Former Dallas Carter High School football player Arthur Muhammad, now a filmmaker, doesn't know how lucky he is that I failed in my own attempt to get a movie made about the 1988 David W. Carter High School Cowboys. Not that I came close. But it provided me with a valuable education on Hollywood and race.
Muhammad has released a trailer for the feature film he has completed based on his own screenplay with name actors and what look like high production values in the trailer.
The 1988 Carter team was a kind of once in a lifetime high school dream team with many players who went on to strong pro careers. But their saga was deeply marred when several top players were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for their involvement in a high school hold-up ring.
In the early 1990s when those trials were completing, I was earning a chunk of my living peddling true-crime stories to movie companies. Those companies were hungry for material to feed to the then burgeoning market for reality-based made-for-TV and B movies.
Hollywood was optioning way more stuff than would ever get made into movies. The option money was nickels and dimes next to what they paid for something that actually became a movie. I was happy with the nickels, thrilled with the dimes.
They looked for material according to a very imprecise kind of market sense and demographics. They wanted a story that would appeal to the audience that some production company hoped to reach at a certain time-slot on a certain network. To make the nickels, you had to work your way backward from the demographics to the reality.
A producer to whom I had sold material in the past told me he wished he could find a crime story with a strong sports theme about young middle class to affluent characters, kids from "good backgrounds," which in America means rich, who were involved in some over-the-top wild-ass Bonny and Clyde crime spree, but, of course, the story had to be true, or, in the Hollywood sense, pretty much true or at least tangentially related to something that was once thought to be true. He was probably looking for something that could be pitched for a time-slot that typically was a lead-in to some major sporting event or something like that. I don't remember. It's been a long time, so I am approximating the quotes here.
I told him I had just what he wanted. I always told him that. I told him about the Carter football kids, most of them from affluent families, some of them privileged. These kids achieved fantastic and glorious high school football fame and then squandered everything and ruined their lives by playing TV bad guys in the real world.
He loved it. Asked for a treatment (a two-page pitch). I faxed him it to him the following morning. Loved it. He said, "You're a genius," which I had learned meant in Hollywood language, "Yeah, OK."
Then a week later, which is about how long it takes to read two pages in Los Angeles, he called me back very angry. Said I had made a fool of him. He pitched my pitch to a pitch person, and the pitch person already knew about the Carter High School football team hold-up gang story in Dallas, Texas. The pitch person told him the story was black.
"The story's black?" I mumbled.
"Black," he said. "The people in it are black. It's a black story. You never told me that. That was very important information. I would never have pitched it if I had known."
I said I didn't quite get it. The kids in the story were affluent, spoiled even. Some of them had new Mustangs. What more do you want? Kids with Mustangs. New ones.
Long silence on the L.A. end. Then he instructed me that I was not to call him a racist. "Do not call me a racist," he said.
"I mean it."
He was, he said, as big a liberal as had ever been born, the biggest liberal he knew. I had never met this guy in person, but I had a picture in my mind of a liberal the size of the Goodyear Blimp. A huge liberal.
He had to deal with the here and now, the nitty-gritty of the marketplace, he said. He could not sell what he could not sell. It was OK for me in Texas to indulge in fantasies and make-believe, but he was in Los Angeles where people have to deal with reality. I let that one slide.
There was no market for black stories. You could not get a black story on TV. That was it. There was no use fighting it.
I said the Carter story had nothing to do with their being black. It was about their being young and stupid. All young people of all races are stupid. It's not racial. It's a universal theme.
He said it's not a universal theme if they're black. Then it's a black theme.
I was starting to feel light-headed. But I said OK. I said it was true that I was in Texas, so ... you know. But I had one tiny question when he said no one could get a black story on TV. I had just read an article saying that the Bill Cosby Show, then at the height of its popularity, had been at the top of the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons. Everybody on Cosby was black.
He groaned. I could almost hear him slapping his forehead on the coast. "Not really! Jim? Really? You're going to pull the Cosby Show on me? Are you trying to call me a racist?"
I said no on racist, yes on Cosby Show. You told me no one could do a story about black people on TV. The most popular situation comedy on TV, credited with reviving the whole sit-com genre and lifting the entire NBC network's market position, was about black people.
He pointed out to me that I was in Texas. He said there was a lot about the movie business that I couldn't be expected to understand, which was perfectly understandable. He wasn't mad at me. He said what I didn't get was that the story-lines and the scripts for Cosby were all about kids being old enough to drive, kids getting into college, stuff like that, which, he said, were white.
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"It's a white show," he said. "But the whole schtick and the reason people are so fascinated with it is that the white characters on the show are played by black actors."
Based on my experience dealing with movie people from whom I still hoped one day to get nickels -- I had learned a lot of this the hard way by saying the wrong things in the past -- I knew there was only one response to be made in a situation like this. I said, "You're a genius."
The most I would have made off it anyway, had he persuaded somebody to option my treatment, was one mortage payment or maybe two. If someone had actually made a movie, I would have done much better, but I'm quite sure the Carter Cowboys in the movie would have been all white, possibly living in Marin County, California. At least they would have been pardoned by George Deukmejian, who was then governor of California, who would have been Governor Jordan Duke in the movie, possibly President Jordan Duke.
The trailer and the coverage so far of the Arthur Muhammad movie give me the impression he has written and directed a film that is just what the Carter Cowboys story should always have been -- the universal and timeless tragedy of Icarus, a glorious flight, a bitter fall. If I had played some bit part in helping get a piece of crap TV movie produced back then, it might have gotten in Muhammad's way now. May it say on my tombstone, "No harm, no foul."