Only later did I go back and realize that yeah, despite my good intentions, the dialogue did sound unintentionally racist, but I still didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until I re-watched the first season of the “The Wire” that I figured it out: my dialogue wasn’t specific enough. It was generic “black projects drug dealer” jargon, which was a problem in several ways:
- Inspired by some news articles, I had set my script in Newark, a city I had never actually been to, so I couldn’t drop a lot of specifics about local places, local issues, local slang. When you don’t have specifics, you fall back on generics, and generics always sound phony and condescending.
- My black characters weren’t witty like the guys on “The Wire”. When the audience laughs at a character’s humor, they bond with that character, and they sense that the writer has bonded with that character.
- Most importantly, my character’s metaphor families were all the same: “black projects” and “drugs”. The result was that when you read the script, it seemed like I was just saying “black projects = drugs”. Worse, I was saying that that was all that these characters were. On “The Wire”, all of the black drug-world characters do indeed have the metaphor families of “black projects” and “drugs”, but each of them has their own individual metaphor family, too:
- Stringer Bell’s is business school: “Y’all see, what we got here is an inelastic product.”
- Avon’s is family: “What’s the rule? Don’t say shit to anybody who ain’t us! [hug] You know it’s always love.”
- DeAngelo talks the language of a reformer: “The game ain’t gotta be played like that, yo.”
- Wallace keeps betraying that he’s a little too smart to keep doing this: DeAngelo holds up a fake bill next to a ten and says that real money has presidents on it, but Wallace mutters, “Hamilton wasn’t no president...”
- The biggest shock was Omar: I had remembered him as being the crudest, but he actually refuses to use R-rated language and chastises others for it. His metaphor family is “ethical pirate”, constantly talking about how he wants to “parley” because “a man’s gotta have a code.”