Writing

Writing it right in Hollywood – Oregon ArtsWatch

Ashwini Prasad is on a mission. Smart, talented and driven, Prasad seems predestined to walk the path she’s walking and fight the struggle she’s fighting. Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, she remembers a moment when, as a nine-year old child walking down the street with her mother and sister, a stranger yelled “Paki!” at them. The child Prasad looked up at her mother, who said nothing but simply kept her eyes straight ahead and kept on walking. What choice did her mother have, Prasad asks today: “Yell back and escalate?” Especially with children in tow? Or rather, do you do “what immigrants do” – “keep your eyes forward and power through.” 

“That was 35 years ago, in a different country,” said Prasad, a South Asian Indian immigrant who spent much of her early life in Canada but has made Oregon her home for the past 23 years. “But it’s a story that could be told by many people around the world. It’s an undue burden that [BIPOC] are placed under.”

For Prasad, ultimately it wasn’t so much an intimidating moment as a galvanizing one. Social justice work has been a passion of hers ever since. Three decades later, Prasad’s new book, How to Write Inclusively, isn’t going to save any innocent families from being verbally assaulted on the streets (5 percent of proceeds goes to food banks), but it just might help to change the context in which such harrowing events occur.

Ashwani Prasad: “We don’t need every Black male to be in a gang when we go to our screens. We don’t need every Indian person to be an immigrant, cuz that’s just not true. We don’t need every trans character to be laughed at.” 

Prasad is a screenwriter, and How To Write Inclusively is her guide to other screenwriters, a “how-to” for conscientious authors who care that their work create a more accurate representation of the world around them than what was previously acceptable. “This is a contribution to my craft,” says Prasad, “my craft being screen-writing.”

A not-very-exhaustive glance through American cinematic history will turn up tons of micro-aggressions, casual-to-vicious racism, and ridiculous stereotypes of varying levels of egregiousness, even in movies that are considered to have great artistic merit. Think of the rapists-in-blackface of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (now in the National Film Registry). Or the happy slaves in Gone with the Wind, which is also in the National Film Registry. Or when Ingrid Bergman refers to Dooley Wilson, a man more than twice her age, as a ‘boy’ in Casablanca (also in the NFR). Or Mickey Rooney’s breathtakingly grotesque depiction of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Also in the NFR! (The criteria for the Registry are that “a film must be at least 10 years old and be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and “reflect American society and the rich tapestry of American cinema since its inceptions around 1890.” It’s hard to argue that these films don’t do that: Sigh.)  Or, more recently, 2011’s The Help, a film the great Viola Davis now says she regrets doing.

This short list of revered films makes it clear why Prasad’s mission is an important one, and why BIPOC artists in general feel that it is long since time that they took charge of their own narratives and insist that other writers that include us in their work do so with some semblance of care, respect and conscientiousness. If for no other reason, it makes for better art.   

“Folks will say ‘Oh, just write,” Prasad says, “and that’s not right. When you are going to build a character that is animate and that is about a group that you don’t know, you need to do the research just like an investigative journalist or someone who does documentaries. You need to go and you need to talk to people. You need to ask permission, you need to be respectful, you need to be humble. And you need to be willing to say, ‘okay, what would you like to see be represented when you see x?’ In 2020, the year of COVID and George Floyd and calls for racial and social justice around the world, one hopes that Prasad is more apt to find white writers willing to listen than at any other point in our history. It’s overdue, she says: “We don’t need every Black male to be in a gang when we go to our screens. We don’t need every Indian person to be an immigrant, cuz that’s just not true. We don’t need every trans character to be laughed at.”   

Since that day some three decades ago when a random racist hurled slurs at her family on the streets of Canada, Prasad has come far. She has two Master’s degrees in anti-racism and social justice, in addition to an MBA. In college, her fire for anti-oppression was stoked when she took an Ethics of Diversity course under Dr. Lani Roberts at Oregon State University, a course that, Prasad says, changed her life. “I ended up using that course as the foundation of my first Master’s thesis,” Prasad recalls,  “which was talking about how to get folks to understand the philosophical and sociological harm of racism, of oppression.” 

One might be forgiven for thinking that just that much would be plenty for any single thesis, but Prasad wasn’t finished.  In her vision, “it would be a requirement of each student at the university that their last project would be a portfolio project where they would be required to do eight weeks within an institution that they had negative feelings about or around people they didn’t understand. Their final project would be recounting their educational and real-life experience at that institution.”

If that sounds like a lot, it is. But then, as now, Prasad is more than willing to demand a lot of her readers. She knows there will be resistance, but that is the point. If you’re going to make relevant art in 2020 and beyond, you’re going to have to include more than the dominant societal paradigm. “If you want to have inclusion and representation,” says Prasad, “you need to get outside of your comfort zone and go have conversations with people [who are different from you].” If they invite you in — and that’s key — if they invite you in — have a conversation. Spend time with them. Go to your local mosque. Go to your Buddhist center. Go to the military center. And just spend time with people. And get to understand them more.” 

Sepoy, the south Asian Indian soldiers who fought beside the British in World War I as they also fought colonialism. Prasad tells their tale in her screenplay “Tapestry.” Photo: Imperial War Museum Archive Collection

The primary obstacle to more inclusive filmmaking, more inclusive television-making, and more inclusive models for every art form down the line, Prasad believes, is the gate-keepers – the money-men. “14 percent of screenwriters identify as non-white, whereas over 90 percent of producers, the people that give the green light to make a movie, are white folks,” Prasad says. “So there’s a huge disparity. If people have different ideas of what should go into our media, and it’s unfortunately not to show different groups, they can exercise their power and really erase or not include a whole entire group or groups.”

Hollywood, as a rule, is not motivated by social justice nearly as much as by the bottom line. This is why movies like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Crazy Rich Asians have an enormous amount of pressure on them to perform economically — because if they fail, those 90 percent white decision-makers will decide that Black superheroes don’t sell, or superhero women, or movies that feature Asians. And if they don’t sell, they don’t get made. Those homogenous film executives decide for the rest of us what we get to see. “It’s up to the producers and ‘green lighters’ to produce content we and the world want to see,” says Prasad, “and to bring BIPOC into those high level roles.”

In Hollywood, as in sports, business and so many other industries, “white privilege” so often means “the right to fail.” It’s a truism throughout BIPOC communities in a variety of fields that a white artist, coach or executive, for instance, can fail again and again and again, but, say, a Black artist, coach or executive has to get it right the first time or kiss that career goodbye. When Batman vs. Superman “bombed,” not one film executive thought, “movies with white super heroes just don’t sell.” And none of the white artists or business people were carrying that weight for everybody else.   

For many of those “green lighters” who think they already do enough because they’ve given a Black or Brown actor a job, Prasad also addresses in How to Write Inclusively exactly what “inclusivity” is, and it might be a more subtle, nuanced concept than what many think. Inclusivity, in Prasad’s words, is “the idea of feeling that you belong. You belong at a table, you belong as a running mate, you belong on the screen. What inclusion means is that when I go somewhere I am part of that group, or I’m part of this institution, which really leads into belonging.” 

“We have these words like diversity,” continues Prasad. “We used to have multiculturalism decades ago. And then we went into equity. And those are very important. And so is inclusion. But at the crux of it all is belonging. We can have a lot of diversity initiatives, we can try to include people, but what does it mean to belong? And that comes only from the person, to be like, ‘Yes, I feel like I can represent myself. I am here. I can be my true self. I can say what I want to say and I can say it how I want to say it and I am safe’.” 

One truth the world is slowly coming around to is that representation counts. Whether it’s the aforementioned films or a franchise like The Fast and the Furious, audiences flock to movies that look like them. And more and more it’s being acknowledged that the audience looks different than it used to. Of course, historically, those audiences will go see white movies too, or male-dominated films. Yet it’s important for Black people, for women, for trans people, not just to be heroes on screen, but to have the full spectrum of their lives validated as the stuff of good storytelling. And what Hollywood is starting to realize is that white audiences are interested in those stories.

For Prasad, it’s not just about pigmentation. Nor is it just about including BIPOC characters in white-centered stories, not even in prominent roles. Inclusivity is about history, culture, and identity. It’s about bringing the marginalized away from the margins. 

“I’m a screenwriter,” says Prasad. “I started researching the south Asian/Indian contributions to North America. I found out about early temples, Hindu temples called mandirs. They were noted in Oregon as early as 1920. Astoria, Oregon, has what is called Hindu Alley and there were immigrants from India, folks that were Muslim, that were living and working in Astoria, Oregon like a hundred, hundred-plus years ago. Did we know that? And so I was like, ‘Why didn’t I know this history?’ It really made me angry and sad.” 

But what happens if you’re not Ash Prasad? What happens if you’re not quite so obviously, personally invested in these stories, but the world is changing daily and you want to write stories that are relevant to changing times? That is where How To Write Inclusively comes in. “I have a guide in my book of eight specific examples of ‘how to write inclusively,’” Prasad says. Among these examples you’ll find tips and guides on how to catch and alter stereotypes before a script is finalized, making inclusion goals for companies, and how to overcome cognitive biases. 

How to Write Inclusively is only Prasad’s first salvo in the war to alter a culture. She also has Kismet, a TV/streaming pilot, and screenplays for two shorts, Purview and Anglo-Indian. Perhaps most ambitiously, her research into India history turned up information on the sepoys, “south Asian Indian soldiers who fought alongside the British in World War I. They have a fascinating story because they were fighting alongside the British on the Western front and they were also fighting colonialism.” Tapestry, Prasad’s first completed feature screenplay, is her attempt to bring the forgotten story of these soldiers to light. “That’s my goal as an inclusive screenwriter,” says Prasad, “to bring back those who have been erased and marginalized from history to our screens.

That is the goal of Ashwini Prasad’s art. It’s also the goal of her book, How To Write Inclusively.