gifts), activist Bree Newsome (who took down the South Carolina Confederate flag), Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds, artist John Jennings – and more! These guests will share craft secrets and their views on Afrofuturism’s power. Steve and I will also share an interview we conducted with Octavia E. Butler in 2000.

Why is Afrofuturism so powerful?

Imagine: Fifty years ago, in the 1960s, when young black and white activists were being murdered and attacked for trying to register blacks to vote—how awe-inspiring was Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek”? Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was a validation on the deepest level that blacks would not only survive—we would thrive. Her impact was so powerfully felt that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her not to quit the series when Nichols was ready to leave.

And if you’ve read Octavia E. Butler’s work, you know how strongly she was guided by a principled social vision that decried hierarchy and subjugation – themes that could not be more relevant in our current political times. What qualities provide great leadership? What is the path through hardship? How can we imagine the future we want to avoid – or the one we want to build? Whether it’s the utopian escapism of jazz pioneer Sun Ra or the heroic feats of Black Panther, Afrofuturism helps give us tools to both cope with and subvert harmful social trends.

At an event I attended in West Palm Beach Saturday called Black Women Rise, activist icon Angela Davis discussed the impact of Afrofuturism on real-life world-building.

Angela Davis & T

“It’s not that I’m optimistic because I see the world through rose-colored glasses,” Davis said. “It’s that if the work that you’ve done for so many decades and years would make a difference in the future, we have to be able to imagine a different future. Even though there are no guarantees, but in order to do the work we do, however we do it – whether as artists or activists – we have to believe a different kind of world is possible…

“And thank you so much for your work, Tananarive, in Afrofuturism – we need to be able to imagine the future as accessible, as spiritually accessible, to us. We’re doing this work not just for what will happen in our lifetimes, we’re doing it for the worlds that will be ushered into being a hundred years from now, two-hundred years from now, and we have to learn now how to feel ourselves a part of that in a collective meditation.”

Whether it’s by magic, alternate history, horror or projections in the future itself, Afrofuturism is a powerful tool in real-life worldbuilding.

REGISTER for our Afrofuturism webinar to explore a new world.

TandSteve2

Tananarive Due has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award and a British Fantasy Award. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA.  Steven Barnes has won an NAACP Image Award and an Endeavor Award for his alternate history, Lion’s Blood

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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. 

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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.)

CARDINAL RULES FOR NEW FILMMAKERS 

  • 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…

THE BIGGEST THINGS THAT CAN RUIN YOUR MOVIE  

  • 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.

SPECIAL TIPS FOR IPHONE USERS: 

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.)

NOW YOU’RE READY TO EDIT YOUR FILM!  

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:

imovie10

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:

imovie8

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.

imovie11

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.)

imovie12

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.

So…ACTION!

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. 

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Charleston (a poem)

Charleston

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

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Selma, mighty Selma (2014)

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”  –James Baldwin

la_ca_1021_selma

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

 

I was raised by two civil rights activists – attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due—so stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. were common in my house. My mother first met Dr. King at a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workshop in Miami in 1959. My aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who attended with her, is an activist. Our godparents were activists, black and white.

Even without an official holiday, my sisters and I got to skip school every January 15 for annual birthday celebrations that brought neighbors, activists and politicians to our home to reflect on Dr. King and the legacy of The Movement. We held hands, listened to Dr. King’s speeches, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” As an adult, I co-authored a civil rights memoir with my mother, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.

My parents always stressed two things about the Movement:

  • The Movement was not about a single man, but about the faceless marchers and activists who were willing to put their lives, safety and futures at risk.
  • King was only a single human being. Often, he was afraid for his life.

The most vivid family anecdote, to me, was how my mother’s German shepherd, Scout, lunged at Dr. King at a press conference in St. Augustine in 1964 and filled his face with fear. (I can relate. My earliest memory is that same dog glaring at me, and I am still afraid of dogs.)

Which brings me to Ava DuVernay’s masterful film Selma, starring talented powerhouse David Oyelowo as Dr. King. This film, shot in only 32 days, took fifty years to bring to the big screen—and DuVernay’s masterwork is worthy of the wait. Although my parents did not go to Selma, this stirring film captures the civil rights movement – and the Martin Luther King, Jr. – from my parents’ stories. It is the truest civil rights depiction I have seen on film.

Its timing is also remarkable, released in the midst of a growing #BlackLivesMatter national social movement underway to complete the civil rights work depicted in the film. And it offers its own potential history: Ava DuVernay, already nominated for a Golden Globe, could become the first black woman nominated for, or to win, an Oscar as Best Director.

Selma is so relevant that it’s almost uncanny—the police abuses, the tear gas, and the brave masses willing to risk their lives for change. Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography unfolds at times like a dream, at times like a nightmare, eerily reminiscent of so many images we see from protests here and now.

Selma is a film about Dr. King and the quest for voting rights—but it is also about politics, activist strategy, intergenerational divides, inter-organizational bickering, marriage strain and the heroism of young and old, black and white, to create that historic march. Selma depicts Dr. King and the civil rights era of my parents’ stories—a terrible and wonderful moment in history when, as my mother so often said, ordinary people did extraordinary things.

Some of my favorite moments are the most mundane, human ones: a husband and wife emptying the trash together, a man finding late-night solace in the voice of a gospel singer, comrades laughing around the table while they enjoy a meal prepared with love. But the film also doesn’t shy away from the Movement’s violence, pain and frailties. Part portrait, part love letter, part primer, part call to action, Selma is a singular film of its time.

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

Too often, black artists have seemed invisible to the Academy—or, when they weren’t, voters’ choices did not reflect our own sensibilities as viewers. Too often, we have been stereotyped and typecast or left out altogether, our stories relegated to the wings.

I have seen many fine films this Oscar season, but none as big as Selma.

When Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions hired Ava DuVernay to direct Selma, he got it right.

Ava DuVernay got Selma right.

With Selma, Oscar has a chance to get it right too.

*****

On Ava DuVernay

Selma ava-duvernay

The only people surprised by director Ava DuVernay’s storming of Hollywood are those who haven’t been following her on Twitter. DuVernay, a former publicist, is a leader who has built her own national grass roots network of supporters as a woman filmmaker writing, shooting and distributing her own films through AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement)—and leaving a social media blueprint for others to follow. She is an eloquent champion of independent artists. (See her on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” here.)

Before Selma, she wrote and directed two independent films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (the latter also co-starring Oyelowo, winning her Best Director at Sundance). The quiet scenes from Selma are reminiscent of DuVernay’s mature grasp of characters and relationships in her earlier films. Selma’s social justice message is subtly hinted in Middle of Nowhere, a love story set against our era of mass incarceration. (That film was presented before the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of prisoners fighting predatory phone rates.)

Ava DuVernay was the first guest I invited to Spelman College in 2012, at the start of my two-year appointment as Chair in the Humanities. I literally laid out a red carpet for her, introducing her as a future Oscar winner. (She brought a brief clip from Middle of Nowhere, but that film had not yet been released. She appeared with lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi.)

Even then, I recognized DuVernay as someone who could change the face of Hollywood, just as I recognized Barack Obama as a man who could be president when he appeared before my Los Angeles church as a U.S. Senator in 2007.

DuVernay is both evidence of change and its agent. Her film is an homage to past activists and a visual mission statement to today’s, who themselves are learning the burn of tear-gas and the horror of facing down police officers’ guns.

Ordinary People

Selma, after all, is about We the People.

Then, as now, the activists are the true stars of Selma: stalwarts in Selma and Birmingham and Tallahassee, Florida, and elsewhere who faced beatings, jail or death day by day, paying the price of our Constitution’s promise with their blood. It is impossible to include every face, every name, but surviving activists, their children and their grandchildren can see themselves reflected on the screen.

Many activists did not recover from the emotional traumas they suffered in the 1960s. My mother wore dark glasses her entire adult life because of teargas thrown in her face in 1960, when she was 20. She died at the age of 72, and I have no doubt that the Movement stole years from her life. My aunt agrees with me.

The Stephens sisters, as they were known as students at Florida A&M University, organized a campus CORE chapter and began staging sit-ins after the 1959 Miami workshop. Together, they were arrested and jailed after a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. Once, Tallahassee police officer kicked my aunt in the stomach at a protest.

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Aunt Priscilla fled the United States to live in Ghana in 1964 after a series of ailments she later recognized as stress: Hives. Ulcers. Temporary paralysis she suffered in a jail.

“We couldn’t allow ourselves to feel fear,” she says now. But her body felt it.

Activists’ PTSD went unnamed, and often untreated. Some were ashamed to tell family members they had been to jail. Some committed suicide. Some simply never came home.

Names you do not know. Movies that will never be made.

Selma captures the face of their sacrifice. My mother would have loved Selma, had she lived to see it. Like me, at times, she would have wept.

Today, on opening day, Aunt Priscilla, now 76, will see Selma with a group of friends in the city where she was first jailed. (After their Woolworth arrest, she and my mother were among a handful of Florida A&M students who spent 49 days in jail rather than pay their fine. During their time in jail, the students received a telegram of support from Dr. King.)

Aunt Priscilla knows the film will be painful, but she is eager to see it.

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

“People forget, and they don’t know what happened,” says the retired educator. “If someone can tell the story, it’s good for our children. We are losing our children left and right. They don’t know the importance of anything—Why is it important to vote? Why is it important to do your best? Why is it important not to go to jail? Our children are lost, and they think it’s always been the way it is now. They can’t compare, but we can. I know the struggle continues—it’s not over. But they don’t know what the Struggle was all about. They’re being prepped for jail instead of for life. It’s more dangerous for our children now.”

She recalls the first time she met Dr. King, at the same 1959 CORE workshop with my mother. The workshop ended with Dr. King leading the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” “He sang ‘We shall overcome someday,’ and I told him, ‘No, Dr. King, we shall overcome today.’”

Like the younger activists portrayed in Selma, she says she and other local activists groused about Dr. King’s tactics of swooping in and out of town. “That’s how they talked about Dr. King: He was getting all the publicity and we were doing all the work.”

Once, over lunch, she asked Dr. King how he kept his ego under control when he was lauded by so many. “He said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but you have to keep focused.’”

That, at least, is the way she remembers his words.

Selma and History

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

Selma has overcome so much and soars so high that the well-publicized complaints from some historians about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal are particularly painful. In the flurry of Oscar politics, the drumbeat will be: This film shouldn’t win because it isn’t the truth.

It also means that potential viewers might skip it. And some Academy voters might steer away, as they did when Denzel Washington was nominated for Hurricane.

I have both seen Selma and read the history, and this is my view: Historical films, like historical novels, are a form of fiction. Freedom in the Family, which was nonfiction, taught me that memory itself is faulty—so the notion of “truth” is always a bit slippery. Filmmakers could not get the rights to Dr. King’s speeches, for example, so those are fiction–reportedly penned by DuVernay, though the sole screenplay credit goes to Paul Webb.

In historical fiction, the “truth” lies in the essence of the story being told—the spirit of an event. Any historical film is the starting point for understanding history, not the destination. Selma is not a documentary, and even documentaries are subject to filmmakers’ interpretations. Historians can debate the actions and attitudes of President Johnson compared to his character in his film, and I would suggest, as I always do, that we all research the history ourselves for a fuller picture. The roles of some activists, too, are minimized while others are highlighted. All historical films have omissions, interpretations and scripted dialogue.

Selma King and Johnson

I believe Selma’s depiction of Johnson represents the Movement’s struggles with the White House through the 1960s civil rights era—the fight for change versus political expediency. A film called LBJ surely would have its own sensibility. Other civil rights icons are also worthy of their own films.

As DuVernay said in her interview with Jon Stewart, “We don’t paint anyone as a saint in this–we don’t paint anyone as a sinner.”

Selma sets out to mold a human character from an icon, but also to capture “The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Like No Film Before.” It’s a lot to ask.

Selma does that and more. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge come to vivid life.

Selma-movie-Bridge-scene-592x333

The march across Pettus Bridge: Selma film (2014)

 

Next month, when I participate in a speculative fiction conference on the Florida A&M University campus where my parents met and I was born, I will see Selma with my 80-year-old father, John Due.  Like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and a shrinking number of other activists, my father is a survivor of the civil rights movement. Like all people of advancing years, those activists wonder if their legacies will be remembered.

With my father, "Freedom Lawyer" John Due

With my father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due

My mother is no longer here, but my father is still a community organizer and lawyer with freedom on his mind and in his heart. In Florida, he inspired young activists who went on to help create the Dream Defenders.

Selma took far too long to get made. A decade ago or longer, so many more activists could have enjoyed the validation of seeing their contributions represented symbolically on the big screen. So many more young people would have gained a deeper understanding of how steep the price is for change.

But I’m so glad Selma is here today.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author, screenwriter and filmmaker. She is the former Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. She lives and works in Southern California. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com. See her 2003  book appearance with her mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due. 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Writing Process: Blog Tour

 

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

I was invited to participate in this blog tour on writing by a very enthusiastic and talented writer named Serena Lin I met as her VONA workshop instructor. She posted last week on her Drunken Whispers blog. (Her thoughtful post is well worth reading!)

Question #1: What are you working on? 

I am, at last, researching a new novel.  My working title is The Reformatory, and it will be a historical supernatural suspense novel set in 1930s Florida.  My most recent solo novel was 2011’s My Soul to Take, the last in the African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep–so I have had a long break from novels.

Here’s why:

My two-year appointment as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College ends this month, concluding a wonderful three years of teaching at Spelman.  During that period, although I published two YA zombie novels (Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls) and one Tennyson Hardwick mystery novel (From Cape Town with Love) with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, those projects were already in process when I began teaching.  I had not begun work on a new solo novel…until now.

As eager as I was to quit my day job when I left The Miami Herald in 1998 to begin writing fiction for a living, Spelman taught me a different kind of liberation as a writer: the freedom not to write for a living. During this period, I have been writing short stories and speculative scripts and/or treatments for film and television projects, allowing me to grow as a short story stylist and to get more traction in Hollywood.

While I was at Spelman, I co-produced and co-wrote my first short film, Danger Word, with Steve. The director, Luchina Fisher, also co-produced the film.  Danger Word stars veteran actor Frankie Faison and newcomer Saoirse Scott, and it was nominated for Best Narrative Short at the Pan African Film Festival and the BronzeLens Film Festival.  Although we included this story of Kendra and Grandpa Joe trying to survive the zombie apocalypse in Devil’s Wake, the original short story, “Danger Word,” was my very first fiction collaboration with Steve in YEAR, published in Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams. (In that original story, the older girl was an 8-yera-old boy named Kendrick instead.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I now have more books optioned simultaneously than ever before, and I am working as a co-producer on most of them. Becoming a filmmaker has been an important step in creating more interest in my work.

As for The Reformatory, I’m not going to say much else about it except that it’s from the POV of a 15-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy who get caught up in the horrors of the era’s criminal justice system. (For a hint, read my previous blog posts, “Unburying the Lost Boys,” Parts I and II.)  In terms of previous work, it’s more in line with The Good House or Joplin’s Ghost.  However, it would be appropriate for both adults and readers over fourteen. I think.

I do think it’s possible to talk a project to death.  As writers, either we are talking about what we’re writing or we are actually writing. Until I have done more actual writing, I will do less talking.

Question #2: How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I’m not sure how to define my “genre.”

Most of my work has a supernatural element that would suit a “horror” label, but many of my readers do not consider themselves horror readers. Just today, a colleague said, “I’m scared, but I’ll read it because it’s you…”

I love Octavia E. Butler, Stephen King and Nnedi Okorafor, but most of my reading is not in speculative fiction.  I tend to read more historical and black literary novels in the vein of Tayari Jones, Bernice L. McFadden, Leonard Pitts and Dolen Perkins-Valdez.  History, race and culture are primary in my inspiration. Often, as in the novel I’m researching now, the speculative element is in service to the history–exposing it, acknowledging it, correcting it.

Long Hidden 2

But a historical bent does not make me unique, as you can see if you check out the newly-published Long Hidden anthology of historical speculative fiction. (Here’s a free link to my new short story in the anthology, “Free Jim’s Mine.”)

My research into the abuses against children at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, has been a vivid reminder of  how so-called “horror” in fiction is mild compared to the horrors in history.

Which leads to…

Question #3: Why do you write what you do? 

Writing supernatural or post-apocalyptic fiction is an emotional escape for me.  I literally was brought to tears every time I started reading nonfiction accounts about the Dozier School like The White House Boys (Roger Dean Kiser) and The Boys of the Dark (Robin Gaby Fisher with Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Straley).  My mind reeled with every page: Who would treat children like this?

Sometimes it’s less horrifying to imagine a supernatural entity at work than it is to reflect on our casual human monstrosity.  Demons make more sense of the nightly news.

My fascination with mortality began at a young age, and I have been trying to process it ever since. I don’t have the ability to pretend it away, and less so since I lost my mother in 2012.  This awareness has driven my ambition, my faith, my writing.  I write stories of unimaginable crisis to process my fears of loss, illness, death.

I write to witness the amazing inner strength of my characters.

The zombie apocalypse is fiction, but every generation suffers its apocalypse.  We are the walking dead.

No matter what our beliefs about what happens after death, that’s a lot to process.

How does your writing process work?

I write novels and screenplays, and both begin with the outline. I don’t outline shorter works, although sometimes I think I should. From a practical standpoint, I learned the value of detailed outlining as a published writer, when I was able to sell a novel based on three chapters and an outline.

I’m surprised by the number of writers who tell me they’re struggling with a project, but don’t want to outline–or hadn’t thought of it. Outlining, to me, isn’t a creative buzz-kill that crimps all creativity; it’s a simple diagnostic tool to show me if I understand the story I want to tell, the direction I want it to take, and whether or not it has the legs to get me there.

My chapter-by-chapter outline for Blood Colony was 30 pages long.  But after it’s written, my outline’s job is done.  For a novel, I might write the outline and then never refer to it again.  I know the story after that; the rest is just the details. After I finished The Good House, I referred back to my outline and realized I’d left out a few images and scenes, but the book had outgrown my hazy concepts at the start of the journey. The outline was enough to show me what I had–the rest was created in my daily practice.

No outline should be written in granite. (Screenplays are different, since I often write those collaboratively and the outline literally grows into a treatment, which grows into a script without dialogue, which grows into the full script. That’s the Robert McKee method in Story, and it works for me.)

On deadline, I also use page quotas.  Depending on the project, my page quotas vary from 3-5 pages or 5-7 pages. Page quotas are an incredibly useful tool, as are deadlines. If Idon’t have an external deadline, I create my own.

Doesn’t sound like “fun”? Wandering aimlessly through a long project isn’t fun for me. I don’t like creative rollercoasters, just as I don’t like rollercoasters in real life. My fun is in watching my characters react and grow through the story.  Even with an outline, there is plenty of room for surprises on each page.

The idea isn’t what matters most–the power is always in the execution.

Sometimes I have three or four hours to write. Sometimes I have fifteen minutes. Sometimes I only have time to read over what I wrote during the last session, but at least that keeps the story fresh in my mind.  I used to think I needed a closed door to write, but now my office doesn’t even have that.  Most of our writing props and rituals are only an emotional crutch–or, worse, an excuse not to write.

Having said that, sometimes I make the choice not to write. I give myself over to my students, or my family, or, say, a short film fundraising campaign. I can feel “flow” reading student manuscripts, shooting video, editing video.

But I always come back to writing.

Writing is not always fun for me, although it is much of the time, just like when I was 10 years old. But even “small” writing projects are difficult. The longer I write, the harder it gets.

The challenge may be what I love most of all.

“First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”   ― Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories 

The two writers I have selected for the Blog Tour next Monday, 5/26: 

TINA MCELROY ANSA

Tina McElroy Ansa is a novelist, publisher, filmmaker, teacher and journalist. But above all, she is a storyteller. Her five best-selling novels, essays and reviews have won praise from The New York Times to First Lady Michelle Obama, who has quoted from  the writer’s “Baby of the Family.” Ten years ago, Ms. Ansa established the Annual Sea Island Writers Retreats on Sapelo Island and St. Simons Island, Georgia , where she has lived for 30 years.  Since 2004, she has conducted the writing workshops  at colleges and cities throughout the Southeast.  She  also leads private writing retreats by request.

She is at work on her sixth novel to be published by DownSouth Press, the independent publishing company Ms. Ansa founded in 2007. See her website at www.tinamcelroyansa.com.

DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER

It’s a special pleasure to invite one of my former MFA students from Antioch University Los Angeles. If you don’t know his work, this won’t be the last time you see his name. He’s author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa NocturnaHe co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of HistoryDaniel is also an essayist and blogger who recently made an impact with his essay decrying the lack of diversity in publishing literature for BuzzFeed.  He writes regularly for Salon.com and co-edited of Long Hidden. He’s a great writer and a great advocate for writers.  You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter.

Plase spread the word with the hashtag #mywritingprocess

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Unburying the Lost Boys, Pt. 2: the real-life horrors at the Dozier School

AUGUST 2015 UPDATE: The remains of my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, were positively identified from the Dozier School cemetery. [Read more here.] 

MARCH 2014 UPDATE: The [Rof South Florida exhumed 55 bodies from the cemetery.

In 1937, my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, was buried at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, with perhaps up to 100 other boys who never came home after being sentenced to the notorious reformatory. Last September, I went to Marianna with my father, husband and son to observe the beginning of exhumations at the site. I started writing this post the first week of September in 2013, and I’m only completing it in January of 2014. This was hard to write.

 This is not only a story about the past. This story illustrates why our criminal justice system—racially biased and more and more dependent upon private prisons—is itself in dire need of reform.

Dozier School dorm (present day) PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Dozier School dorm (present day)
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

 “Having so few inmates makes the crops come in slow;

I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.”

–Dozier School Superintendent Walter Rawls

Letter to the Board of Managers,

Dec. 1, 1906

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013

The deputy sitting parked in his cruiser at the tree line gives us a slate with a form to sign, passes out badges we clip to our clothes.  Then he directs us to Boot Hill, the cemetery hidden in the woods on the former grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna—Florida’s most infamous reformatory.

“Follow the dirt road along the tree line,” the deputy says. “Turn left at the mudhole.”

And so my husband, Steven Barnes, drives on with a carload of us: me, our 9-year-old son, Jason, and my 78-year-old father, civil rights attorney John Due. It’s only ten-thirty in the morning in Marianna, but the day already promises to be hot.

We drive into the moss-draped woods.

We are puzzling over what the mudhole might look like when Jason spots it—a huge puddle of thick mud on the roadside. Suddenly we are at the site of unearthed secrets.  Makeshift crosses mark earlier visitors’ best guesses about where the dead are buried beneath the red soil.

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013, after a lengthy fight waged by families and survivors white and black, journalists, the NAACP, the Florida Attorney General’s office and the University of South Florida, researchers began their careful digging far from the crosses—where radar equipment used by USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle’s team found signs of unmarked graves.

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

One of the boys who died was my great-uncle Robert Stephens, who was reportedly stabbed to death by another boy in 1937. But in the fog of misery and mystery, how can we have blind faith in the claims made by Dozier?

Until the Florida Attorney General’s office called me in March, I had never heard about Robert Stephens, the uncle of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, whose name was listed in the Dozier School records as one of the boys who died there.  He was fifteen when he died.

My aunt, civil rights activist Priscilla Stephens Kruize, says she never heard about him or his death.  I do not know if my grandmother ever knew that her husband had lost a brother there.  Robert Stephens died two years before my mother was born.

Seventy-six years later, in 2013 Rev. Ronald Mizer of St. James AME Church, the Jackson County NAACP president, led a prayer with my family beneath the mossy trees as researchers paused their digging.  My father, husband, son and I held hands and bowed our heads.

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes PHOTO: Tananarive Due

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Afterward, my husband planned to take our 9-year-old son, Jason, to a nearby tourist attraction while my father and I stayed behind to watch the excavation. But Jason surprised us all: he chose to put on gloves to sift through the soil with researchers.

Jason picked up a shovel to try to unearth his family’s past.

“Look at that!” my father kept saying, watching his grandson at work.

This unburying has been a process of years. Of tearing down the woods.  Of digging shallow trenches. Of revealing long-held secrets. Of searching for anyone who might remember the dead—who might have heard a lost boy laugh or cry, or who lay awake nights in worry.  Some of the stories are so old, dating back to 1900, that no one is left to remember.

Jasondigging1

My son Jason (then 9) works along USF researchers to search for the remains of his distant relative, Robert Stephens, and the other Lost Boys
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

My father, husband, son and I came to mourn a stranger who was far from a stranger. Though we never knew of Robert Stephens, his loss had a ripple effect on my mother’s father and therefore on my mother.  That loss shaped attitudes, family dynamics, dreams.

What is any family’s incalculable toll when a child never comes home?  Has died violently?  Was likely imprisoned unjustly because of his skin color, like so many of our children still are today?

Last July, my father and aunt went to Tampa to witness the DNA swabs taken from surviving family members of the lost.  One of the men, named Robert Stephens after our long-dead relative, told the Tampa Bay Times that he volunteered a swab to help “find the truth.”

Not everything that’s buried is gone.

****

The stories from the Dozier School’s history are harrowing. The more you learn, the worse it gets.

The Dozier School operated from 1900 to 2011. It was finally closed in 2011 after a history of investigations and complaints.

A Dozier School building today. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

A Dozier School building today.
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

According to the Tampa Bay Times, which pioneered coverage of the story, in 2008 survivors came forward with stories of widespread physical and sexual abuse. In the CNN interview linked below, a family member alleges that her brother was murdered at the hands of school guards.  In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of foul play at the site.

But in 2012, USF’s Kimmerle used the ground penetrating radar she has used to investigate war crimes around the world for the United Nations—and she found traces of 19 more grave shafts than the FDLE.  There are more bodies than there are records for.  School records show that another 22 boys died at the school, but their bodies were never accounted for.  Kimmerle believes most of the boys buried there were black, though both black and white students died at the Dozier School.

Who are the dead boys, and how did they die?  Reports show that a fire claimed 12 lives. A flu epidemic claimed others.  But it doesn’t account for so many dead.

Ovell Smith Krell’s brother Owen Smith was sent to the school in 1940, and she told CNN that her family never saw him again.  School administrators reported that he ran away and later died of pneumonia, but a former Dozier student later told her Owen was shot and killed by Dozier school administrators when he tried to run away across an open field.  Dozier School survivor Robert Straley told CNN that other boys were killed there too.  HEAR THEM ON CNN HERE.

WhiteHouse

Fifty years later, grown men are haunted by the screams from the White House, where the beatings were dispensed.  Survivors have created their own website: www.whitehouseboys.com.  (In a moving Miami Herald video on the site, Michael O. McCarthy describes a brutal beating where he was struck more than 30 times: “They destroyed my childhood,” he says.)

Black survivors of the Dozier School have a Facebook page.

As one survivor, Charles Stephens, described it last April, two men held him down on a table while a third man lashed him. He said his back was so torn to shreds that his shirt had to be removed by a doctor.  His parents were unable to visit him that weekend.  He never told them about the horrors of his beatings, he said—he told the story for the first time in a room full of strangers meeting to advocate for exhumations at the school.

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. They traded accounts at a meeting near the school in April, 2013. 
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

“I stayed in the infirmary two weeks after my last beating,” said Stephens (no relation), who spent 18 months at the Dozier School in the 1960s, when he was 13. At age 61, the Panama City resident told his story publicly for the first time at the meeting last April.

“I ain’t never got over it, but I survived it,” he said, voice quavering. “I’m sure some little kids died of pure fear.  …Every time I went [to the White House], I made sure I got sent first so I wouldn’t hear the screams and hollering.”

Charles Stephens is white.  Other survivors were black—as are the majority of the dead, researchers believe.  But although the boys at the Dozier School were segregated by race, white and black boys suffered together.

Jacksonville resident Cocomo Rock, who is black and sports dreadlocks, was sent to Dozier in August of 1966, when he was eleven.  He lived there 22 months.  As he listened to Stephens recall his time at Dozier, he could relate all too well.

“I counted every day and every moment I was here,” Rock said.

Another survivor tells a story about how he found a single bright pebble to train his thoughts away from his White House beating, held it oh-so-tight to forget the pain—and still keeps the pebble in his pocket to this day.

Burials records at Boot Hill stretch from 1914 to 1952, although the report cites school-related Dozier deaths until 1973.

The culture of abuse, survivors say, lasted beyond the last recorded school death in 1952.

The reformatory was all wrong from the start.  According to the USF report, Florida led six investigations into the “school” in its first thirteen years. Boys in chains. Boys whipped mercilessly. Boys leased out for labor.

In Florida, prisoners were in a convict lease system.  (In the wake of bogus vagrancy laws, according to the USF report, Florida’s black prison population rose dramatically, with convicts turned over to labor agents.)  And the Dozier School was a labor farm—which, despite its name, never had desks in its early years, according to the USF report. Boys were put to work.

Dozier School History USF

In 1906, the school superintendent complained that the school had too few inmates to bring in the crops; the Board of Managers changed sentencing guidelines and eliminated fees, and the population of children grew. (I can’t help thinking about Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella in Pennsylvania, sentenced to 28 years in prison for accepting kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to privately run detention facilities in a “kids for cash” scheme.)

Were boys shot or mauled while trying to escape? Or was “trying to escape” a euphemism for random offenses at the jailers’ discretion?

Remember: the Dozier School is set against set against the backdrop of bitter racial hatred and oppressive Jim Crow laws of Florida’s past. A former juvenile inmate said at the April 2013 meeting that Dozier guards “set the dogs on you” if children tried to run.

And enough boys died at the Dozier School that it had its own cemetery.  Surviving records indicate that the institution tended to underreport the actual number of deaths.

KimmerleApril

“These are children who came here and died for one reason or another and quite literally have been lost in the woods,” Kimmerle told CNN.  “It’s about restoring dignity and if not putting a name to them, at least acknowledging and marking that they’re here.”  SEE KIMMERLE ON CNN HERE.

Ultimately, the state of Florida’s legislature approved $90,000 for the excavation. The U.S. Justice Department gave another $423,000 to match DNA from the remains to family members.

Said a survivor, Robert Straley, on CNN: “I’m angry at the state because they let this go on for 68 years and did nothing about it.”  He said he was beaten with a leather strap and that some school leaders killed boys and made them disappear.  “It’s important to find all the boys who were buried there. They’re practically crawling out of their graves crying, ‘Help remember me.’”

We hear you, children.  We hear you.

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

MY COMPLETE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201870003772295.1073741826.1249308782&type=1&l=226a980a4e

SEE THE FULL REPORT UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA INTERIM REPORT ON BOOT HILL CEMETERY AT THE DOZIER SCHOOL:

http://news.usf.edu/article/articlefiles/5042-boot-hill-cemetery-interim-report-12-12.pdf

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

2014: ABCActionNews.com: http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-tampa/tampa-mans-uncle-identified-from-dozier-school-for-boys-grave

2009 Tampa Bay Times roundup: http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/dozier/

2013 Tampa Bay Times excavation coverage (with photos): http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/human-remains-found-in-shallow-hole-at-dozier-school/2139448

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/03/us-usa-florida-school-idUSBRE9820V020130903

http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/story/22088542/2013/04/26/state-funds-agreed-upon-for-unmarked-grave-search

http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/in-marianna-dig-for-truth-encounters-desire-to-keep-past-buried/2114932

http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/12/justice/florida-boys-graves/index.html?c=us&page=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/us/10dozier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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