Brawl Over 'Beloved'

According to Busia, the draft also impressed Truman Show director Peter Weir, who, at Winfrey's request, attended a meeting with the talk-show host and Busia in Los Angeles in late 1991. ''He cried, said it was one of the most incredible screenplays he'd ever read, and said he'd work with me in January [1992],'' recalls Busia. ''And then he dropped the bombshell, which was that he didn't want to be encumbered with precast roles.'' That included casting Winfrey, the film's producer, as Sethe, which Busia says Weir would not consider unless she auditioned. Exit Weir. (Weir could not be reached for comment.)

Forte reportedly shopped Busia's script to the major studios over the next three years — without success. Finally, in late 1995, Busia says, Harpo called to set up a meeting to discuss rewrites, but the day before it was to take place, the meeting was canceled. Busia claims she heard nothing from Harpo until months later, when her attorney was told that Oscar-nominated screen-adaptation expert Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer) had replaced her.

A smart, quick worker with a strong track record, LaGravenese is as close as Hollywood gets to a star writer. ''Oprah had seen Bridges,'' says LaGravenese, ''and asked to meet me in New York. She gave me the book, we had a second meeting two months later, and I said yes, I'd like to try. I was extremely honored.'' LaGravenese wrote two drafts; the second attracted Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs).

LaGravenese then departed to direct his first feature, New Line's Living Out Loud, leaving further rewrites to Adam Brooks (French Kiss). Starting in March 1997, Brooks began working closely with Demme. ''Using the book, Richard's draft, and Jonathan's ideas, we did more than a dozen drafts over the next four months,'' remembers Brooks. Beloved, with Disney on board as its distributor, started shooting in June in Maryland and wrapped by the end of the summer.

The trouble began in February 1998 when the Writers Guild of America issued tentative credits for Beloved to Brooks and LaGravenese. Busia told her attorneys not to pursue a credit arbitration because, she says, she assumed that her material had not been used.

Then the knock came at her door. ''My business manager's assistant hands me [Brooks' shooting script],'' says Busia. ''I started reading, and it was like bullet shots. I'm like, Omigod, omigod, omigod. I was almost shaking.'' She filed for arbitration three days later.

When Busia first saw the Brooks/LaGravenese credit, ''I felt as though two white men were picking over my bones,'' she would later rant in a letter to Winfrey and Forte. ''I find it sadly ironic, that here we have a story such as BELOVED, where a black woman, Sethe...fights for freedom for herself and her children from their white oppressors. And then here I am, a black female writer from Africa, writing the script, and then being left in a position to battle alone against Disney, who recommends that two white male writers, who were paid, literally, millions of dollars more than I was (only to end up using my script with their 'names' attached), be credited instead of me!''

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