It’s safe to say that all eyes were definitely on Matt George when he showed up in New York earlier this month to accept the IFP’s Gordon Parks Independent Film Award for best original screenplay.
The prize, named after Parks, a famed African-American helmer (“Shaft”) and photojournalist, recognizes talented emerging African-American filmmakers, including one director and one screenwriter. Winners receive an all-expense-paid trip to New York to claim their prize at a star-studded ceremony.
But George is Caucasian.
Unfortunately, the panel of presenters and judges including, helmer Spike Lee, director Bill Duke, actor-director-writer Cheryl Dunye, producer Debra Martin Chase, writer-director Malcolm D. Lee and actress Tonya Lee Williams, didn’t know that. At least not until George, a surfer who stands over six feet and looks like he just stepped out of the Navy, boasting tattoos and a shaved head, showed up at the awards ceremony to collect his $10,000 prize.
The fine print
“I showed up and it was a complete surprise,” George told Daily Variety. “I was the bastard child at that banquet. We’re talking about a starving Hollywood writer who has entered 15 competitions and didn’t really read the fine print. It was the most awkward situation of my life. It became so comedic that at the after party there wasn’t a human being in there that wasn’t buying me a drink.”
George’s winning script, “Soul Alley,” pays homage to his African-American godfather, Buddie Penn, the first black squadron leader in Vietnam. It’s a love story, set in the Philippines during the war, involving the children left behind in the military’s wake. George previously won Emmys for producing docus “Let Me Be Brave” and “Surfer Magazine” before creating the short-lived NBC surfing drama “Wind on Water.”
“They assumed that since my screenplay is of an African-American theme, that the writer was African-American,” George said. “I was approached by a committee member and told that I was ineligible to receive the award on the basis of the color of my skin. I was disappointed, but what could I do? I realized that we had all made an error, so I stood down.”
The prize was ultimately presented to Jono Oliver, who scripted “The Other Ones,” about a man who finds his place in the world after he’s injured in a highly publicized shooting.
“I’m just honored that I could write a screenplay that could win an African-American award,” George said. “That’s such an honor.”