Slavery by Another Name – Pulitzer Adaptation

Slavery by Another Name – Narrative Adaptation

Based on a true story.

When a free but disillusioned black man is arrested and sold to a plantation owner forty years after Lincoln freed the slaves, he must learn to trust the system that betrayed him to not only become free but also to help bring the very first white man ever to trial for holding a slave.

People often ask me why I, a white girl from New York State, am so passionate about the plight of the African American community in 1903. Simple. This is a story that needs to be told.

The world of SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME revolves around the fall of the Southern economy after the Civil War, causing the creation of ridiculous laws to falsely imprison African Americans (such as talking too loudly in front of a white woman, etc.). The prisoners were then leased for a minimal fee to plantation owners, U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal and other corporations, creating a profitable prison laboring system. This “re-enslavement” affected the African American community throughout the South up until 1951, when slavery was finally made a federal crime… a very little-known fact. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book our script is based on is now required reading in many U.S. History classes in universities across the country, and the documentary version of the book was one of the top viewed docs on PBS.

It’s impossible to read this story and not have a better understanding of the racial divide, even today.

SBAN-Onesheet-Cropped-Border

The Journey of Slavery by Another Name

Every screenwriter has that familiar dream of crafting a script that will change their life, and hopefully, have an emotional impact on an audience. Often the vision comes from your own creative, twisted, insecure head, but sometimes it’s a book you see on a shelf that grabs you and screams, “Adapt me!” If it’s the latter, the first challenge becomes getting the author to agree when, heaven forbid, you have no money to offer, or worse… you’re an unproduced writer. Quiver. Now that elusive book is no longer screaming, it’s taunting you, giggling, “Good luck, chump.”

In 2008, my husband handed me an article from The Wall Street Journal, introducing Douglas A. Blackmon’s historical exposé about slavery post Civil War, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (SBAN). I clutched the paper and immediately ordered the book.

For the next six months, I basically stalked Doug, trying to muster the courage to make contact. Let’s get real, I’m a country girl from New York, and he’s a Wall Street Journal big shot. I had to be sure he wouldn’t laugh hysterically and hang up on me when I called. Much to my delight, in all the interviews I watched, he was humble beyond belief. I could do this. I could make contact, maybe even better than E.T.

Then it happened. SBAN hit the New York Times Best Sellers List. Expletives came spewing from my trucker mouth. I thought I missed my shot. I knew Oprah would have Doug on speed dial.

Without a thought, I snatched the phone and called the man. I left the most charming voicemail I could muster, which isn’t easy since I sound like I’m twelve. Yeah, that’ll impress him. I needed a Plan B. Email. I crafted a pitch, showing my humor as well as my passion and hit send. I had nothing to lose.

Guess what? The next day, Doug called me back. One of the first questions he asked was, “Forgive me, but should I know you… are you famous?” To which I calmly responded, “Not yet, but I will be.” Luckily I’m Sicilian, and I know how to bluff.

We spent the next 30 minutes doing the cat and mouse game. I couldn’t tell if I was winning or losing. But I wouldn’t let him hang up without hooking him. I went for the kill, announcing I would be in Atlanta for business the next week and would love to meet with him. Bingo. He bit… sort of. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d be in town or not, but agreed to try to arrange it.

I got my ticket, made hotel reservations and raced to the airport the next week in hopes of landing the biggest gig of my life, and hoping he’d actually be there when I landed.

My business trip? It was a bluff. I had no business in Atlanta at all. My only business was getting Doug to say yes. I was on a mission.

It was late July on a hot summer night when I walked up to the Georgian Terrace. I stared at the famous Fox Theatre across the street, with visions of Gone With the Wind dancing in my head, not knowing if Doug would ever show up. Hours passed. Then my phone rang. It was 10:30 p.m. on what was one of the longest days of my life. Douglas A. Blackmon was on his way to the hotel to meet me for a drink. Game on.

In order to convince him to say yes, I had to stand before him as a screenwriter – produced or not. I knew instinctively this was the pitch of my life.

Doug sat in the lobby of the hotel, laptop in hand, forever the journalist. I took a deep breath, and wearing my screenwriting uniform of flip-flops and jeans, shook the hand of the senior national correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. I immediately suggested the bar. Hell, I needed it. We sipped gin and tonics discussing the book and his seven-year journey writing it.

I wish I could say that upon meeting my brilliant self, Doug handed over the rights, but alas, I was an unproduced writer without money or an agent. He declared, “The only benefit for me is if we write this together.” It was everything in me not to jump from my seat and scream, “Cool!” But I didn’t. I smiled as if offers like this came my way every day. Sure, some writers would have scoffed at working with an author, but he wasn’t just any author, he was a playwright at heart. I could see it in his visual writing style. This was a gift I never dared dream I’d get. Douglas A. Blackmon – a writing partner.

But he wasn’t saying yes, he was testing me. This guy was playing harder to get than a virgin in a sorority house.

After three days and several meetings, my final day in Atlanta had arrived. I called Doug and asked for 30 more minutes of his time. His assistant showed me to the conference room where I sat, and sat and sat. Every insecure feeling I ever had surfaced. I felt like writer roadkill.

I looked out at the beautiful view of Atlanta and soaked in the moment. If nothing else, I had given this my all. I had to be proud of that fact. Without thought, I started my karate forms right there in the conference room. With each strike, punch and kick, my insecurities melted and my strength rose.

I was in a full-blown side kick, leg extended over the table, when the door swung open. There stood Douglas A. Blackmon. Busted.

I heard him laugh, “Well, this is a first for the Journal.”

And that was that. Laughter broke the tension.

It took six more months of determination, writing sample scenes, emailing, calling, sending outlines and going to different cities to watch him speak before he’d finally say yes. I literally broke the binding of the book preparing for this opportunity. It was the longest, most intense pitch of my life. But, it was worth every moment of risk I took.

Together, Doug and I are finding a wonderfully dramatic story in his historical research. The challenge is to nurture the real-life characters, enabling them to resonate on the page as well as in our audience’s soul, all while exposing the horrors of the post Civil War era. We are both fully committed to honoring those black men and women who suffered abominably.

Lesson to learn: Pitch and you shall receive. Yes, I was in the right place at the right time, I knew how to ask for what I wanted, I recognized a great story when I came across it, but I had the patience to wait until the author felt comfortable with my talents before he would commit. Sometimes a pitch is five minutes; sometimes it’s five months.

Despite my undying efforts to gain this project, I am forever mindful that Doug has graciously allowed me the opportunity to be on this train with him. He took a huge risk placing his “baby” in the hands of an unproduced writer. For that, I am deeply humbled. Let’s hope I can take “unproduced” off my title in the near future.

While we were deep into the adaptation, Slavery by Another Name won The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2009 General Nonfiction prize to Douglas A. Blackmon

Slavery by Another Name – PBS Documentary:

To learn more about the behind-the-scenes story of Slavery by Another Name’s adaptation, listen to our interviews:

Special Thanks: I wanted to share a poem by the talented @SpeaksBeliefs, who inspired me every day to push past my fears and bring the truth to light.  His poem is entitled “Thank You“. Watch him recite the powerful poem Thank You (in blue) HERE. I thank him for his support and heart.

21 Responses to Slavery by Another Name – Pulitzer Adaptation

  1. thank you for your kind words (and for sharing my words).

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  4. Erika Robuck says:

    Thank you for sharing this book with me. I’ve always been drawn to works about slavery and race relations–particularly, previously unknown stories. It’s so important to expose these dark places in history and hearts. Thanks, again. I’m moved.

  5. Marvin says:

    Amazing story of courage by you that is totally inspiring me to write more, guard my time more, be intentional with my three teen-age sons more, and by all means necessary be as brave as you in obtaining material to write. Your Atlanta journey was awe inspiring, thank you. I have signed up for your blog, no one really understand, except writers, what it takes to have the “balls” to write! I needed that. :)

    Thanks!!!

    Can’t wait for the movie to come out, it will!

    • I appreciate your support, Marvin. While it was almost 3 years ago that I reached out to Doug, I’m confident our journey has only just begun. I’m enjoying every stepping stone and am happy to take you along for the ride. Buckle up, Buttercup!

  6. James Kelly says:

    Greetings Jeanne! I recently encountered a center for creative consciousness in art, music, and film whose founder hosted a conference this spring re film as a catalyst of social change. Also, Tom Cruise.com urges screenwriters to raise social awareness through their writing. Just wondering…good luck! http://site.consciouscreativity.com/

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  8. In my talks on Benjamin Franklin and the Colonial Era, slavery always comes up (Ben was a slave owner when younger, an Abolitionist later). We also speak of the slavery still going on today in other countries. I am now, thanks to your work, adding in this aspect of slavery in the USA of the early 20th Century, of which I was unaware. Chagrinned, I stand corrected and improved.
    Your journey, writing and accomplishments inspire to join.
    G.Robin Smith

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  12. Christina says:

    Jeanne, such an inspiring story. I wish you and Doug all the luck in the world for this project. Good Luck at Sundance!

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