Much has been made of Shonda Rhimes as a black screenwriter and television producer. She undoubtedly is a trailblazer as a woman of color writing and producing shows with leading roles for African-American women. She dominates ABC’s Thursday primetime line-up with the smash hits Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and the newly minted series How to Get Away With Murder. However, Shonda isn’t the only black writer in TV land.
While it’s true the television screenwriting world remains disproportionately white — whites make up a staggering 83.7% of the Writers Guild of America’s 2013 TV staffing brief — there are other noteworthy black writers contributing to the small screen.
Jameel Saleem, writer for another ABC series, the rambunctious new comedy Manhattan Love Story, is one of those emerging talents. At 33, Saleem has multiple short films under his belt, two feature length independent films, and an acting resume.
Tonight marks the third episode of the new sitcom, which charts the romantic relationship of two characters who meet for a blind date. The show follows them through the ups and downs of a budding relationship. What’s unique about Manhattan Love Story is that much of the comedy is situated around each character’s inner thoughts, surfacing differences between men and women through unfiltered and outlandish internal dialogue.
While the cast of the show is predominantly white, the race of the characters is a none-issue for Saleem.
“My entire writing career I have been writing material that is not ethnicity specific. I just write characters. TV scripts, movie scripts – it’s always about writing the character, not writing to color.”
He goes on to explain that he “grew up in Philly in a mostly black neighborhood, and then moved to the suburbs to a mostly white neighborhood,” and has had a diversity of experiences that are reflected in his writing.
It’s these early experiences that shaped Saleem’s growth as a writer and actor.
“Moving from Philly and later to Baltimore Maryland, my parents were big movie buffs. We were always watching films. I dropped out of college and wasn’t sure what direction to take, and it was actually my dad who encouraged me to turn toward my love of film and performing.”
Saleem was involved in drama throughout school, and with his parents’ support, he began pursuing acting in earnest, first with roles in small independent productions, doing background work, and in local TV commercials. Eventually, he landed a speaking part on the groundbreaking television series The Wire in 2006, which enabled him to join the Screen Actors Guild. From there, he took a chance and moved to LA.
Working under the tutelage of television producers like Michael Barry, Saleem was urged to write, produce and star in his own independent short to help get his name out there and to shop original material to Hollywood executives. His first short, Let Go, followed the story of a recovering meth addict and eventually went on to win best short at the First Glance Film festival in Philadelphia. Saleem’s next step was writing and directing the feature length film Exit Strategy.
Who were Saleem’s writing heroes? His references are as diverse as his own writing experiences.
“This might sound controversial, but I always loved Woody Allen films, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino. I was also really influenced by early Spike Lee. I grew up on films like Mo Better Blues and Do the Right Thing. And I always loved Jimmy Stewart”.
Saleem is very much aware of television and Hollywood’s lack of diversity behind and in front of the camera, which has equally influenced his perspective as a writer.
“One of the reasons I became a writer is because when I came to California, I was auditioning for super limited roles. I remember I was offered auditions for three roles: 1) a gang banger 2) a rapist and 3) a ghost rapper. That was all,” he laughs.
“But I grew up watching Seinfeld and Woody Allen movies with nerdy and eccentric characters. I knew I wouldn’t get any offers for those kinds of roles. So, I had to write them myself,” he explains, echoing remarks Ms. Rhimes has made about her own creative choices. Nonetheless, from Saleem’s perspective, the future for black writers on television and in Hollywood remains bright.
“I think things are only going to get better. Obviously with Shonda Rhimes’ influence, you’re already getting a taste of that. There’s also the new series Blackish and the comedy web series Awkward Black Girl written and produced by Issa Rae. Studios are starting to realize that there is an untapped audience out there. I want to do my part, and I’d love to create a show that has a predominantly black cast at some point but that isn’t focused on them being black.”
His advice for writers just getting their start is “work work work,” insisting young writers “start by writing their own material. There are so many platforms now with social media to get your voice out there. I’d also try raising money for your own projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.”
Saleem’s experience bears out this approach. When he started uploading another of his independent projects, This is My Show, a web series that spoofs popular reality shows, he was contacted on Facebook by a fan in France who offered to fund a feature length film.
Perhaps most importantly, Saleem emphasizes the importance of cultivating a community of writers.
“As a TV writer, what benefitted me was joining a writer’s workshop with other aspiring and established writers that would meet every Saturday when I lived in LA. That was my routine. I didn’t go out partying on Friday night because I knew I’d be at workshop Saturday. I remember the first time I went to the workshop and I’d written a draft script for a Modern Family episode. All of my friends said it was great. When I got to the workshop and heard feedback from people in the business, they tore my script apart. I had to change everything. I wanted to stop going after that … but I didn’t.”
You can catch Manhattan Love Story tonight at 8:30PM EST and watch Jameel Saleem’s star rise as he continues to work on his web series This is My Show. He is also currently working on two feature length projects that, if his optimism and drive are any indication, will soon be in a theater near you.