Monday, February 16, 2009

HBO & Jill Scott: Why Not Black Books?

Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith has finally been feted by HBO with a 13 episode adaptation of his delightful The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Set in Botswana, this series of stories is about as close as I come to that dreaded subgenre in suspense/mystery/detective fiction--the "cozy."
The dynamic and diverse cast for the television pilot includes Grammy Award-winning singer Jill Scott as series heroine Precious Ramotswe, who has become one of the most beloved characters in international contemporary fiction. Anika Noni Rose ('Dreamgirls', Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) stars as Precious' quirky secretary Mma Makutsi, and Lucian Msamati stars as Mma Ramotswe's devoted suitor JLB Matekoni. They are joined by David Oyelowo ('The Last King of Scotland'; HBO's 'Five Days' and 'As You Like It'), Idris Elba ('28 Weeks Later,' HBO's 'The Wire'), Colin Salmon ('Die Another Day,' 'Match Point') and Tony Award winner John Kani ('Final Solution,' 'The Ghost and the Darkness').
Idris, Anika...Jill? Oh yeah. HBO's been lame lately but this helps.
Now I must ask...why again are our authors--including yours truly--herded like Jews in a stockcar headed for Treblinka in 1944. Yep, I used that metaphor and kiss my ass if you don't like it. We are tattooed with softcore porn, "ghetto lit," cheezy romance/Tyler Perry clone/church lady fiction. It takes a white foreigner to get a deal on HBO. Indeed, it took the Casanegra series with Blair Underwood for Tananarive Due and Steve Barnes to receive the fame (2009 NAACP Image Award) they so richly deserved for their more literary works. LA Banks' sagas and new mythology should be on HBO rather than the redneck-vampire farce True Blood. Zane got the choice deal on Cinemax but again, as well produced as these episodes are, they're still sex romps. Yes, we've allowed ourselves to be shoved to the death camp. Eric Jerome Dickey, E. Lynn Harris--they're just soderkommandos: priviledged yet still prisoners...the ones who're the last in the gas chambers. Time to break out...
It's good to see Jill Scott and Anika get this notorietyplay. I'm ready. Hopefully HBO and other outlets will ready for better stuff from the rest of us. We got the names, talent to give up stuff other than ghetto crap and Madea. If Mr. McCall were black and writing in America, I bet he wouldn't have even gotten an agent. Sorry. But you know I'm right.


Lisa said...

This is why I love your blog. Info and EDITORIALS! Thank you so much for the 411 on the HBO series as I am so looking forward to it. I like your comment on the black books despite the concentration camp tip, but don't joan on my show show True Blood and my girl Sukey Stackhouse!

Anonymous said...

Here is the comment you're going to get a lot: It's some to re-up the ol' HBO subscription. Other than Entourage there was nothing on. Big Love is a joke. Flight of the Conchords is unfunny this year. We long for the good ol days of Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire & Six Feet Under. OK...I'll toss you a bone: Rome was pretty crazy, too.

Anonymous said...

Amen Chris!!! You know, as much as I am a lover of African literature, I hesitated to buy the Ladies Detective book at Kramer's. Reason: why is this European getting so much play for this, when there is SOOOOO much literature written by Black folks (women included) from the Continent that have even more gripping stories that could be turned into screenplays. What!!! How I wish I could sit in the board rooms of HBO as these people are making decisions. FYI - Tyler Perry is ANOTHER discussion altogether. You could have that as your blog topic. :) I think that All Black writers really need to come together and demand more from these networks, seeing as though PBS might be the only saving grace for certain genres of stories, ie Zadie Smith.

Anonymous said...

Chris I could not have articulated this any better than you did ... AND ... thank you so much for calling out that "redneck farce" of a show, True Blood!

I was beginning to feel like I was the only one with issue with that dung heap! Keep up the great work.

I can't wait for this series, Jill looks fabulous!

Shady_Grady said...

Unless I know specifically the writer I'm looking for I don't browse the "Black" section at Borders because it seems like everything in it is either romance novels or soft-core porn. I think the section should be discontinued.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

OK you had me at L.A. Banks. I'm reading the Thirteenth as we speak - very slowly cuz this is it for Damali and Carlos. I totally agree that this should've been the vampire series made and funny enough Rutina Wesley would've been great as the lead due to her dance training as well as her acting skill. She's the reason I watch True Blood. Sigh! We have to make our own content though and do a viral distribution. We have to stop waiting on these studios and networks because they're simply not interested in equality.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that the series aired on BBC last year.
I agree that it would be nice to have more of our literary work adapted for the screen, this has less to do with studios & networks than it has to do with the publishing industry. Adaptations are made from best sellers. Unless Will Smith, Oprah or Denzel wants to make a tv show or movie from a literary work that didn't make it onto a best seller list, we'll continue to see projects like this (and The Secret Life of Bees...). Eric Clapton has the best selling "blues" album of all time...ugh!

--Lady J

Anonymous said...

When are you going to stop moaning about this "nobody cares" bullshit and realize that no white people give a damn about your work unless it fits their aims and stereotypes. Africa & Botswana and plucky women fit the white man's view because it's "exotic" and different and doesn't hit too close to home. Natives doing their own thing is safe fits the fantasy.

On the other hand, most African Americans are, by your own grumblings I've seen ELSEWHERE on this blog, SIMPLE. They don't want "literary." They don't want your slef-indulgent multilayered shit, they don't even want your "concentration camp guard" metaphor people Dickey, Harris or Omar Tyree anymore. Do you notice that those threehave had to dumb-down their already dumb shit and re-brand themselves to sell books? African Americans want stupid shit because they are stupid. So are most white people, but white people have more cash to creep out of the stupid set every now and again. Yes this show piloted on the BBC and I am certain it was white Brits who watched it. BBC America only shows the dumber Brit reality shows and other nonsense--do you know why? They don't show their best dramas because Americans can't handle them.

Likewise 99% of African Americans can't handle buying or appreciating literature, so any bestselling good writing is going to be by white authors who have the leeway to write "popular literature". Is McCall Smith literature? These days he might be. He is ceertainly more literary than you, or the people you list or even Zadie Smith, Susan-Lori Parks and the like.

Thusly, if you are heading for the "gas chambers" it is YOUR OWN PEOPLE who have put you there. Don't complain about Hollywood or book publishers and evil corporate interests. I expected better from you than self-pity.

Apologies if I sounded too cruel, but I'm an evil white man. If it's any consolation I'm also Jewish and I did indeed understand nor was I offended by your Treblinka metaphor. Incidently it was Sobibor where the victims revolted, killed their captors and escaped. There is your model...

Julia said...

Oh, gimme a break, anonymous. EVEN IF what you say is true (which it's not), it would be more a testament to our wretched public school system than to some inherent "simpleness" of african americans.

And if you're so damn literary, why is it that you confuse indignation with self-pity? Maybe it's YOU who is simple.

And btw, what the hell is wrong with Zadie Smith? Not literary? Puh-leeze.

Christopher Chambers said...

Anonymous at 1031am 2/17: Thank you for your thoughtful literary criticism of my work: "slef-indulgent [sp] multilayered shit." Now I know what my big problem is. How could I have been"simple?" F.U.

Of this you, Dad, posting anonymously? ;-) FYI I'll see you for dinner Friday or at Brad's Sunday for the birthday party.

Tayari Jones said...

As an AA author, I have to say that AA readers are extremely supportive. I love and *respect* my readers, period.

My other comment has to do with the casting. I imagine African actors must be frustrated by the choice to cast Americans in these roles.

Anonymous said...

Tayari that was going to be my comment. But this seems to be the norm no matter what the subject matter or race. The "bigger" name people who are not of that nationality are cast as top billing.

Anonymous said...

Points to Consider (in no particular order)
Most authors don’t receive recognize in the form of awards, prizes, best-sellers or TV and movie deals.

Making a living as a fiction writer is virtually impossible regardless of the quality of the work (and background of the writer).

If the author is established, cozies generally sell well because they are easy to read and can be enjoyed by fans aged 8 to 108. Since the audience is built in, a network or movie studio will be able to predict how much money they can make.

McCall was an author 20 years before The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series was published. He wrote children’s books and academic texts before he had a hit. With that background, he may have gotten an agent.

LA Banks’ vampire novels suck (pun intended). The True Blood novels aren’t good either, but they are in some ways a continuation of southern gothic vampire tradition of Anne Rice novels. The result, again, is a built in audience.

The black reading public is no different that the mainstream. Literary fiction generally doesn’t sell unless it’s given the stamp of approval by the New York Times Book Review or Oprah or if the author is a known quantity.

Have you considered that most black literary fiction isn’t appealing? As a Black Southerner, even I’m tired of the slave (Reconstruction/Jim Crow) genre. The second category includes novels that attempt to examine and explain “black pathology” to white audiences. The third category includes relationship novels. We can’t forget the novels about passing and trials and tribulations of the “light-skinned”. Finally you have the bourgie novel, in which we are guided through the elusive world of the black middle class. Note that any one black literary novel can fall into multiple categories. I’m just not that interested. That’s not to say I would pick up a book published by Triple Crown or by Dickey. I would not. I’d be more inclined look to South American authors.

Christopher Chambers said...


"LA Banks’ vampire novels suck (pun intended). The True Blood novels aren’t good either, but they are in some ways a continuation of southern gothic vampire tradition of Anne Rice novels. The result, again, is a built in audience."

I disagree on both parts. Leslie's stuff melds pop fiction, sex and horror with what I consider an original mythology on the level with Lewis and Tolkien. Yeah, I said it. Now, if some of the sistahgurls (including you Southern negroes hahahaha I'm using my Adolphe Ceasar voice from A Soldier's Story) don't get that deep, fine. A lot of Tolkien's fans were folk who just liked swordplay and spells.
As for this Southern Gothic thing, I think there's a built in audience of pretentious southern white women who thought Anne Rice was Carson McCullers or Harper Lee with fangs. They're stupid. Indeed they don't know who those other women even are, and if this bizarre allegory for Civil Rights and the South evident in the True Blood story misses the mark w/me I know they don't get it either. Screw Rice. never liked her...LOL

The tradition in my opinion is with women like Harper Lee, and there I have no problem with black writers taking their cue. Unfortunately many are just not to well trained to weave these themes subtley into basic family yarns like yeah--harper Lee, or Carson McCullers or Faulkner. I use the white folk b/c they ironically are the best model I see, at least, on how to do that.

There's nothing wrong with slavery as a place to build stories. Any civilization worth it's salt builds it's stories and heroes and villians from it's past.

rikyrah said...

I went through a phase where all I was reading was Black mystery writers. And, I swear, I used to think, ' Wow, I'd love this as a DVD series'. A friend of mine, we'd even do casting. It just angers me that we're subjected to Soul Plane and the like, when entertaining material exists. They don't even have to find Black writers that are creative. All you need to do is find Black writers that can ADAPT someone else's material.

I'm feeling you on this one.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually etc.) wrote the pilot which was great.

I hope there is at least one black writer on the show's writing staff.