I get a script about a black child, a violinist in Harlem. I call the agency.
Are you serious?
You want to do this script.
Is it approved?
The company is going through some serious racial issues now.
…and you still want to do this?
They are trying to redress the wounds, get on the right track.
I still have some doubt. The issue was a comment discovered by the press about ‘black jelly beans falling to the bottom of the jar,’ plus liberal use of the so called ‘N’ word by key executives. The company was also famous for a classical music program that had run forever, ergo, the use of a black musician in the commercial.
The idea for the commercial was terrific. A little black boy is taunted by neighbors for carrying a violin case and has trouble practicing in his home, so he goes to a rooftop where his thoughts have him playing out his dreams, a symphony orchestra. The idea was too good to be true and I had misgivings, especially after scrutinizing the issues at the company. The racism there appeared to be a cancer, not just a cold.
After some difficulty, we found a black child that fit the part perfectly. The rest would be academic.
The agency and I went to upstate New York to present the casting to the client for what was expected to be a routine approval. We first met a slightly older, very nervous woman and showed her the cast. She seemed to approve the boy, but we needed to see one more person. We waited. A tense, rather agitated, attractive woman entered the room and I don’t remember that she looked at the casting tape. All I remember was the shock when she stated firmly that she did not want a black child in the commercial. I tried to speak but was cut off with a repeat of her admonition. That was that.
As we walked back to the car, agency guy says:
I know what you’re thinking. Please. We need this account.
You guys lied.
We didn’t lie. This is the first time I’ve heard this.
I’m not lying.
Fuck you and fuck them. This is going to be good.
What are you going to do?
I don’t know yet, but I love it.
We need this account.
Of course, I was livid having been brought into this, wary. I had assurances that everyone’s intentions were true and it was worse than I could imagine, especially since I considered these creatives, friends. My biggest concern was the black boy that we had cast. There were some personal issues with him and I didn’t want to crush his expectations.
On the plane back, I thought I had come up with a solution. Mozart’s double violin concerto has both violins playing equal parts. By using that music, the black boy could have a co-starring role and be none the wiser. Voila!
The guys bought the idea and we could move forward. We cast a Hispanic boy and shot the film. The final scene is the Hispanic boy on a rooftop, and as he starts to play he looks over at the black boy and they start the ‘double.’ Then an entire symphony orchestra appears, to join in, section by section.
The filming goes off well and it’s thrilling to watch this makeshift orchestra play this wonderful music. Later I try to push this a step further by having the agency use the preface to the rooftop scored by using Ornette Coleman’s LONELY WOMAN, a compelling urban lament. No luck there. Of course, I used it in making my edit.
SHOCK! I get the agency cut. It has eliminated the two boys alone on the rooftop. The black boy is merely part of the orchestra. The agency’s music department has skillfully edited the piece to accomplish this, something I thought was impossible. I have never gotten a straight answer as to how this happened but I suspect the account department overrode the creative department to respect their client’s racist wishes.
I was told it was a fait accompli and that nothing could be done.
I contacted a civil rights attorney and sent papers to the ad agency executives. The place panicked for moment, but I found that the commercial was to run in a few days and the legal action would take some time. I didn’t want to hurt the black boy any further and I hope his fees would be helpful, since he was booked as a principal.
I stopped the litigation but lost a number of what I thought were friendships.
Time goes by and the company eventually settles a race bias suit for many millions of dollars. I’m not sure of the timeline or who was affected but some justice was served…but not for me.