Two weeks after I approached Moe about shooting a book trailer for Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage, we assembled a small cast and crew at my apartment. Naturally, the beautiful week of sunshine we’d been blessed with in Southern California evaporated the Saturday morning of the shoot, and the sky was spitting rain.
Moe arrived a little before 8:00 a.m., just as I was racing home from buying bagels, fruit and other goodies for the crew. I was nervous. Not that I didn’t trust Moe and his camera operator B. with my story. I was just a little more familiar with Murphy’s Law than I’d like to be, and I wanted everything to be perfect.
This is why they try to prevent writers from being on set.
Parking on my street was in short supply, the day was cold and dreary, but peeps showed up. Many of the actors were people Moe knew and had worked with before, and they trusted him as a director. I introduced myself a few minutes before we shot the first scene to explain my mission. Just what the heck was Beckyville, and why did they need to give up hours of their weekend to be a part of this indie production?
This is how I broke it down:
I get that there is a stigma attached to writers who don’t have agents or the backing of mainstream publishing houses. Our work is seen as not good enough, and we have to prove ourselves. Truth be told, an indie publishing house that currently has a book on the New York Times best-seller’s list was interested in my work. They called my stories “witty” and “provocative,” but didn’t think they’d be able to sell a collection of short stories from an unknown writer. I didn’t want to keep querying agents to see if I’d get a bite. Not that I feared rejection; I just felt an urgency to get my stories out there.
I always hear black folks talking about the lack of diversity in African-American literature, how Superhead is privileged over Sula. But publishing is a business like any other, and these are the stories that sell. Sometimes we have to bumrush the canon; we have to insert ourselves into the discussion by any means necessary, which is what I want to do with Beckyville and this book trailer. I want to be a voice — not the voice — but a voice for black women. I want to show a different, zany, futuristic, provocative side of our experience. I’m hoping that the Beckyville trailer will give a glimpse into these stories and help spread the word about my mission. I believe in this mission so much that I am quitting my job to be a full-time writer, investing my own money into the artwork for the book, the printing of it, the props, the production of the trailer and other expenses that come with being one’s own writer, publisher and marketing team.
As the day wore on, we were a little behind on our production schedule, but that’s the nature of the beast. I was running around trying to make sure everyone was fed and not growing bored with being cooped up in my little apartment until it was time to shoot their scene. But the actors were patient and gracious. Despite everything being pulled together in a short amount of time and on a small budget, the production went well. I did manage to trip over a tripod and come crashing down on my hardwood floor with a venti mocha latte in hand. After making sure I was okay, the crew clowned me about never letting go of my cup, even as I was falling. That’s pretty much a metaphor for my life, for my experiences as a struggling writer in L.A. Even when it seems that my hopes have taken a tumble, I’m still holding on to my dreams.
To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than the spirit of the independent artist, than the person willing to war for his or her dreams. I’m not going to lie; I’m nervous about quitting my job and stepping out into the unknown. I’m leaving a workplace that has more than sustained me for eight years. In spite of my worries, I feel absolutely giddy about following my heart. I work, and then I come home and write for hours, or edit a 200-page manuscript or meet with a graphic artist or research avenues for promoting the book. Am I exhausted? That’s an understatement. I’ve been living on lattes and potato chips and about two or three hours of sleep a night. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. My dreams are my sustenance, the fuel that keeps me going.
I was talking to a friend recently about the Hollywood hustle. When I first moved to L.A., I was taking meetings, talking to anyone who would listen about my screenplays, networking several nights a week. This is when I was temping or working low-paying gigs. But once I “grew up” and secured a good-paying nine-to-five (with benefits), I lost my hustling spirit, or rather my muse was confined to a cubicle. Even though I longed to get back into that world of chasing hopes down dark side streets and back alleyways, I was afraid to put on my running shoes because I was collecting a steady paycheck. I let fear keep me from pursuing my dreams.
I am a woman who took a solo international trip to Australia last year. While in the land Down Under, I hurled myself out of a cramped Cessna at 15,000 feet, free falling for several minutes before landing safely on the ground. I am also a woman who traveled by myself to Queenstown, New Zealand, where I went bungy jumping and canyon swinging, an extreme activity where you are thrown backwards off a cliff 400 meters above the Shotover River. I also drove on the left side of the road for the first time, driving six hours, by myself, from Queenstown to Christchurch. I have tempted and cheated death. This — becoming my own boss, being my own publisher — I can do.
As the day wound down, and we filmed skits of black maids with superpowers and zombies who lust after black women for their hair, we had to shoot a final scene, one of empowerment where black women are walking confidently down the street. By that time, it was after five o’clock, and most of the actresses who so graciously showed up on set early that morning had taken off for the day. Courtney, one of my besties, went door to door with me to see if we could rustle up some sisters to participate in this shoot, since we were short about three women. We hit up the grocery store, the salon up the block, the beauty supply shop, even stopping random black chicks on the sidewalk. A few women agreed to participate, but this being L.A., didn’t show up.
Finally, Moe had a heart-to-heart with me. We could scrap the scene, or I could be one of the confident sistas strutting down the middle of the street for our “Sex and the City” walk. Now, I wasn’t feeling great about myself. I was on the rag, had gained a lot of weight in the past few years and definitely did not want to see myself on camera. I didn’t feel that I embodied a powerful black woman. That’s a dichotomy I wrestle with every day — writing stories featuring black women, wanting to be a voice for empowered black women, all the while feeling like a loser with a capital L. Finally, I threw up my hands and said, “Let’s do it.”
Throughout this process, I’m going to be putting myself out there, getting out of my comfort zone, placing myself in situations that are uncomfortable, where I have to stretch and grow. Might as well get in some practice. So I got my empowered stroll on with Courtney and Tiff, a young actress who drove more than an hour from the Inland Empire to participate in the shoot. Did I feel strange and uncomfortable doing it? Like a phony? Um, yeah. But it needed to be done.
Reflecting back on the day, I’m pretty proud of the work we did. I believe that, when the video is posted, it’s going to cause many people to think about the sometimes tense and complex relationships that exist between black and white women. My goal is not to demonize one group and valorize another, but to interrogate the ways in which we oppress and marginalize each other. And to try to inject much levity while doing it. I think we accomplished that. Looking forward to viewing the rough cut!