Ask a Pro

Ask a Pro: Virgil Williams, Screenwriter

PRO

VIRGIL WILLIAMS, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Mudbound and HBO Max’s Upcoming Remake of Kurosawa’s Rashomon

Q:
For a screenwriter: in the current climate, how do you navigate writing characters who are not of your same race, ethnicity, or gender? There’s a lot of backlash about non-POC trying to tell black stories, men trying to write female characters, etc. Am I only allowed to write Arab male characters (I’m Arab)…? – Anonymous  
A:

The heart wants what the heart wants. Which means…you are allowed to write whoever you want to write. To me, this is one of the most beautiful and challenging aspects of the craft—capturing the voice and nuance of all manner of human beings. I connected to the written word as a child because it gave me a chance to stretch my imagination and escape from my limited reality. Stories helped me challenge and reckon with the paradigms in my own world by giving me access to other worlds. And when I discovered I could actually create stories and not just read them, I was off to the races. Because writing made me limitless. And I’ve never looked back.

The road of creativity has to flow in all directions. I’m a straight, Black and Puerto Rican male and I have made a career out of writing a rainbow of different characters. I was nominated for an Academy Award for writing a screenplay that essentially had six protagonists: three women, three men, three white, three Black. I pride myself on my ability to morph and mold my ears and eyes in order to write a wide range of humanity.

How do I do it? With skill, research, awareness, honesty, and profound respect. They say “write what you know”. But I believe you have to “write what you feel”. That said, the further you reach from what you know, the more vigilant you have to be.

But imagine how terrible it would be if race and gender dictated who was allowed to tell what story. Filmmakers like Chloe Zhao wouldn’t be possible. My own career wouldn’t be possible. Currently, I am adapting a memoir written by a Black female. And in order to capture her voice, I spent time with her and cultivated a friendship. I worked at it. And it wasn’t easy.

But what if there is a young Black girl out there who dreams of writing her own Viking epic someday? Is she not allowed to tell that story? By that same token, if someone white wants to tell a Black story, they have to be free to do so. But they better bring skill, research, awareness, honesty, and profound respect. And if that story ever comes to life, they damn well better surround themselves with Black crew members.

But I personally believe that anyone is free to write anyone. The question as to whether or not anyone SHOULD write anyone is not something I concern myself with. To do so would subtract from the work. And the work is the only thing that matters.

Just be sure that you are celebrating and not appropriating. Be sure that the humanity is honest and true. Listen twice as much as you talk. And be willing to accept fault and to interrogate your work until you get it right.


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