How to grab an audience and change a nation.
Sometimes, as writers, we make things too complicated. I’m writing a screenplay, and it’s easy to throw too much exposition into the mix. My writers’ group members are happy to point that out to me. I have only written two screenplays, and have learned through trial, error, and harsh but friendly critique, that the less you tell and the more you show, the better your work will be. Action speaks louder than words. But simple, strong language sets the stage.
Last night, as I watched season three of “Hap and Leonard,” I heard dialogue that is the epitome of simplicity. Hap, who is Caucasian, asks his friend Leonard, who is Black, “Why do Black people hold onto the church? I would think they would lose faith after everything that happens to Black people.”
Leonard answered, “Because the white man won’t take church from us.” So straightforward and simple. One line of dialogue carried a whole history within it.
Granted this pithy interchange didn’t go into detail about the fact that slave owners forbade slaves to practice the religions they brought from Africa. Nor did it address the issue of Black people being forced to “become Christians,” so slave owners could use their version of Christianity to ensure docility. Even many modern Black parishioners don’t give this history a lot of thought. But the ring of truth in the statement opens the door to those discussions. Meanwhile, a question that has bewildered generations is given a simple, strong answer.
A writer wrote those words. They didn’t spring unbidden into the actors’ mouths. And the words are powerful, as written words should be.
Dr. Martin Luther King also moved people, with strong words to the point. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,’” is still the most stirring beginning to a speech I have ever heard.
Those words grew out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A group that helped start a movement that would not have existed in the form it did if, indeed, the white man had taken the church from Black people. Out of evil came good.
Like a good screenplay, the Civil Rights Movement leaders did more than make speeches. They backed up the speeches with actions, and the images of those actions and reactions are what moved a nation.
Actions and words must work together in any good cause.
“Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry’s rallying call to the fight for American freedom from England.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy inspiring a nation to work together for the social good.
“No man ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” Sojourner Truth speaking to the predominantly white audience about women’s suffrage.
Simple, strong words with follow-up action work in fiction, movies and in the real world. Show and tell, in that order.