Dialogue isn't just for screenplays

"The Suspect," written and directed by East Nantmeal resident Stuart Connelly, was filmed around the Elverson area. The film examines race relations in America. Photo courtesy of Modoc Springs

From the moment I started writing The Suspect, I saw how the film wanted, needed to look. My producing partner and wife Mary Jo believed in that vision.

I “attached” myself as the director and our casting agent started shopping the script out to actors. And here was where the momentum kicked in: as the script made the rounds in New York and Hollywood, we starting getting enthusiastic response. And with it, a lot of requests for meetings with me (these actors are all well beyond the auditioning phase of their careers; you cast them by having conversations to see how you get along with each other).

It didn’t take long to figure out exactly where this energy was coming from. Those actors were responding to a role they’d almost given up holding out hope to see. Without realizing it, I’d created the kind of character African-American actors rarely find: a nuanced, complicated and intelligent lead. It’s not a stretch to say we virtually had our pick of incredibly talented African-American men, all of whom wanted the opportunity to play this unusual and dynamic character.

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But the idea that the fictional character I’d created slaked some deep-seated thirst for self-expression for a group of actors who are too often marginalized or typecast wasn’t lost on me. It informed both my style of direction and my dedication to getting the film in front of the widest possible audience.

The Suspect may seem like a message movie to some. Perhaps that’s a good thing, although the very idea smacks of medicine rather than entertainment. I’d prefer that it be considered a particular kind of ride; a psychological thriller designed to entertain the audience and keep them guessing. But unlike most rides, you don’t get off the same place you got on.

While it’s truly painful for me to contemplate, I fully understand that the film owes its very existence to the ongoing problem of race relations in America. Like Quentin Tarantino’s D’Jango Unchained, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, my film comes into the world at the expense – on the backs – of so many human beings who have suffered under the cruelty of institutionalized slavery and its long, echoing shadow: American-style racism. Racial tension is plot, is character, is environment, is theme in The Suspect.

The truth of the matter makes me feel a bit conflicted, though this conflict is nothing new, of course; tragedy of all sorts has always been the raw material for drama. As long as there has been human misery, there have been storytellers mining it. This is the unrelenting truth for any artist. The only question is, is the art we make from it of any use?

Still, of all the absurd things to tear at the fabric of society... The color of someone’s skin? That pathetic, reptile-brain knee-jerk is our undoing? It’s embarrassing. And yet this embarrassment is the central irony that circumscribes the problem. Those who are fundamentally opposed to racism don’t want to dignify any aspect of it with discussion. So no one ends up talking about the realities of racial conflict, and in not talking we somehow feel the wounds will simply heal themselves. The fact of the matter is different: those wounds fester, and infection spreads.

For my part, I’ve always felt that each and every conversation about race, no matter how painful or awkward, is a stepping-stone toward some better understanding and a solution to the primal problem. Yes, it is a sensitive subject. Yes, we tend to get awfully quiet around it for fear of saying the wrong thing. But conversation, like therapy, is its own sort of “talking cure.” I, for one, want to talk it out. The Suspect is a natural extension of that drive.

Before I was given the wonderful honor of co-writing with Dr. Clarence B. Jones his memoir of the Civil Rights Movement and the 1963 March on Washington (Behind The Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation; Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) I wrote a screenplay that covered his entire life story. Now, Clarence was born in 1930, so I struggled with the shifting language of the black/white issue decade-by- decade, finding the right phrase in the spectrum from “casual” racism to vehement hatred for the 30s, the 40s, the 50s and so on. The sheer breadth of the language was shocking. Every time I typed one of those words, I felt some kind of guilt by association.

I wanted to apologize to Clarence when I handed over my draft. “This isn’t me,” I wanted to say. “This isn’t how I look at the world.” I wanted to tell him I was sorry on behalf of all white people. But ever-so-slowly, I realized my hesitation was meaningless. Clarence had heard all those words before. He’d lived through my script for real. And nothing this writer – who was only trying to put Clarence’s experience into a thematic context – could say would offend him in the slightest. He understood my intentions. In that light, those words that littered my script lost all their power to intimidate, to debase, to scar.

Understood intentions. A safe perch from which to explore the issue of race. Honest dialogue. My hope is that The Suspect – by placing racial tension, rage and misunderstanding center stage – will leverage the power of cinema to personalize and elevate the current conversation about race relations in America. My small contribution to the Movement.

Stuart Connelly is a writer, director, producer and author who lives in West Nantmeal with his wife Mary Jo Barthmaier and their two children, Wesley and Callie. Connelly’s first film, “The Suspect,” was filmed in Chester County and has shown at the Philadelphia Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival among others. It was released on DVD April 22.