Happy Paley Fest 2012 everyone! Tonight the TV box fun continues courtesy of Livestream.com with a panel featuring the cast and crew of NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation’. Join in at 10pm est/7pm pst by visiting http://new.livestream.com/paleycenter/ParksandRecreation.
I happen to love this show for many reasons. It’s sharp humor, strong female lead and of course the scene stealer, comedian Aziz Ansari who plays “Tom Haverford”. I admit I’m always a little peeved everytime “Donna” played by hilarious Retta goes through entire episode without a line, but you can’t have everything, I guess. Anyways, back to my fascination with Ansari’s “Tom” character.
I just recently finished a draft of my feature script and typed FADE OUT with still one question nagging at my mind. Did this ensemble of characters, who I know for are a fact are Black women, sound BLACK? My inner critic was quick to say “Of course they sound Black. You wrote the dialogue and you are a Black female, aren’t you?” But then I thought about wonderful Tom.
I remembered watching this great panel called “Writing in Color”, hosted by the WGA West Committee of Black Writers on Youtube, which featured hit primetime comedy writers covering topics from issues of us being “post-racial” to writing race neutral characters. One of the writer’s from ‘Parks and Rec’ specifically brought up how Aziz Ansari took on the “Tom” character right from their pilot episode. He said that Ansari “tries to play characters who could be played by any race” and that “he gets offers for cab drivers and he turns them down”. He summed up that his aspirations aren’t to be a funny Indian comic, but a funny comic and actor. If you haven’t seen the pilot of the show, it does a fantastic job of introducing Tom’s perspective of himself as an Indian American when he admits he was born with the name “Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani”.
Tom: [on his name] I changed it to Tom Haverford. Because brown guys with funny sounding Muslim names don’t make it far in politics.
Leslie: What about Barack Obama?
Tom: Okay. Yeah. Fine. Barack Obama.
Bam! Memorable character made. In the age of smart Indian nerds on ‘Big Bang Theory’ and sexually-repressed Asian diner owners on ‘2 Broke Girls’, the Tom character is a breath of 2012 air. I don’t know if what race his character was written before Aziz Ansari was cast, but I really don’t think it would have mattered. I tune in every Thursday to the show because Ansari cracks me up with lines as a this unorthodox character I love. He doesn’t fit in that box a lot of shows lock their characters of color in. I mean the guy has his own meme at TomHaverfoods.com, which is basically derived from ONE SCENE!
After reflecting on the curious case of Tom Haverford, I went back over my script. I read it aloud and came to a strange sense of clarity. If I constantly step in front of an open Final Draft file with the mindset that I have a scribe for the entire Black community just because I’m a Black female, I will drive myself insane. Or worse, I fall into using the same tired stereotypes that continue to plague our television sets and movie theater screens today. I realize that film is different medium than TV, so it’s difficult to write 120 pages and not sort of have in your mind what the protagonist looks like. In this next draft, I will attempt to mute the inner critic and just see what I can craft that hasn’t been done to death. As long as I know the character is Black and they’re three-dimensional enough to be self-aware of their Blackness too, I shouldn’t have to beat the audience over the head with “insert Black talk/action here”. They will just be people. Relatable, funny, flawed and exciting people who are Black and whose journey you want to read about/watch. Assembling a cast of actors as sharp as Ansari when I finally make the film couldn’t hurt either. Take it away, Tom!