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C. Fraser Smith: Between realism and despair

Hoping to offer perspective and support to a city sagging under the weight of unrest, the Maryland Film Festival’s Jed Deitz called David Simon.

Simon’s working on an HBO treatment of Taylor Branch’s civil rights history. He seemed to be thinking along the same lines.

What if we offer a look into the project’s “writers’ room,” the place where ideas make their way into film?

That cast of writers, in itself, might be a tonic, Deitz thought.

Simon got them all. Branch was in. So was Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Baltimore essayist and national correspondent for The Atlantic, and James McBride, author of the “Color of Money.” The session earlier this month sold out as soon as it was announced.

Deitz and Baltimore were suddenly hosting some of the nation’s best, most knowledgeable students of the race struggle.

In addition to wry and humorous glimpses into the writing process, the audience heard a rare if measured bit of optimism from Simon.

Various convergences point to what he called a small window of hope.

“It’s the last two years of Obama’s eight years. You see some are willing to give him a victory because it doesn’t matter. He’s done. People (on the left and the right) want to start emptying the prisons and cutting back on the drug war,” he said.

It’s about money, not justice, for some. But it’s part of the chemistry of change.

In this context of hope, Simon said, he was both proud and dismayed by the looting and burning.

Looters, he said, threatened to “steal the grandeur of people standing in front of police lines walking up and saying, ‘I’m not to take it anymore.’”

That brave witness, he said, resonated with the civil rights’ reliance on nonviolence.

With that, Simon asked his three colleagues on the project – Branch first – to say something about the process of making a movie about turbulent times. Branch’s monumental trilogy would have to be cut.

“…They laughed about it,” Branch said, “and made me laugh about things I’ve been dreaming about filming for a long time.”

But, he quickly added, “It’s a very rare thing to have people this talented and this opinionated being collaborative.”

They are looking, he and Simon said, for the right people to tell the story. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be the story, but some of the unseen “regular people” who sacrificed every day will be carrying much of the film’s emotional weight.

McBride said he looked forward to telling the stories of these unseen regular people.

“The sharecroppers who decided, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m going to register to vote. I’m going to get beat up. I’m going to come home and they’re going to tell me I have to leave after I’m been in a place for 30, 40 years.”

Life hasn’t gotten easier in some parts of society, the writers said. The movement continues. The faces have changed. But the issues King turned to at the end of his life remain – the issues of poverty and financial hardship – demand further action.

“As Harry Belafonte said, ‘We integrated into a burning building,’” McBride said.

What has developed, said Coates, is an eco-system doused with the equivalent of C02.

“How much CO2 can you pump in? he asked. How much without some push back?

And yet, McBride said, “We have learned to accept history and to forgive the past. I’m not ‘Tomin’ it. But if you want a community to grow and change you have to learn the element of forgiveness.”

Coates said he had no more interest in rioting that he did in global warming. He was, he said, describing the dynamics.

In a question-and-answer session, a woman in the audience asked how more Americans could be made part of the ongoing civil rights process.

If done right, Branch said, the film and King will help:

“You just need to hear the tone of his voice to know it’s a great war between realism and despair.”

That tone surely will survive the writing room.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr,org. He is the author of “Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland.”