Saturday, July 22, 2017

Talkin' Race with Tina Fey

She's witty. She's wonderful. She looks great when she wears glasses. And when she doesn't.
Tina Fey and I had a very honest, very interesting conservation about use of the N-word.  What I'm about the share with you is not indiscretion with a private discussion.  When had this discussion in public -- at the Directors Guild on West 57th Street in New York City.  And we had this discussion before an audience.  I was asked to interview writer/actress Tina Fey and take questions from the audience when she was promoting MEAN GIRLS, a funny and entertaining 2004 teen comedy starring Lindsay Lohan.
Tina Fey played a high school teacher in it.  She also wrote the screenplay, adapting it from part of the Rosalind Wiseman book, QUEENS BEES AND WANNABES.  Paramount Picture was campaigning to get Fey consideration for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination and that's why I was approached to be her interviewer at this event.  A great opportunity it was.

 Last weekend, I watched Tiny Fey with her former 30 ROCK sitcom co-star, Alec Baldwin, discuss WOMAN OF THE YEAR starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as one of "The Essentials" on TCM. 
This is the Saturday show previously presented by the beloved late TCM host, Robert Osborne.  Baldwin was a popular guest co-host with Osborne and now he's become its new host.  "The Essentials" are the movies that the every classic film fan must see in order to be considered a true classic film fan.  1942's WOMAN OF THE YEAR is the romantic comedy that first teamed Tracy and Hepburn.
After it ended, Fey noted to Baldwin the politically incorrect touches that were very early 1940s.  For instance, Tracy's working class newspaper columnist goes to party thrown by the utterly upper class and sophisticated Hepburn newsmaker.  It's packed with her international friends.  Sam (Tracy) makes fun of a man who wears a turban and speaks no English.  And Sam can't stand her snobby, seemingly gay, male secretary.

Now to MEAN GIRLS, a look at the tribal behavior of girls who get competitive and bitchy in the teenage jungle known as high school.  Paramount sent me the just-released DVD of MEAN GIRLS.  Perfect. Not only could I watch it, I could watch it again while listening to the commentary from director Mark Waters and Tiny Fey.

Their commentary was constant.  Brisk and lively, informative and funny.  Of the different "types" of high school tribes in the cafeteria, there were the hot girls, the jocks, the nerds, etc.  There were a couple of Vietnamese urban girls who always chatted with each other in Vietnamese, so their dialogue was subtitled throughout the movie.

There's a section wherein the Mean Girl bitchiness reaches a critical peak.  A book of bitchy comments is deviously placed into the principal's hands.  He calls all the junior girls into the school gym for an immediate emergency meeting.  Teachers also attended.  He wants to root out the sources of this nasty behavior.  Sitting in the bleachers, the girls get catty again talking to each other after the teacher played by Tina Fey addresses them.  One of the Asian girls makes a snarky comment to her friend.  The other girl holds her hand up, rolls her eyes and turns her head away.  She responds in Vietnamese.  The subtitle said:  "Nigga, please."

As I wrote, the commentary from Mark Waters and Tiny Fey was so constant, so back and forth, that it was like listening to Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY -- a classic film that I consider to be an "Essential."  When it came to that scene with the two Vietnamese girls, there was such a long stretch of total silence that I thought there was a glitch in my DVD.  I removed it, dusted it off, and played the scene again.  The DVD was fine.  There was just a long, very noticeable, stretch of silence.

I described the scene and asked Tina Fey about the silence in that portion of the commentary.  Tina honestly replied that, because of hearing kids speak and hearing the word used liberally in current urban music, she had a "writer's license" to use it in the screenplay.  She told me and the audience that, after a screening of MEAN GIRLS attended by one of her longtime best friends -- an accomplished Black woman -- she asked her friend if she liked the film. 

Her friend did not like the N-word use and told her why.  She'd been an over-achiever most of her life, crashing through color barriers, so she wouldn't be hearing that word anymore.  Apparently, that was the moment when Tiny Fey got "woke."  She realized that she did not have the writer's license to use the N-word casually -- and especially not to use it for comic effect.

Last month, I saw that MEAN GIRLS was on Netflix.  I watched it.  When the Vietnamese girls spoke, there were no subtitles at all.  A week later, I saw that MEAN GIRLS was on the cable channel, FreeForm.  I watched it on FreeForm.  The subtitles were present but the controversial 2-word reply had been changed to "Girlfriend, please."

One of the things I appreciated the most in that talk with Tina Fey was her honesty.  She was so quickly forthright with her answer about the short, sticky racial issue in her screenplay .

As for the film itself, I also appreciated that she took us to a Chicago suburb high school and gave us an interracial cast of high school students and teachers.  She gave us diversity.  That was like the Chicago area I know.  In the very popular John Hughes high school teen comedies of the 1980s, we were in the Chicago area but never, ever saw any African American or Latino actors as fellow high school students hanging out with Molly Ringwald or Matthew Broderick.  Ferris Bueller had no black friends.  Maybe critics didn't notice.  But I sure did.  Again, I loved talking to Tina Fey.  What a talent.




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