In Hollywood, clashes between screenwriters are like white noise — omnipresent and virtually unnoticed.
What sparks interest, however, is when somebody complains after getting both credit and a paycheck. And in a move that borders on professional suicide, that’s precisely what virtually unknown scribe Akosua Busia has done — allowing a nasty behind-the-scenes battle over credit, race, and screenwriting street cred to spill out into the press and all over the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel, Beloved.
Just weeks ago, nobody in Hollywood really knew who Akosua Busia was. A sometime actress and screenwriter who is also Ghanaian royalty, Busia, 30, is intelligent and slightly eccentric in a New Age-y way (her answering-machine message reminds callers to ”remember, faith is not a jump in the dark, it is a walk in the light”). Until now, she’s probably been best known as the wife of director John Singleton (from whom she is getting divorced and with whom she has a daughter) and as Nettie in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple.
Busia’s account begins in 1987, when she read a prepublication copy of Beloved given to her by her sister, an English professor at Rutgers. She recommended it to her Color Purple costars Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey snapped up the film rights, intending to play the lead role of Sethe in the film adaptation. Soon after, she showed Busia a seven-page treatment by another writer. To be sure, any writer would have a tough time adapting Morrison’s tortuously complicated novel about the devastating effects of slavery on an African-American family, but Busia particularly disliked this treatment. ”It was all ‘Massah, we just wanna get a piece of land,”’ she recalls. ”I absolutely hated it. One night, I woke up and had this vision. I saw a mirror crack and boys running down the stairs — it was the beginning of the movie.” A nightlong writing session produced a 28-page proposal, which Busia submitted to Winfrey.
Citing Busia’s inexperience, Harpo, Winfrey’s production company, declined her proposal. Busia says the company had no further dealings with her until 1991, when Busia sent Winfrey her first screenplay, Seasons, under the pseudonym Mia Oshwegus — an anagram for ”guess who I am.” Winfrey forwarded it to Harpo Films executive vice president Kate Forte, who was later to become a producer of Beloved. (Busia believes that had she used her own name, Harpo would still have rejected her for her inexperience.) After revealing that she’d written Seasons, Busia was given the assignment to adapt Beloved — but for the relatively paltry fee of $16,875. (Winfrey and Forte decline to respond to any of Busia’s assertions or to confirm her chronology of events.)
On Nov. 1, 1991, Busia handed in her unedited script. Painfully overlong — it would have run at about four hours — the script nonetheless attracted attention. ”It was a damn good script,” Beloved star Glover told the Los Angeles Times. ”I keep good scripts; I still have that one.”