The Art of the Deal

By contrast, Pate's two published novels have been courageously delicate portraits of complex domestic dramas that are aimed at his own African American community. Finding Makeba, for example, details the emotional grit required of a father to achieve rapprochement with the child he abandoned to advance his career (ironically, the exact subject Spielberg botched with his ham-handed spectacle Hook). As a gracefully understated African American writer who has garnered more artistic respect than commercial notoriety, Pate may be everything Spielberg is not.

To have Pate produce a literary novel based on the screenplay Spielberg had hired two white men to create was at once a public show of good faith (like the casting of many African and Spanish actors and the film's extensive use of subtitles) and a shrewd political move. Within the crass mind-set that inevitably drives publicity for a Hollywood blockbuster, Pate's book might be viewed as a boutique project that adds class and luster to the Amistad blitz; not incidentally, it also gives Spielberg something of a racial insurance policy.

For his part, Pate was not without ulterior motives. After all, who among us is so self-righteous as to turn down Steven Spielberg?

"I got into the project before I knew what I was doing," Pate says, without remorse, over lunch in Uptown Minneapolis. "I didn't get paid a lot of money; it wasn't about that. It was about moving into another range, another readership level, or maybe a couple of readership levels. And if I can hold on to some of the folks who will be exposed to this, maybe they will come back and buy my next book, or buy the ones I've already written. Because I don't write like Terry McMillan; this is as close as I can come to bridging the gap from the literary to the commercial. So I just decided that, given the conditions I was working under, with just a couple of months to write it, that I would try and do it with as much integrity as possible. I didn't even think about the potential downside."

That "downside," of course, was not knowing how much of the storytelling process Pate could control. "I have been thinking about myself as a builder of houses," he says. "Normally I sit down and think, 'What do I want this house to look like? How many rooms, what kind of molding?' Then I try to figure out what to build first and how to build it. In this case, somebody gave me the plans. But I'm still the craftsman. I still have to pick the molding, decide on the colors. I'm hoping that still makes it mine. I don't have to question the soundness of the conception--which can be a luxury. But you still worry: Will this stand up? So you just keep building, hoping that the son of a bitch who made the damn plans knew what they were doing."

So, did he?

Pate chuckles, and sips his Coke. "After I said yes, they sent me the script. I read the script and said, 'Hey, this isn't bad.' Then I went through this big box of research materials they had sent me, and I said, 'Well, hmmmmmmm. A lot of good stuff is not in there.'"

Pate found himself drawn to Cinque, the son of the Mende chief and catalyst of the Amistad revolt. In Spielberg's Amistad, Cinque is one of several primary characters, played by Djimon Hounsou, an African actor unknown in this country; he shares the screen with Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, and Morgan Freeman as a free black man and former slave. Yet the more Pate delved into the research materials, the more he wanted Cinque's story to become his story.

"The image of the African being brought to this country is not something I or most other black people want to own," he says. "Because the image is so dehumanizing that we cannot deal with it. But suddenly, I was underneath the image. I understood that the image was dehumanizing, but the people who endured it weren't; they were still people! It was an incredible learning process for me. Because not only is this story true, but it is connected to me and my ancestors." Pate chuckles, and it's a laugh with an edge to it. "Tell me that won't kick off your muse!"

But then we return to the devil in the deal: The muse was his, but the Amistad story wasn't. "Yeah, that's right," Pate says, his dreadlocks bobbing. "Now I had to deal with the fact that I was writing a fiction based on a fiction based on a true thing--a very hurtful truth. The question then was, how subversive could I be? And so I made some rules up for myself. I decided I was not going to run away from the historical accuracy issue. After I completed my first draft, I got a call saying, 'We want it to look more similar to the movie.' Because I put some things in that were not in the screenplay and said [the DreamWorks editors] would have to make the adjustments, [and] take them out themselves. Also there were some writing things that I knew would be problematic, like run-on sentences, groping metaphors, whatever. And when I got my first editorial line memo back, I just wrote back and said: This is who I am as a writer; I'm going to do these things."

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