Stories and their Relationship to the Good Life

The stars of Safety Net, LeJon Woods as Jerry and
Olivia Queener as Felicia


Those of you who have known me for a while, know that I have been creating dramatic stories for my whole life.  

Once I graduated from basement Christmas Pageants starring my siblings, I took to the church stage and then discovered theatre and in 1989 my brother bought a video camera and I started turning everyday life into experiences that would have been digested on youtube -- had youtube been available then.  

In my twenties I started to write feature length scripts.  In my thirties, I started making short films.  In my forties, I moved into the short documentary world and after I had made a series of documentaries about local people here in Stark County, I saw an amazing documentary film called The Arbor and it inspired me to dig deeper into one of the documentary stories that I had made and transform it into a fictional feature length script. 

Henry Stevan Patterson, the inspiration
for $107 A Day, as a boy with his family.

I was more than six months into writing the script when I realized that I was writing about an issue that had roots that stretched deep into the soil of the American Dream.   The foreclosure crisis and the unequal way that it impacted Black homeownership and White homeownership has incredible repercussions.  

When the Mortgage Crisis of 2008 and 2009 forced 7 million American Families into foreclosure?  Black families lost their houses at almost double the rate the white homeowners did. Black homeownership (already statistically low) fell 6 percent. 73% of White America own homes while only 45% of African Americans own their homes.  Experts say that the overall wealth gap between Blacks and Whites would be reduced by 31% if home-ownership were more equitable. This fascinating article explains the various factors which have contributed to the wealth inequality (across generations) between Whites and Blacks.

This startling graphic demonstrates how severely
the wealth gap had increased for 25 years
prior to the housing market collapse.

While I knew that telling a story so connected to the cultural moment could only be a good thing, a prophetic thing, I also knew that there were real significant dangers in trying to tell a story so closely connected to social and political issues. 

1.) There's nothing worse than a message movie.  If the story you're watching is a thinly masked persuasive appeal?  The mask will not only look false?  The story will also leave a bad taste in your mouth.  So even though I care deeply about inequality and long for a more just world, I knew that a "message movie" wasn't going to hep these situations at all.
2.) There's nothing more persuasive than bearing witness.  Aristotle, in The Rhetoric talked about how incontrovertible and effective the firsthand account of credible person could be.  In church, on some Sunday Nights, the deacons used to pass a microphone around the massive auditorium and various members of the congregation would stand up and tell astonishingly intimate personal stories that added credibility to the idea that God was at work in their lives.  I could feel the magic spell that was deepening in all of us.  Belief and connection to ideas is strengthened when we connect to the experience of real people.
So as I developed the short script -- Safety Net -- and continued to develop the feature script $107 A Day, I aimed mostly to tell the truth about the characters that I had come to know and love. 

Jerry Harris is looking at foreclosure in the eyes. The possible (?) probable (?) end of this part of his American Dream. Jerry knows about debt. Jerry knows about working hard. Jerry knows about striving to do better. Jerry knows about hope. Jerry knows about opportunity. Jerry knows about losing a job. Jerry knows about finding success. Jerry’s world looks more like middle America than most of the movies you’ve seen on screen this year.  And you’ll care because his dream isn’t an outlandish dream.  It’s familiar.  It’s the American Dream:  a place of your own.

I wanted to craft a story that invited all viewers to be WITH Jerry. To consider how it feels to face these experiences and emotions.
This film is an opportunity for all of us to understand each other better.  The film bears witness to black experience, and the film invites ALL viewers to care.   The film reminds us how much it matters that we pay attention to our neighbors.  It reminds us that: when everybody does better?  Everybody does better.
LeJon & Olivia (our actors) on an adventure
with me and producer, Emily Hisey.

Like Jerry, I am chasing a dream by trying to make a film. I have given up on this dream and I have picked it back up. A few times. Like Jerry's dream though: this film will only get made if there is enough energy and excitement in the world to make this story come to life.

Monday, September 19th, this link will lead you to our kickstarter page. If you don't know much about kickstarter, I have written about how it works and what it's about at this link.

The relationship between stories and the good life is a complicated one. It's not a relationship between an individual author and an individual audience. It's very much about the ways that writers and directors and producers and audiences together develop a shared vision. That vision grows through clicking on links, pitching ideas, box office statistics, critic's reviews, shared posts on facebook, fan communities that gradually grow into fan conventions and all of this circulating and development have to blossom in just the right way to make any particular story come to life.

I'd love it if you decide to pledge to our kickstarter campaign and move these stories forward. But I hope that more than that you'll take your relationship with stories seriously. The stories you choose, you talk about, you engage, you return to, you share -- those stories make US who we are.

And when everybody do better -- everybody do better.

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