Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Becoming Human

            I recently finished a screenplay, inspired by a novel I wrote, that takes place in 1963. From the beginning I wanted the neighborhood to be composed of different ethnicities coming together to form a community—to me, that is the true meaning of the American dream. Not a melting pot, but an immigrant stew, rich with a multitude of spices and ingredients. Or as Danny, Sophie’s Moroccan-Jewish trumpeter father, puts it, “a blues song sung in different languages and accents.”

1963 was a pivotal year in America. In March Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. In August Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington. And in November, the president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated. Two days later, millions of Americans, glued to their TV sets, watched Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, shoot and kill JFK's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald

Violence had entered the American living room.

Newscasters, including Walter Cronkite, were visibly emotional. People all over the world were shown, weeping and stunned with grief. Frank McGee said on TV: "This is a moment that will be emblazoned in your memory and you will never forget it... as long as you live."

It changed the path of our country, and also the journey of TV news coverage. Images were indelibly branded in viewers' minds: the convertible procession through Dallas... Jackie's pink pillbox hat and pink suit... the smiling, handsome President suddenly crumpling in the seat of the convertible... Jackie refusing to change her bloodstained suit... Lyndon Baines Johnson being sworn in as the new leader... Oswald's smirk in his mug shot... his murder... the State funeral -- Jackie in black, little John-John saluting his father's casket....  

Less than a week later, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving in a country, and a world, changing before their eyes and spinning beneath their feet. 

People ask me how it felt to write a historical story. The truth is I never felt I was writing a "period piece"—the events I describe still burn with urgency, the words crackling with relevance: racial tension, women's rights, religious intolerance, xenophobia, gentrification. All I had to do was look at today’s headlines to see them reflected in the past. 

But 1963 was also the year of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and the musical, "Bye Bye Birdie." Beatlemania was born, and so was the Smiley Face. The first Bond film was released, and eerie Barbie Doll and Ronald McDonald commercials aired on TV. 

The thing is I'm not writing about issues -- I'm writing about people trying to figure out what it means to live life as a human being. One of my characters, reeling from the horrors of the Holocaust, only 18 years earlier, says, "To become human is the challenge. It's not enough 'to be' anymore. We have to learn to 'become.' It's the greatest war we have to fight. Against ourselves, first of all. If this war has taught us anything, it's how difficult it is to become a human being." 

It's the greatest question we can ask ourselves: What does it mean to become a human being in our world?

In 1963 the seeds were being planted in American soil, all the 'isms and issues that govern, and haunt, our lives today. Imagine if they'd been watered and cherished and allowed to grow free under the sun. 


It's not too late to become human.