The creative team behind a proposed miniseries set during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot hope to begin shooting in September, executive producer Nancy Miller said Wednesday.
“I don’t believe anything until we’re on set and they say ‘Action!’ and even then it’s questionable,” Miller said. “But we think it’s going to go. We have a studio interested. They’re in the budget wars right now, and we hope to shoot this September.”
A shooting location or locations have not been announced.
Miller and her colleagues Valerie Woods and Kristin Palombo are in Tulsa this week for the annual John Hope Franklin Symposium, which this year is looking at diversity in media. The three are part of a panel discussion at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
An Oklahoma native, Miller and her team began developing a four-hour miniseries for the Oprah Winfrey Network more than a year ago. Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer is committed to the project.
Their first script, said Miller, was more or less a straightforward telling of the two-day riot in the spring of 1921.
“The note we got from OWN was to tell the story of the family in the riot.”
The plot centers on the family of Mattie Clay, a young woman working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago who returns to Tulsa for a high school graduation. Mattie’s father owns a thriving grocery business in the Greenwood district.
“OWN pointed out we don’t want a documentary,” Palombo said. “We want fictional characters in a historical event. We wanted to grasp the humanity in it.”
Woods did most of the historical research that went into creating the characters and the context for the script.
“We had to create a family that had its roots in the community,” she said. “We had to study this community and many levels of this community as well.
“You had your church people. You had your business people. You had drug people and prostitutes, all the way down to different strata, and we wanted to incorporate all of that.
“One of the advantages of having a fictional family is that we could explore all of those different levels of society in both Greenwood and south Tulsa.”
One general difficulty with writing about history is that it has many versions. The Tulsa Race Riot is no different. The stories that make up the story are numerous and often contradictory, and Miller and her colleagues say they know that some of those most familiar with the riot will not be satisfied.
“I fully expect to get the crap kicked out of me,” she said.
In writing a four-hour script, Miller said, she and her team have to be faithful to the truth but also be entertaining. Characters have to be merged, action compressed and details omitted.
“Writing is about choices,” Miller said. “Hard choices.
And it got really, really tricky.”
“Our hope is that we haven’t added anything that is untrue or gratuitous,” she said. “Our hope is that we’ve only added things that are true to the nature and spirit of Greenwood.”