Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs has a history of being part of history. The 103-year-old summer inn was a haven for African American families in the early part of the 20th century during a time when few establishments would offer hospitality services, and has continued to be part of a vibrant community tradition. On Tuesday night, Shearer Cottage welcomed history again, as Geoffrey Fletcher, who in March became the first African American to win an Oscar for screenwriting with his adaptation of Precious, spoke to an audience of over 300 during the annual A Taste of Road Scholar event.
The Road Scholar program, formerly known as Elderhostel, offers over 8,000 learning opportunities in 90 countries and caters to two basic principles — as Road Scholar associate vice president Kathy Taylor said in her opening remarks, “We want to age healthfully and we want to travel as we age.” A Taste of Road Scholar, which has taken place on the third Monday of August at Shearer for the past four years, serves as both an introduction to the organization and to its intellectual rigor.
Mr. Fletcher is, admittedly, somewhat younger than previous speakers at the event, who include obstetrician Dr. Kenneth Edelin, Terrence Roberts of the Little Rock Nine, and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young. Yet as soon as his name was announced at the Oscars and the camera panned to his mother, longtime summer Island resident Betty Fletcher, Ms. Taylor knew he would be the next speaker.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” Ms. Taylor said, speaking to the Gazette. “But I knew Betty! I called her the very next day.”
“It meant a great deal to me,” said Mr. Fletcher in an interview after the event. “It’s a great tradition. So many of the people they’ve invited in the past are luminaries it’s humbling to be invited.”
Mr. Fletcher, a Harvard graduate who received his master’s from the New York University’s Tisch School of Arts film program, was introduced by former Washington, D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt, who also moderated the question-and-answer session that took place after his speech. The session dominated the evening; after a short introductory talk regarding his experiences bringing the novel Push to the big screen, Mr. Fletcher turned the program over to the audience.
“I always think there’s more to learn from you than from me,” he said.
Questions ranged from the adaptation process itself (Mr. Fletcher had never read the book before he set about writing the screenplay and didn’t know how sacred the material was) to casting decisions (he himself did not take part in the process — “I wish I could take credit for that!” — but praised the “remarkable, remarkable job” of the casting directors). The audience was given insight into Mr. Fletcher’s chance meeting on a New York subway with Push’s author Sapphire, as well as how he was selected to join the project in the first place: director Lee Daniels chose Mr. Fletcher based on a 23-minute short film he had written, directed and edited.
Mr. Fletcher was also asked to address some of the controversies of the film, particularly the negative portrayal of the African American community, the problems of taking a specific experience and making it universal, and the fact that, as audience member Jackie Glen put it, “Nothing good ever happened to [Precious] it was a very emotionally deflating experience.”
“When you take a chance,” Mr. Fletcher commented, “you should be prepared to face some sort of controversy the irony in going out on a limb is you have a responsibility not to be reckless about it.”
He spoke regarding the directorial decision to remove a scene depicting incest survivors of all races and genders — people who “didn’t look like Precious” — which he felt would have gone a long way towards pointing out that “these issues are not unique to Harlem.”
“I think that would have addressed some of the controversy,” he concluded.
Mr. Fletcher also presented a challenge of sorts to the audience, reminding them that they too have a responsibility to support those films and projects that do show other sides of the African American coin.
“I feel very much that we should have a variety of stories told about our experiences.”
Mr. Fletcher’s plans include writing the screenplay for a film about the 1971 Attica prison uprising and, he hopes, opportunities to direct new projects.
“My plate is full right now,” he said, “and I hope I can deliver, but I’m thrilled at the challenge.”
“His style is so refreshing; he has such humility and intelligence,” Ms. Taylor said after the event.
“I can see [him as] a director — he knows how to bring out the best in you.”