Tag Archives: racism

Watching “In the Heights”

My kids have some weird pipeline into YouTube that connects them to the world of stage musicals. I don’t mind, because it seems to permanently block the pipeline that would lead to idiotic fundamentalism, Neo-Nazi madness and all the other evils that the algorithm seems to hand out to sad, lonely white boys with gun fetishes. Anyway, my kids are strong for LGBTQ+ visibility and rights, and that seems to tie in well with stage musicals for whatever reason.

The point is, they were Lin Manuel Miranda fans long before Mrs Dim or myself could remember all three names, let alone the order they came in. I do remember getting the original cast recording of In The Heights from the library, but it meant little to me, having not watched the show it came from. This week we finally got a chance to watch the movie version on Crave, and yes, I know there were representation issues even then, with LMM having to apologise for some decisions made about some characters, but it certainly wasn’t a whitewash. ScarJo wasn’t even any of the trees in the background.

In publishing (which I spy on through Twitter association with Real Authors), there’s a lot of discussion about representation. People with marginalised voices or experiences have historically been told that their stories have to conform to the (white) expected audience, or they won’t sell. the proof of this is usually the lack of books by those kinds of authors. but that is obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy – We can’t take you on because your book won’t sell, and your books don’t sell because authors like you don’t get taken on.

So here’s “In The Heights”, a story about a group of immigrants (1st and second and third generation) in an area of New York that is slowly pushing them out. They’re worried about their community, their livelihoods, their futures, and in some cases, their chances of staying in the country. None of this, to be clear, meshes with any of my life experience. I don’t even like New York. (I went once. It was ok, but I’ve been to better cities.) This being the case, I should NOT be the target audience for this adaptation. But I felt for the characters. I could understand their anger at their treatment because of the colour of their skin, or the country of origin, even if it has never happened to me. I could understand the anger of the daughter whose father was desperate for her to go to an Ivy League College, for her to do so much better than he had, whether or not it was what SHE wanted. I could understand the man looking to revive his father’s business, even though it meant leaving the community where he’d grown up. These were not things I had experienced, but they were things I could understand. And you know what? I didn’t need an explanation, or dictionary, or even subtitles for most of it. Just empathy.

Someone talking about film once said “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for ten seconds”, but I think the mega-studio system has lowered the bar on both those timings. In the search for ever bigger hits, movies are being reduced to reach the lowest common denominator. Don’t make me think, don’t make me work, explain it all, lay it out, and don’t ask me to read subtitles. Watching “In The Heights”, or reading “Binti” or “Mexican Gothic” doesn’t require a study of other languages or cultures. It just needs an open mind, an empathy for the feelings of another human being. Our ceremonies, habits and customs might vary, but love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. People are people, to paraphrase a Muppet Movie.

As a white Cis/het male, I have no problem with watching movies where the lead is female, of another race, of another sexuality. Why would I? Story is story. If it’s a love story, I’d like a happy ever after, whether it’s for him and her, for her and her, or for them. “In the Heights” made me laugh and cry because the stories were good, and so it didn’t matter that I don’t like New York, or that (despite my best efforts and fervent desire) I still can’t speak Spanish. But the important thing about it is how many people out there will see THEIR story on the screen. they’ll see people who look like them finally stepping out of the shadows of some other lead actor. Because of this, they’ll feel that what they do in life matters. They can tell their stories, or launch their business, or go to college, because they’re not just background extras in life, they are the stars of their own story.

Sexism – Opening the can of worms

Some time ago, I was asked to be in a magazine article about men taking on the role of Mum (Mom, to you North Americans). Because Mrs Dim had a proper job, no, a CAREER, and I was just playing at being a writer, I was labelled a Househusband and asked my opinions on all sorts of things. Oh, and they wanted some photographs: Would I mind just putting on this apron and holding a duster…?

The picture was really nice. It was of Eldest Weasel sitting next to me at the piano, neither of us in an apron. I heard the photographer sulked for three whole days, but really, I wasn’t going to put up with that. So I have strong views on sexism and equality.

Obviously, not the picture I was talking about....

I used to get irked, as a neophyte writer, when I saw competitions that were restricted to female writers, like the Orange Prize for fiction. There are none, that I know of, that are restricted to men. The reason for this is the perception that men dominate the writing industry, and they don’t need any help to succeed. Since I found my niche writing plays, got published and began to earn some money, my bitterness has faded somewhat (In the early days I even considered entering competitions disguised as Damina, my most common typing error, but it hasn’t happened…yet.) But this week my good friend and Star Script Reader Lucy V Hay posted notice of a women only Screenwriting competition: http://networkedblogs.com/79hge and I dropped a snide little note on her Facebook page, demanding the end to sexist writing competitions. That’s lead to a fairly long string of comment and counter-comment and I wondered if the blogosphere has anything to add. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • There is no doubt that men are the majority in screenwriting success. More films written by men get made, more succeed at the box office, and women screenwriters seem limited to cuddly rom coms like Norah Ephron writes (Which aren’t bad in themselves: I’m a big fan of “Sleepless in Seattle” and am irrationally attached to ‘Music and Lyrics”, but this is not the be-all and end-all of female writing.)


  • Faced with a dearth of decent scripts by female writers, the incomparable Zahra has asked for women to submit scripts. Only women. Plot lead, not character lead. This is not going to be “Eat, Pray, Love” on a shoestring, folks.


  • Lucy encourages her friends on Facebook to stretch themselves and come up with something suitable. If your window onto the world of screenwriting was Lucy’s Facebook page, you’d believe that it’s a fifty-fifty split between men and women. Lucy herself is no slouch behind the keyboard, having written and produced “Slash” which is NOT a Romcom.


  • I point out that excluding men just because they’re men is sexist.


  • Lucy asks if it would be considered racist to hold a competition for black screenwriters (who are also under-represented). I have to say “yes.” Isn’t it? Excluding white writers because they’re white isn’t “better” than excluding black writers. You’re discriminating on grounds of skin colour, and that’s racism.

The problem comes when you say “Ok, we won’t use positive discrimination, smartarse, so how ARE we going to get more women screenwriters?” I don’t know the answer to that one. I’m tempted to say “It doesn’t matter”, partly because I know that’ll wind people up, but also partly because I think then you get the really passionate ones rising to the top DESPITE the prejudice. Yes, they have to be 100% BETTER than the male opposition, but that leads to better films and the men having to raise their game. In an industry accused of dumbing down and looking for the lowest common denominator (Michael Bay, I’m looking at YOU), I’m all for raising the bar. Kathryn Bigelow made ‘The Hurt Locker” and that was pretty good. A lot of people started saying “Hey women can direct, can’t they? Why aren’t there more women Directors?” I don’t think anyone held the door open for Kathryn, she didn’t make “The Hurt Locker” (Or her previous films, let’s not forget those) on a “Give her a leg up, she’s only a woman” programme. Oh boy, I’m going to be in SOOOO much trouble for that one.

I’m a regular reader of Scriptshadow where I learn a lot about writing scripts and reading them, and one of the things I have learned from there is that GOOD scripts are hard to find, even from established writers. It shouldn’t matter the sex, height, hair colour or favourite muppet of any writer, as long as their scripts are good. I can’t believe that the first thing readers in studios check is the gender of the writer. What’s more likely the problem (and this is something that Zahra mentions) is that the execswho greenlight the various projects are looking at returns and betting on a particular demographic, which determines which types of movies get made, and those are, for whatever reason, not the ones usually written by women.

These days we’re told a lot that the internet is a great leveller. It can raise public awareness and the wrath of the many against what used to be impregnable corporations. It allows the little guy to produce his own web series and distribute it, bypassing the big studios and riding the word of mouth wave to financial success (or at least, infamy). Can the internet beat the masculo-centric viewpoint of the movie studios, or are they right in their assessment of the movie markets? Sure, I like films where things blow up, but I haven’t been to see ‘The Expendables” yet, and I won’t go until I’ve seen ‘Toy Story 3″. Probably not even then. The two screenplays I’ve written that I’m happiest with are character pieces where nothing blows up. I grew up with “Star Wars” and have a deep abiding passion for Sci-Fi but I have NEVER written anything with spaceships in. In eighty-odd plays, only three could be considered to have any Sci-Fi connection. One is a Star Trek spoof sketch (“Strange New Worlds”). One is a time-travel comedy (“Fight the future”) , and the other is a deep thought play about a 1950’s “Flash Gordon”-style film cast, stuck when their leading man is injured in a car wreck (“Waiting for Twist Stiffly”). I don’t believe I write like a man, or like a woman, or like a small, furry creature from Alpha Centuri. I write like me, and if I entered a competition for screenwriting, I’d enter it as me, not as a man.

I believe that good female writers should have as much success as good male writers. If women only screenwriting competitions will get us there, then ok, I’ll back off and cheer ’em on. But if you have a better idea, I’d love to hear about it.