The Art of the Deal

Just four years ago, Alexs Pate was a writing prole, with two completed novels in a drawer, a half-dozen others jostling in his head, and a pile of rejection slips that went back 15 years. Pate was a self-identified novelist from the jump. He wrote one in college, called The Dragon's Blood, about a black man in an insane asylum and his vivid nightmares of killing dragons and being burnt alive. One night, trying to bring back proof to his disbelieving doctors, he carves up an orderly, and ends up lobotomized, as in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "It was a story about the '60s, about the Black Power movement," Pate says. "It was a story, underneath it all, about what you do with all this rage."

The manuscript got a nibble from an editor at Random House in New York, who eventually stopped taking Pate's calls. "I was really despondent about it, for years," Pate says. "Couldn't write. Couldn't write fiction. I wrote a couple of plays. Then I moved here and started doing the corporate thing." Three years with an urban-development company owned by Control Data was followed by a stint as a consultant. All the while, the unwritten stories and unrealized ambitions came to haunt him.

"Finally, I just decided to throw my heart into this and take that vow of poverty," Pate says. He landed a professorship at Macalester and taught writing at The Loft, all the while dogged by the phrase, "those that can't do, teach." The academic cliché, "publish or perish," became his artistic credo. Pate wrote another novel, Losing Absalom, but by the early '90s, after five years of trying, still hadn't found a place for it beyond his drawer. "That was probably as low as I've ever been," he says.

Richard A. Holder

Flash forward to April, 1997. Alexs Pate, author of two critically respected but commercially modest novels, Losing Absalom and Finding Makeba, gets a phone call from his agent. A Ms. Debbie Allen has inquired about his availability for a plum assignment that could change the course of his career. Debbie Allen the dancer, the actress from Fame? Yes, that Debbie Allen--but more to the point, Debbie Allen the movie producer. She asks if Pate is interested in writing a novel based on a screenplay. It requires a real literary effort, she explains, because this is going to be a prestige project, a serious film about a serious subject that everyone will soon be talking about. The director is the most successful storyteller in the modern world: Steven Spielberg.

The story is epic and it is true. In 1839, slave traders snatch the son of a Mende chief from the outskirts of his African village and throw him in the hold of a Spanish vessel known as the Amistad for the brutal middle passage to America. During a storm off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, he yanks a loosened nail out of the creaking ship and uses it to spring the lock on his chains and those of his fellow captives, triggering mutiny and bloodshed. While the Africans plan a return to their home continent, the trickery of the helmsman sees them quickly recaptured, and delivered to Hartford, Connecticut, a slave-holding state. The 53 would-be slaves are soon arrested and put on trial in an American court, where they are defended by the venerable ex-President John Quincy Adams. Ultimately, the Amistad revolt and its aftermath will presage the reckoning of the Civil War, test the morality of a still-nascent U.S. Constitution, and initiate the destruction of many African slave factories.

It was the story of a living nightmare with real dragon's blood. And hell yes; Pate was interested. As an African American growing up on the streets of Philadelphia, he knew the psychological terrain of the resilient ones, the survivors. Less directly, his stint in the corporate world gave him a feel for the machinations and motivations of Adams and then-President Martin Van Buren. And as a Navy veteran, he knew the pitch and churn of ocean travel, and had, in fact, been researching a pirate novel for the past five years himself. "I really love the whole idea of black people on water," he says. "Of course I wasn't thinking about them in chains."

Which gets to the reason why Steven Spielberg might invite a relatively obscure Minneapolis novelist on board the U.S.S. DreamWorks. When indulging the gee willikers side of his muse--the comic-book pulp of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, or the tear-jerking E.T.--Spielberg is pretty much infallible. But that boyish affinity for cardboard carnage and innocent sentimentality makes him less sure-handed when dealing with the more substantial fare he needs to establish a legacy as a profound artist. For all its many strengths, Schindler's List averts the camera's eye from the execution of the Holocaust's most disturbing acts, and lacks the self-awareness to grasp the unfortunate irony that it is ultimately a heartfelt paean to a good German. And the last time Spielberg traversed the minefield of American race relations, in The Color Purple, his penchant for hypercontextualized good-versus-evil caused a social uproar by reducing nearly every black male character into a two-dimensional villain.

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