Finding Forrester is a film that has grown even more poignant with time, at least for me, because it speaks to me on a very personal level. I doubt if there is a writer of color for whom this film is not personal. It gives me no pleasure to have empirical knowledge of what it means to have your capabilities doubted, but it continues to happen even at this late stage in my life; my writing is still called into question. I will go so far as to say there isn’t a non-White writer with a smidgen of talent who has not heard the words (usually uttered with knitted brow and the most incredulous tone of voice imaginable): “Did you write this?”
This continual devaluing, under-estimation and dismissal of one’s craft, emanating from fear, intellectual indolence and ignorance is insidious, pervasive and tantamount to artistic genocide. I cannot imagine how many budding writers have been discouraged by this question into not writing at all. The insights, inspirations and enjoyment we have missed must be mountainous.
Finding Forrester addresses all of this and much more. Released in 2000, Finding Forrester was written by Mike Rich. It was his first screenplay for which he was awarded a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1998.
Mr. Rich has crafted a script where the central figure is Jamal Wallace (as portrayed by Rob Brown), a 16 year old Black youth who has depth, dimension, and authenticity as do all of the African-American characters in Finding Forrester, which brings me to a restriction placed on African-American writers: you must write about Black people doing Black people things.
There is an unspoken bias in this direction if you study creative writing in graduate school. Suffice it to say, the old adage of “write what you know” is a misnomer. Obviously, Jules Verne did not know what it was, to be 20,000 leagues beneath the sea, nor did Franz Kafka know what it was to be an insect. We write about what resonates, what we know emotionally, and that can take us anywhere and place us under anyone’s skin. As a writer, where you choose to go with this is your own choice and not the choice of anyone else. When a story finds you, it does so because you are the one best suited to tell it.
Finding Forrester, places us under the skin of Jamal Wallace, growing up in the Bronx in a community without a lot of resources, but inside a home with a lot of love and support. He is a young man of enormous intelligence and talent, who must hide his love of literature in order to be accepted by his peers. He excels at basketball and uses this as sort of a cover for his real love — writing.
On a dare, Jamal enters the home of an old man who lives on the top floor of an anachronistic building overlooking the neighborhood basketball court. Jamal’s hoop buddies have heard all kinds of stories about the man who appears in the window of the top floor flat–that he’s not a man at all, but a ghost.
Jamal agrees to investigate the urban legend. He ascends the fire-escape, enters an open window and encounters none other than author William Forrester (in the person of Sean Connery) America’s greatest living writer who no longer writes or goes out in public: the cinematic equivalent of JD Salinger.