Doug Ward: On The NEC’s Involvement with Media
DTW: Somewhere I think it was at the end of the Broadway run of The River Niger we had about sixty thousand dollars which was profit and ultimately it just went into the company budget and everyday activity. But Gerry and I were willing to take that money and buy the rights of the Nate Shaw book All God’s Dangers. Our hope for that was either a feature movie or a TV series. I was more inclined toward the series because a four part, six part, whatever series I felt would have allowed you to encompass the scope of the book more than a feature length film. But with a quality TV mini-series you can get the expanse and the scope more than a movie which as you know, generally runs about two hours. But a TV mini-series, as I said would give you time for developing the events of the narrative with more detail and specificity. With a movie it would’ve been all about compression and dealing with the climatic moments.
GE: Since you had that surplus money why didn’t you pursue the movie rights for The River Niger? That to me would seem the more natural way to go.
DTW: Yes, but there was only one problem.
GE: What was that?
DTW: The movie rights of The River Niger was already sold to someone else. It was sold very early, I guess. But let’s say it hadn’t been sold by the time I’m talking about, we had dealt with it for the length of time we did in putting it up and running it on Broadway and on the road. I’m talking two or three years all together. So maybe if it hadn’t been sold it would’ve come to us automatically to try to do it for TV or the movies the way we did with Ceremonies. But when I think back on it the bad movie that they made out of it might have even been made before we finished our stage run of it. And once the movie came out it was so abominable that everybody’s interest was to try to forget it even existed. So that’s the story on that. I hope it answered your question.
GE: It did, thank you. Now I remember an announcement early in your existence as a company that said something to the effect that you were exploring the possibilities or were definitely going to make a movie about Benjamin Banneker, the man who ostensibly came up with the plan for the design of Washington, DC?
DTW: Yes, I think so but I don’t remember it clearly. It sounds more like a project Bobby Hooks was interested in. At the time he was active in both movies and TV. He had a series he was starring in (NYPD) and several movies as well. So I’m pretty sure it was his project but I don’t remember it clearly. There were other projects too that we explored. Hell Gus, throughout our history, at one time or another we had access to the major networks in terms of talking about projects. If you’ll remember there were only three at the time, ABC, NBC and CBS. Back then cable didn’t exist. But we had access to all three.
GE: I remember seeing Ceremonies, Day of Absence and First Breeze of Summer on TV. Were there others?
DTW: No. But that’s what I mean about having access.
GE: I see, and after that?
DTW: We did pursue some things like the book The Homestead Grays (by James Wylie) about an all black fighter squadron during the Second World War. The idea was to get backing for it as a movie, not a TV project. So what I’m saying Gus is that whenever we talked about media it was for a specific project. We weren’t just pursuing the media in general. But with All God’s Dangers we went ahead vigorously in actively pursuing the rights to that book. And we came close, very close because I think that the author (Theodore Rosengarten) who wrote the book based on the life of Nate Shaw (real name Nate Cobb) really wanted us to have it. Because in talking to me and so forth in terms of my ideas on how to approach it, he felt that we stood a chance of matching and paralleling his own intents and also the quality and content of the book that he had written. Because as you know, as a writer he was a little leery about just a commercial sale where he would have no input in the outcome. But once I talked to him he was quite pleased with the direction that I had indicated in terms of adapting the material. So he was rooting for us. He verbally gave me the rights.
GE: So what happened?
DTW: The book had been well received critically and it had even sold well for the type of book it was. It was in the limelight to a certain extent and once Hollywood, commercial Hollywood expressed an interest in it his agent was more inclined to allow Hollywood to buy the rights rather than a little company like The NEC. I mean all we would’ve been able to do was buy the rights then we would’ve had to go after getting money to produce it. I’m sure his agent felt that if a major studio was in on it, they were already in a position to get it made. But then there was another complication.
GE: And what was that?
DTW: One of the conditions of buying the property was that the agent had to get the approval of Nate Shaw’s heirs. And we said that his living heirs had to agree not to interfere with the development of the property. We wanted to avoid the possibility of some working class poor or whatever black relatives wouldn’t suddenly start seeing dollar signs and start trying to do everything they could to see how much money they could get out of the situation. We didn’t want any conflict. The NEC was not going to get itself into any kind of conflict where we were antagonistic to or were being sued some other black people who were heirs or whatever. We didn’t need that therefore we demanded that once we bought the rights it was not our responsibility to get waiver rights from the heirs. The end result was that agent used that request or demand as a way of then not selling it to us. It allowed him to go where he wanted to go in the first place, to Hollywood and some major studio bought the rights.
GE: But it was never made into a movie.
DTW: No, hell no. What people don’t seem to understand is how Hollywood works. Ten novels or stories will come out and they will proceed to buy whichever ones seem to get some positive reviews. And in this instance I think whoever bought it seemed like they were buying it as a possibility for Jimmy (James Earl Jones).And they knew that being a major studio, if some little poor black relative came up with some problems they could just brush him aside or ignore him or even give him two dollars and say “Get the fuck out of my face.” And he would do that. But it wasn’t just about the money for us. It was the principal of not being in conflict with other blacks over a situation like that. So a studio bought the rights and I think they even approached Charles Fuller to do an adaptation of it. But anyway, like a lot of Hollywood projects, it never came to realization. Hollywood put it on a shelf somewhere and forgot about it. And that’s what they generally do with most of the material they acquire. They make an initial effort and if it doesn’t fall together right away they say “Fuck this” and move on.
But like I said, I wanted to do it on TV in four or six parts where we would have the canvas that we could explore through Nate Shaw the whole world of the South at the time. The harshness of that world in the 1920s and 30s.The struggles with the sharecroppers unions and Nate Shaw’s participation in that struggle that finally got him in jail for 14 years. One of the reasons that Rosengarten wanted me to do it is because when we sat there the first thing I told him that one of the central episodes of the whole series was going to be the trial and the whole business of the sharecroppers union. At that time in the South with the Klu Klux Klan and everything the authorities considered the Sharecroppers Union, the Black Sharecroppers Union to be a kind of radical organization led by Communists. But the real truth about the Sharecroppers Union is, yes, radicals had been responsible for its existence just like radicals had been responsible for the AF of L-CIO and a lot of trade unions. But the real story was the fact of how much it empowered the poor sharecropper to fight against what was going on and how much they were being trampled upon.
Anyway, that’s what I remember about our involvement with media, whether it was movies or TV. Look, we were running a theatre company and that was difficult enough. But we did pursue some media projects when the opportunity arose. Anything else?
GE: Not right this minute. Thanks.
(Taped in Doug’s office, June 1995)