The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, September 20, 2013

Mandela and Mickey Mouse

At the ceremony for Tananarive’s Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts, I had the great pleasure of meeting Antoine Fuqua, director of “Training Day” and “Olympus Has Fallen” among other terrific films.  And I had the great pleasure of speaking with him at some length about his work.  A phrase he used caught my interest: that successful artists in Hollywood must be “smugglers of meaning.”

“Smugglers of meaning.”    An evocative phrase, yes?  What he meant by that is that the studios want entertainment.  But once you have pitched the story, and made the deal, you have to find a way to make the story personally relevant to you.  It has to MEAN something to you in some way, find an emotional entry point, or it is just hack work.

“Training Day” was a battle between good and evil for the soul of Ethan Hawke, Denzel as Mephistopheles.   “Olympus Has Fallen” is “merely” a Hero’s Journey riff, a character who needs redemption descending into the belly of the beast and emerging with a healed heart.    The question of whether such “mere entertainments” are substantive is a valid one.  Isn’t this just self-deception and justification on the part of a commercial artist?
I say no. 

1)  There are researches suggesting that people sitting in emergency rooms waiting to hear life-and-death news concerning their loved ones cope better if reading fiction than non-fiction.  I believe that the patterns of fiction allow us to take perspective on our lives.  That any valid dramatic structure has to reflect some perspective we have on life itself.  And that in watching others struggle and either win or lose we see ourselves, and can learn without actually suffering the trials.

2) The classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels” deals with a comedy director who wants to write something “of substance.”  His agent and studio tell him he doesn’t have any damned substance to write about, so he gets into a lavish motor home   and sets off on a motor-trip across America to “connect with the people.”  Hilarity ensues…until he loses his memory and identification and ends up on a chain-gang, where he is hip-deep in “substance” and “the people.”   While there, the only respite is a Friday night movie, a Micky Mouse film, and these tormented lost men roar with laughter at the animated hijinx, Sullivan along with them, for just a moment forgetting his problems.

A Hollywood justification?  Not according to comedian Chris Tucker.  While in South Africa, he had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela.  Humbled by this great man, he mourned aloud that he had done so little in his own life and career.   Mandela would have none of it.  While imprisoned on Robben Island for 27 years, he said, one of the only rays of light sustaining them was…American comedies, especially those with black performers.  Seeing people like Chris Tucker being successful and free, thriving and making people laugh, gave them hope that their own world might change.
“Mere” entertainment lightens stress, gives hope, allows the “heavy lifters” we admire find the strength to keep going.   Don’t ever criticize the work you create, if you are doing your best.  Give it all the heart you have, and you are helping to heal a heart, give hope.  Perhaps free a soul…or a nation.

Steven Barnes

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