Front Row at the Shitshow


Athletes’ autographs long ago lost their meaning for me. But authors’ autographs still have value, as though the signature itself, and perhaps a personal note based on a moment’s discussion, affirms my connection to the writer’s work.

“There There” by Tommy Orange is such a work. You’ll never read anything else like the brilliant, brutal 10-page prologue, which alone stands as capital L Literature, crashing the canon with its naked depiction of all that has befallen Native Americans.

The San Francisco Public Library named “There There” its One City One Book selection for 2019. The library’s website says, “One City One Book: San Francisco Reads is an annual citywide literary event that encourages members of the San Francisco community to read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in book groups and at events throughout the City. By building bridges between communities and generations through the reading and, most importantly, the discussion of one book, we hope to help to make reading a lifelong pursuit and to build a more literate society.”

I couldn’t wait to discuss this book with Tommy Orange. He so thoroughly inhabited all dozen or so of his chapter-named protagonists that the chance to ask him how he did it could supplant a lifetime of learning how to write.

Held in conjunction with Litquake, the event was scheduled for the library’s main branch on Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. Given the mass public’s appreciation for literature and concern with the Native American plight, plus the sidewalks near the library being littered with needles and human feces, I figured I could show up and get my book signed at 5:59.

But all seats were filled, and so were the aisles until the ushers said we could sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. After some pomp and circumstance, the MC introduced San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, herself a Cherokee citizen, “in conversation with Tommy Orange.”

Minutes later, it was apparent that this event was no book group writ large. Between long silences and Kim wondering aloud what to talk about, it was an awkward, meandering non-conversation, covering such topics as their discomfort on-stage.

An audience member raised her hand and was called upon. She rose from her seat to suggest they discuss the book. “That’s some privilege,” said a voice from over my shoulder.

Tommy Orange asked her what she wanted to know. She mentioned that the book’s prologue was hard to read and wondered why he chose to write it that way. His head collapsed into his open palm.

Someone else asked if he could repeat the question. “No,” he answered. “We don’t need to repeat the question. Her privilege is showing, and she just needs to cover it up.”

The woman who asked the question and some others who looked like her left the building. While we waited for what was next, another woman raised her hand and was called on. She chastised the author, saying he had “shat” on the first woman. Tommy Orange asked for a moment of silence in memory of those women’s shattered beliefs and “Please, no more white hands raised.”

A few more people walked out. I felt criminal for being white, which kept me mindful of how everyone red — or yellow or black or brown — had suffered so much more for their skin. I genuinely wanted to discuss the book, but if Tommy Orange did not, that was his privilege, and of course it should not be my privilege to determine his privilege. That was part of the point of his book.

For another forgettable hour, the authors muddled through until the MC mercifully called time. I learned little of what I’d hoped to know, but I thought a lot. I thanked Tommy Orange for that from my seat in the front row of the shitshow, and I asked him not what I wanted to know but simply to sign his book.

Film Debut in “The Request”

Making my film debut as Max the Gangster in The Request was a delightful collaboration with Dania Denise and Rob Carrera of Think Post Productions. Working with them gave great insight into the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail necessary for a quality film, even within the scrappy, bootstrapped indie world.

Rob’s direction matched the best coaching I’ve ever experienced. He provided calm, clear, patient advice that instantly put me at ease even as a rookie actor. I have been on all sides of cameras as a spokesperson and journalist, but acting is a different animal. I have a whole new understanding and respect for what goes into film-making, and I am grateful for the education and experience and what it will add to my future work.

Telling Your Story

Telling Your Story was the title of the panel discussion in the video below, shot at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World event in Chicago. More than 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including:

You can scroll below the video for highlights of the panel with a guide to timestamps.

In the first two minutes, Nicole explains the importance of story to non-profits as a means of achieving a mission and raising funds: thus the panel’s focus on providing concrete takeaways for our audience to enact.

Three minutes in, Katie addresses how critical it is to define a non-profit’s audience. “You can’t target ‘everyone in the world.’ You can’t make the most impact if you don’t know your target audience.”

At the 10-minute mark, David answers Nicole’s question about storytelling as art and science: “Every person in the organization and every person the organization impacts is potentially a story. If you impact 500 people, you have 500 stories. If you impact a million people, you have a million stories. The science is in having systems in place to get those stories. One thing I advise is to embed a marketing person as a journalist within your organization and charge them with seeking out stories. Create systems that make it as easy as possible for people to share their stories and incentivize them to do so. Use YouTube, email, social media, etc. as an intake for them to invest their hearts and souls into your organization, your brand your mission. That’s the science part. The art part is the journalist understanding what will trip the wires of whichever audience you’re targeting.”

At 12:15, Nicole asks what types of stories are most effective, and David answers: “Emotion. A natural story, focused on an individual person, who is on a journey that is immediately understandable. Anything that is simple, emotional and can be digested into a soundbite that is ready for social media.”

At 12:42, Katie adds “Emotion is incredibly important, but it’s so hard to define, it can be overwhelming. What you think may bring an audience to tears may fall flat. There’s this rule of thumb if you’re creating a story, and in the process you don’t feel anything, then don’t use it. You have to bring out one specific emotion in your audience.”

At 14:30, Marianna explains, “I want to make people identify. If I can’t make them want to feel included, and look at it, and say, ‘You know what, I see myself in that,’ then forget it, we did a bad job. Start over.”

Starting at 15:24, the panel discusses the storytelling tactics of using statistics to generate what Nicole calls the audience’s “Holy Shit moment” in realizing a story’s importance vs. focusing on an individual. Nicole on the “Holy shit” moment with stats.

About 20 minutes in, Nicole asks about a non-profit’s story “not getting lost in the noise” of constant messaging. Katie offers perspective on understanding the target audience rather than focusing just on the number of “likes” and advises to keep in mind that “we are wired to pay attention to bad news, wired to detect a threat.” At 22:04, David hails Solutions Journalism for going against that grain and serving as an outlet for positive storytelling

At 24:43, Katie tells a terrific story about storytelling, using an example of a gala video that raised thousands of dollars, but then fell flat in the organization’s newsletter. The next five minutes covers tactics in collecting and curating content to allow for re-purposing in multiple channels to a variety of audiences, including traditional news media outlets. At 31:52, Marianna suggests highlighting volunteers’ activities to share on LinkedIn to reach the volunteers’ professional networks and generate interest from new audiences.

Much of the remaining discussion is Q&A covering such topics as decisions on using internal vs. external resources for storytelling, how to tackle a story subject’s camera anxiety (even if that subject is you!), and whether/when/how to try to control your brand’s story in balance with the desire for it to go viral.

Thanks to Roy Kessel and Sports Philanthropy Network for the opportunity to tell our stories!

Inkflow’s Cool Summer

Summer – which I have defined not by solstice and equinox but by “school’s out” ever since attending kindergarten in 1969 – was cool this year. Inkflow’s workflow made it so.

Summer started with a Fit Kids event at Levi’s Stadium on the last day of school for the students we serve in East Palo Alto, continued with gaining new Inkflow clients, and ended with amazing back-to-school initiatives. As usual, returning to my roots in Chicago and Milwaukee nourished the blooms and fruits of these labors.

In early July, The 82 Project Foundation’s annual Swine Social pig roast and fundraiser reminded me why I love serving on the non-profit’s board. Named “82” for the year our board members graduated from Whitefish Bay High School, the organization funds a scholarship for a senior graduating from our alma mater and aids community members in need of financial and emotional support.

During that visit, Inkflow linked with the Milwaukee area’s Concord Chamber Orchestra and contracted to advise the non-profit classical musical group on marketing communications strategy. A slew of stakeholder interviews, an online survey, and observations in and around CCO’s community will inform Inkflow documents that provide the organization a map for its future outreach efforts.

Also while in Milwaukee, preliminary talks from earlier weeks with San Francisco-based real estate concern Andersen, Jung & Co. turned into a short-deadline assignment to write a 90-second speech that Principal Broker Monica Chung delivered to a group of business executives.

Back in the Bay, Inkflow sealed a deal to deliver writing coaching and marketing/business development consulting for Ferox Yoga, the brain-child of yoga instructor Claire Ngoon.

Soon after, the latest issue of Saint Thomas Academy’s Saber Magazine dropped, with several of my articles, including the cover story, “Profiles in Service.”

July closed out with the launch of a new promotional video for Fit Kids, including my first voice-over work…

…and August started with a return to Chicago as a panelist on the topic of “Telling Your Story: How to Engage Your Donor Base” at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World Congress.

About 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including moderator Nicole Fisher (Founder of Health & Human Rights Strategies, Co-Founder of Brain Treatment Foundation and a Forbes contributor), Katie Wilkes (Freeheart Creative), and Marianna Whitehurst (Board Member for Georgia Playworks, Foundation Board of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Chick Fil A Peach Bowl Advisory Board).

Back in the Bay, Inkflow forged an alliance between Fit Kids and Citizen Schools, which will have me leading Fit Kids classes for underserved middle-school students at Redwood City’s McKinley Institute of Technology. The chance to merge my passion for both non-profits into a single project that directly impacts youth and advances both organizations’ goals is a dream come true.

Then this other dream came true:

Minda, whom I informally and occasionally advised in the last several years, read from The Memo, sold and signed scores of copies, and led a rousing panel discussion with several other women of color that infused the packed room with equal parts anger and hope.

Twenty-four hours later, some of Minda’s “Memo” continued to hit home in another room of multi-culturalists, as “summer” ended with students back in school, including those who last night completed the class I teach at The Writing Salon, aptly titled — in light of Minda’s message — “On Point.”

Karma: A Writing Exercise

Sometimes small talk becomes bigger talk. Settling onto the bench in the yoga studio lobby, I asked Claire, “How are you?”

She sighed before answering, “This morning I woke up late, and my boyfriend wasn’t there. I found him on the couch. I wanted to grab my purse and go, but there was a huge spider on it. I just stared at it, and while I was trying to figure out what to do, the spider raised its front paws, I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him.

“I had to wake my boyfriend up, and I was like, ‘Help,’ and he just killed it. I think part of it’s still on my book. But I was so glad that I could just grab my purse and go, because I was running late, and today was the last day for that public-speaking class that I teach to the middle-school students.”

“And how was that?” I asked.

“It was tough! I had to be a little hard on the students. One of them kept taking out his tablet. I told him twice to put it away. I was going to take it away from him, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to confiscate things. Anyway, I just had him come sit next to me.

“Then this other boy, he’s really smart, but he doesn’t do the work. They were all supposed to give their final speeches today, and he wasn’t ready, but I told him he had to do it anyway. He was going to have to improvise, and he did it, and he nailed it. It was so good.

“I explained to the class that it’s better to be prepared, but sometimes in life that’s just not possible, so you just do the best you can, and sometimes it works out like it did today. So, I made it through the end of the class, and I was happy for that boy, and still kind of stressed from the other one who kept playing with his tablet. When class ended, they were the first two out, and I was holding the door open for all the other students, and then those two boys, one at a time, both came back and wanted to give me a hug. So, now I’m here on kind of a high, ready to lead your yoga session.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “I had something like that happen in a middle-school writing class that I taught…”

Then I stopped – it was Claire’s moment—and pivoted. “It’s great when stuff like that happens. That’s why as a writing coach, I was happy to get your email last night with your blog ideas. Two of them intrigued me a lot: the one about what yoga instructors can learn from the dog whisperer, and the one about the real meaning of karma.”

By then, I’d removed my shoes and socks, and finished some stretches. Claire started toward the studio, and said over her shoulder, “Let’s talk about that after class.”

I followed her and unrolled my mat. She brought blocks and bolsters and resistance bands. Once she started instruction, all the spider and speech-class excitement drained from her voice. Her ability to calm herself helped me trust that she could lead me to calm myself. I fell into the easy rhythm of breath she prescribed.

Most yoga instructors encourage us to remain present. Claire says to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice.” That phrasing resonates, along with how she says it. But, in this lesson, mid-Happy Baby, my mind wandered to writing instruction, and after “namaste” I told Claire my thoughts.

“What you said about the spider was eloquent. You tell me you struggle with writing, but you have tremendous access to language. The way you described the spider – ‘raising its front paws,’ you said, and then you corrected yourself, ‘I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him’ – that’s incredible description. You have the words, and it’s just a matter of writing them down.

“So, based on what you told me about your morning, and given your list of blog ideas, this week’s homework is to write about karma. I see some connection between karma and the way your day has gone.”

“What kind of connection?” she asked, and I said, “If I answer that, I think you will benefit less from this exercise. But, I’ll tell you what. I’ll do the same exercise, writing about this last hour, and next week we’ll compare notes.”

Collaborative Storytelling

Two great joys — collaboration and storytelling — recently came together on an Inkflow Communications project for Fit Kids, a non-profit client that provides structured fitness programs to underserved elementary school students. The challenge was to humanize Fit Kids’ impact, telling the story of one child to illustrate the organization’s broader value to the communities it serves.

Dramatizing a problem and its solution through the story of an archetypal individual is a go-to approach for many brands. This is especially true for non-profits that need compelling content to raise funds.

In theory, focus on a single face instead of mind-numbing numbers is the surer way to change hearts and minds. The story of one identifiable person is more moving than statistical statements about anonymous millions, which can overwhelm audiences to the point of turn-off and tune-out.

So, why doesn’t every brand take the individual storytelling approach? First, not everyone got the memo. Business leaders focused on the bottom line may fixate on figures. Also, telling an individual story in support of a brand is not an easy execution. That’s where the joy of collaboration comes in.

Telling the story of Briana in the video above took Fit Kids Founder Ashley Hunter’s commitment to this form of communications, Fit Kids Program Director Navita Wilson’s keen ear to the ground to identify Briana and her family as subjects, Inkflow’s work to bridge brand and journalism, and the extraordinary skill, emotional intelligence, storytelling instincts, and production chops of award-winning sports broadcaster Mindi Bach.

The video was a hit when it debuted at The Fit Kids Lunch fundraiser on April 30. Of course, collaboration also fueled that event’s success. But that’s a different story.

Spring Break

At the time of this post, I would ordinarily be in class. But it’s Spring Break, so I am writing instead of teaching, and my students are even more scattered than usual.

In childhood, I loved Spring Break or any other break from school. An aspiring journalist even then, I also secretly enjoyed writing the ritual essay on “What I Did Over Spring Break.” But now, as a volunteer for Citizen Schools, teaching a weekly creative writing class for middle school students at McKinley Institute of Technology, any break is too long.

Nothing is more rewarding than teaching young people, especially those in the underserved communities that Citizen Schools reach. Inside the classroom, students’ energy levels vary depending on whether they’ve had enough to eat and how much rest they could get the previous night in chaotic, overcrowded homes. Their expressions during class range from slack-jawed “a-ha!” to open-mouthed sleep.

Their potential is immense, yet still sometimes no match for the forces arrayed against them: systemic racism, under-resourced public schools, frequent reminders of the inhumanity at the borders their families crossed, and renewed threats to their own safety and sanctity no matter the number of years since those crossings.

The students’ resilience is remarkable. One has lived in the U.S. for less than a year. His stated goal on the self-assessment index card he turned in was “to learn more words.” Another writes beautifully and brutally of being forced at age 10 to choose between living with her mother or her father.

“That sounds very difficult,” I observed.

“It wasn’t,” she answered. “I don’t like my mother.”

Despite some gut-wrenching circumstances, there are no outbursts, no behavior any worse than that smattering of scattering mentioned earlier or a typical middle school giggle. The students want to learn. They help each other find words, whether to answer a question out loud or to complete a sentence on paper. When it’s time for pens and pencils to keep moving, they do.

The students treat guests with great respect. One week we hosted Dania Denise, whose creative talents include comics and graphic novels, because several students showed interest in those forms. In a future class, Rudy Ramirez, an ethnic studies professor at College of San Mateo, will share the songs he has written in Spanish and English.

It’s critical that these students see people who look like them and hear people who sound like them show and tell them the way toward personal fulfillment and professional achievement. Too many in this class too often are subject to discouraging depictions of themselves from too many of the too-few people in power.

Much of the students’ writing shows the angst that typifies their age under any circumstances. The best of it shows signs of imminent rage against their specific circumstances.

Last week, students wrote descriptions of the final projects they are committed to deliver when the Citizen Schools term ends in May. One will write about finding respite in nature, another plans poems about a poor family, and another outlined a super-heroic quest for a cure to save her mother’s life.

As much as I used to love Spring Break, now I can’t wait for it to end.

MC-ing for Napa Valley Film Festival

Since meeting Dania Denise on the set of a local TV news show that was covering our respective stories, we occasionally collaborate as volunteers for the non-profits we each support. For Dania, I manned the journalism post at a career exploration event for Citizen Schools students. Next, Dania and her Think Post Productions partner Rob Carrera joined me for a WeXL panel discussion hosted by the organization’s founder, Arabella DeLucco.

The David/Dania collaboration culminated at the Napa Valley Film Festival, November 7-11, when she brought me in as a Ringmaster (MC) to introduce films from the stage and lead post-screening Q&A sessions. The lessons learned from the filmmakers and the emotional impact of their work were worth the price of five days’ free work.

It’s one thing to privately cry in the dark at a movie, perhaps because the character on-screen is crying. It’s quite another to then watch the actor wipe tears in person in front of hundreds of audience members, asking their post-screening questions.

Actors, directors and producers put so much of themselves on the line — facing emotional vulnerability, financial risk, and threats to a coherent personal identity. They must in order to achieve artistic integrity and keep alive their slim chances for “success.” To be along for that ride, asking questions that can connect creator and consumer, maybe in ways that deepen thought about critical social issues the films explore, is a dream-come-true for a “Ringmaster” who is still just a journalist at heart.

Re-viewing the Festival and Films

The Festival’s screenings sprawl across 10 venues in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. My little corner of that world was the JaM Cellars Ballroom, upstairs from the Blue Note jazz club in the historic Napa Valley Opera House.

Each day started around 9 a.m. in preparation for a 10 a.m. show and ended about 10 p.m. The rest of the volunteer corps, ranging from teens to retirees, worked in shifts and became a team. Rapport with the projectionist, Dave, and venue managers, Brad and Antonio, were key to a smooth operation.

Day one started with a series of four shorts, marked by the last, Tzeva Adom: Color Red. The eventual winner of the Festival’s Audience Favorites Award for Narrative Short dramatized a relationship between an Israeli Defense Forces soldier and two Palestinian youth injured in a confrontation with her unit. My Q&A with Michael Horwitz, the director, began the week-long trend of asking filmmakers about the social impact they hoped for their films. His answer amounted to a wish for improved dialogue among the stakeholders in that conflict, which four days later flared again as it has for decades.

Next up was A Fatherless Generation by Nathan Cheney, recounting his quest to reunite with his estranged father. Cheney intermingled his personal story with interviews of  famous figures who faced similar challenges, such as George Lopez, and expert commentary on fatherlessness from Dr. Donald Grant, Dean of the School of Human Development at Pacific Oaks College, Executive Director of Mindful Training Solutions, and Director of the Center for Community & Social Impact.

For Q&A, Cheney took the floor with Executive Producer Billy Bush (yes, that Billy Bush), who grabbed my microphone the way Donald Trump grabs…well, nevermind, and conducted his own conversation with the audience.

Our day one finale was When We Grow Up, a family dramedy about inter-racial adoption, marital strife, the emerging independence of “grown” children, and the range of reactions to grief as the family assembles for its dog’s funeral.

During Q&A, Director Zorinah Juan and her all-female crew, including Grace Hannoy (who excelled as Producer/Writer/Actor), articulated the need for diversity in filmmaking. Their statements amplified the case they already had made by taking matters into their own very capable hands and delivering a film that many more people should see.

Day two started with The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova, a comedy fueled by quirky characters. A Jewish brother-sister team attempts to fulfill their bubbie’s wish to retrieve the buried bones of her dog from the anti-Semitic Polish town where she grew up. Days after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, audience laughter was tinged with cringes, but the Q&A confirmed that a director as able as Zach Bernbaum can meld comedy and tragedy in a way that reminds viewers of humor’s role even in dire circumstances.

Next, Ordinary Days told the story of a missing college student. She may or may not have been abducted, but the plot unfolds in multiple points of view and layered timing, so the audience does not know the student’s fate until the very end. Actress Jacqueline Byers steals the show and stole our Q&A, exhibiting in real-life conversation all the grit her character did and all that is required to succeed at the level she inevitably will.

Spare Room is a heart-rending study of a vet returning from Afghanistan. The film’s portrayal of small-town America and the people who inhabit it is sympathetic without sliding into sentimentality, which was the focus of our Q&A. Any further info shared here would constitute a spoiler. See for yourself.

The evening closed with The Trouble with Wolves, a penetrating, well-balanced, deeply-researched documentary on the re-population of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and its impact on local ranchers. Like most films here, Director Collin Monda’s work raises significant social questions.

That trend persisted into day three, which opened with Ask for Jane, a dramatization of the Jane Collective formed by University of Chicago students to help women obtain abortions in the pre-Roe v. Wade years. Until introducing this film, my introductions held to script other than occasional jokes about the audience balloting process (“It’s a one-to-five scale. Five means you love the film a lot. One means you love it 80 percent less.”)

But sensing the audience energy, I started along these lines: “For a theater to be packed at 10 a.m. on a Friday, I have a feeling that you didn’t all just want to get in out of the ash from the Camp Fire. And I doubt that you all came here to celebrate Volunteer Appreciation Day. I suspect you’re here because all these years later, the issue this film covers is somehow still an issue.”

The film is extraordinary for its spot-on period-piece details from clothing to apartment wall hangings to depictions of the era’s mainstream attitudes toward sexuality and women’s role in society, many voiced by stereotype characters that ring resoundingly true. Again, humor spices the serious material, and again in Q&A, Director Rachel Carey explained humor’s role in helping people cope with even life-threatening situations.

Next came Tomorrow, eventual winner of the Festival’s Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, about a wheelchair-bound British veteran of Afghanistan who falls in with an interesting group of friends. In Q&A, Director Martha Pinson credited Executive Producer Martin Scorsese with some key guidance. All of the main actors nailed their parts, and Sebastian Street, a day before winning the Audience Award for Favorite Actor, took our stage with tears in his eyes, which almost re-started the tears in my eyes.

So did this view of the 3 p.m. sun through the haze of the wildfire smoke.

Back in the theater, Only Humans told the story of a man cleaning out his deceased mother’s house and the relationships that he develops with the next door neighbors. The Q&A with Director Vanessa Knutsen reflected much of the film’s significant humor, but saying more here would spoil your viewing experience.

And We Are Boats was an enjoyable and stylish drama, tracking the adventures of a dead woman who returns to Earth with a job assignment to intercede in other lives so she can earn a visit with her surviving daughter. James Bird’s film about life and death packed plenty of social commentary punch, plus he mentioned during Q&A that We Are Boats is the first-ever 100% Vegan feature film. No animals were harmed, worn, or eaten during the entire production, including cruelty-free hair products, make up, wardrobe, and catering.

Day four entered laughing, thanks to The Long Dumb Road, a hilarious film about mismatched serendipitous travel partners. Explorations of class differences provide some weight, but Jason Mantzoukas soars with flights of comic genius. Audience members during Q&A likened Jonathan Duffy’s film to such classics of the genre as Midnight Run.

The next film, Ride, also had its humor. How could it not with rap-hero Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in one of the main roles? And it offered kick-ass BMX tricks and aggressively angled shots of the cyclists in action. And Producer/Actor Ali Afshar and his crew packed the theater to SRO with cyclists who pedaled from miles to form the biggest, most diverse and enthusiastic crowd our room hosted all week. “Is there anyone from the BMX community here?” I asked as part of my introduction, and their response left no doubt.

But in contrast to all the upbeat pre-show exuberance, this adaptation of the life story of BMX starJohn Buultjens was the heaviest film I saw, with brutal scenes of domestic violence, incarcerated youth, and sob-inducing displays of Aryan Brotherhood hate, racism and recovery.

Up onto the Q&A stage — along with Ali and about a dozen cast, crew and BMXers — limped Buultjens himself. We discussed the difficulty of him sharing his life story and seeing it interpreted for film. Although the film is set in Northern California, Buultjens is Scots, and I will never forget the moment during Q&A that he shared his first memory, from age three, “When my dad t’rew me into the burning fireplace.”

From the audience, a man I recognized from earlier in the Festival asked Ali how the film could help rally a movement against hate groups and domestic violence. After Ali answered, I said, “To elaborate on the question Dr. Grant asked, keep in mind the need for action on this front. Of the 953 hate groups in the United States tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, two states are tied with 66 each — Texas and Florida — but one state has 75 hate groups, and that’s California.”

After the gasps subsided and Ali and John answered all the audience questions, Dr. Grant met me in front of the stage to begin plotting our own course of action.

The last two films of the evening were You Can Choose Your Family with Jim Gaffigan as the father of two families who are secret to each other until they aren’t and Madness, Farewell, about a man and woman thrown together in circumstance brought on by their desires to commit suicide.

Day 5 was Veteran’s Day.

Our first film of the morning, Summer ’03, was a coming of age comedy (with sprinkles of seriousness) about a teen influenced by her grandmother’s dying words. Next came Thunder Road, another serio-comic romp focused on a cop whose life takes some twists stemming from the eulogy he delivers at his mother’s funeral.

Jim Cummings, who directed himself in the one-man short about the eulogy that grew into this feature, is a stunning actor. His rage scenes reminded me of the all-time greats. As I mentioned in Q&A with Producer Natalie Metzger, “This may be heresy, but I was thinking of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.” She explained his technique, the detail of his self choreography, and the process in which the set is prepared to roll, sans the roll-camera-and-slate routine, as soon as Cummings hits his mark.

Are You Glad I’m Here portrayed the friendship between a 24-year-old American woman teaching school in Lebanon and her neighbor, who suffers spousal abuse. Impeccable acting and the collaboration between Director Noor Gharzeddine and writer Sam Anderson, winner of the Festival’s award for Best Screenplay, make the film sing. In Q&A, Sam generously shared information on his writing process, and Noor shared the secret sauce of the film’s exquisite casting, crediting her casting director and detailing the rigor she and Sam also brought to vetting the actors.

We closed with the winner of the Special Jury Award for Best Genre Bending, White Tide: The Legend of Culebra. Covering the true story of a treasure hunt for a couple million dollars’ worth of buried cocaine, genres were so bent that one audience member asked Co-Producers Bryan and Amy Storkel whether they were more influenced by Christopher Guest or Quentin Tarantino.

Watching 22 films in five days, so many of such high quality from names I had not known, provided great inspiration to keep working creatively. Talking with these creators also gave me new views into the why and how of authorship in any medium. Most of all, the experience heightened my appreciation for all my collaborators, past, present and future.

Voices We Need to Hear

We need more voices.

That much became clear on February 16, 2018 when Black Panther made its nationwide debut. In the theater with three black friends I met through pick-up basketball and about three hundred other people – many in identity-affirming attire that ranged from traditional African to contemporary Wakandan – their pride was palpable. “Finally, a flick where the superheroes look like us, a film made For Us, By Us.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Don’t underestimate Black Panther’s importance either on the basis of who was in front of the camera or who was behind it and as a matter of employment, example and inspiration. Films like Black Panther, and now Crazy Rich Asians, send a message of hope to people from populations that are under-represented in mass media, entertainment and other creative industries: they can and should aspire to share their voices.

And we need more of them. Unless your political leanings include bigotry, you will agree our democracy needs the widest possible diversity of voice. After all, the word “democracy” derives from the Greek “demos” (people) and “kratia” (power, rule). Or, in the words of a real-life Black Panther, “power to the people.”

Lacking a “one person, one vote” style of democracy in America, it’s even more critical to pursue the “one person, one voice” approach. That’s what makes Twitter, however misused, so popular and so powerful.

But an individual’s ability to Tweet is no substitute for proportional, representative voice in traditional mass media –TV, radio, newspapers, film, advertising and other artistic and creative endeavors. Films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians generate so much buzz because they are anomalous in their inclusiveness and messages of empowerment to people of color. The films’ mere existence lulls much of the public into belief that we now live in a post-racial media world. Meanwhile, under-representation of voice persists in undermining our democracy.

Thus, the importance of WeXL, a fledgling non-profit devoted to:

  • developing diverse creative-industries talent from under-represented populations
  • creating opportunity for those creatives through networking that leads to greater employment, empowerment and share of voice
  • providing authenticity for the clients who hire WeXL actors, directors, producers, artists, performers, and, yes, even writers.

That’s why this writer gives time to WeXL, including participation in the organization’s Mentor Monday series and a presentation September 17 at 7 p.m. in San Francisco’s Google Community Space. Mentorship and encouragement for the young and the restless, those who compose WeXL’s creative community, benefits not just them, but can also  trickle up to benefit others.

At Mentor Monday with Ci’era London

If WeXL sounds overly aspirational, aiming too high for such a new organization, consider the bottom line. Films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians make bank: $1.3 billion in box office sales for the former and $164 million for the latter, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the decade.

WeXL members are not looking for a hand-out or even a hand-up. They are banding together to earn a living doing what they love, to contribute economically and socially, and to find and share their voices with a public that very much needs to hear them.