A new student film incubator at Northwestern’s School of Communication is shining a light on how mental health is depicted in TV, movies and other media. The initiative was made possible by a grant from the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation and Jessy Pucker ’19.
When Attica Locke ’95 graduated from Northwestern and moved to Hollywood at the age of 21, she was convinced she was going to be the next big movie star. Just give her six months.
But when that six-month alarm sounded, there were no movie roles to be found, and Hollywood looked decidedly less sexy in person than it had from the convocation stage in 1995, when the radio/TV/film major received a degree from the School of Communication.
So she did what any respectable young Black person — and child of political activists — would do in a strikingly nondiverse field where people of color were routinely not hired or promoted: She decided to write her own path forward.
But hers was not a straight line to the top. She scored a screenwriting fellowship and had a gig at the old-school reality show World’s Wildest Police Videos. Eventually she detoured into fiction writing, and somehow this unusual combination of experiences led Locke to write a number of acclaimed crime and mystery novels and successful scripts.
Today, not only does she win awards for books that feature hyper-memorable, fully fleshed-out characters of all races, but she is also a sought-after scriptwriter who contributed to Fox’s primetime Black soap opera Empire and Netflix’s award-winning When They See Us. And all that happened because she was told no. Back in 1995, “I was certain I’d be a star in months, and of course that didn’t happen,” says Locke, now 46.
“I did get to be a fellow at the Sundance Institute feature filmmakers lab, and I had a movie deal as a director early in my career. But it just fell apart, as these things do. I was young and didn’t have a sense that I could have my heart broken professionally.”
But it broke. Her film never got made. It was too … ethnic, she says. And at that time — before Black Panther, before Fruitvale Station and before #OscarsSoWhite — Hollywood executives mistakenly believed there was not much of a market for truly diverse storytelling.
Locke knew there was limited appetite for Black stories in Hollywood. But she still wanted to make movies — and tell character-based stories — about race, specifically rural Black life, with sociopolitical themes.
“I heard, ‘I don’t know if there is a business model for who you are right now,’” she explains. “I thought, if these people [white executives] don’t want my stories, I can write their stories.”
And she did. After a stint in publicity at Warner Bros., she worked on a number of shows big and small, including Early Edition in the late 1990s.
“I worked for every major studio, and I had a lovely career, in the sense that I made money and I was always working — up to a certain point when I had an existential crisis,” she says. “All I did was write for other people. It felt like I was chasing my own tail, and I dropped out.”
Financing a Novel
The Houston-born writer had been married for nearly a decade to her college sweetheart, Karl Fenske ’94, when she grew tired of screenwriting, in the mid-2000s. Fenske was working as a lawyer in Los Angeles, dedicated to helping the downtrodden. He had gone to law school after he and Locke worked together at World’s Wildest Police Chases, where he was the tape librarian.
“Police agencies around the country would send in tapes,” Locke says. “Some of it was car chases and police pulling people out and beating them. And Karl kind of broke. He went to law school and has been a public defender ever since.”
With her husband’s stable job, the couple decided to take out a loan on their house to finance Locke’s true dream: writing a novel. She had a passion for telling a complex story that would show how class, race, big government, major companies and local economies shaped the lives of common people. After all, she’d lived it.
Writing a novel was the ultimate leap of self-faith. “I gave myself a year to write the book that became Black Water Rising,” she says. Along the way, “I had panic attacks, thinking ‘What are you doing? This should be a script!’”
She completed the novel — about a struggling yet good-hearted attorney who is pulled into a 1980s-era Houston-set mystery involving a union strike, a murder or three, tense race relations in the union and the unyielding power of “Big Petroleum.” The country drawl of her characters leapt off the page, and the pacing made it a fast read.
Published in 2009, Locke’s debut was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction and nominated for everything from an NAACP Image Award to an Edgar Award for best mystery novel.
After that book, which drew heavily on her childhood observations of her parents and life in east Texas, Locke wrote several more. The Cutting Season, released in 2012, featured a protagonist mired in a racially tinged murder mystery that blended the reverberations of slavery with modern racial issues. Pleasantville arrived in 2015 and was swiftly followed by Bluebird, Bluebird in 2017 and Heaven, My Home in 2019. This most recent release is still garnering major buzz.
The Attica Locke POV
Locke spends a lot of time reading court documents and watching trials on TV — sometimes just for fun. “I love law and have always been drawn to it,” she says. “I’m lucky I have two sources of research at all times: my father and my husband.” Her father, Gene Locke, is a well-known Houston attorney.
“When I was researching Pleasantville,” she says, “I watched everything, including the trials of Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias. I’m fascinated by the storytelling of [legal arguments] and how people use language to get at the truth.”
Locke’s point of view is one that seeks to expose historical and systemic inequities via storytelling. That’s partly why her books seem so real — a lot of what’s there isn’t really made up at all.
“Certainly, the depth of my political beliefs is in my books, and to some degree the depth of my pain, about how I think people of color are treated in this country,” she says.
The author does not shy away from truth-telling about modern events. At the time of the first interview for this story, the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, and Locke was getting ready to shelter in place in Los Angeles County after picking up her daughter from school. Even then, she knew the virus would exacerbate race and class issues, especially if the White House and health care officials had to work together to help the masses.
Locke gets her fair share of hate mail. Not only does she discuss and dissect racism in her novels — and in her scriptwriting work — but she also talks to the media quite openly about these ideas. She says the way to end racism — although that would remove her ability to draw on it as a plotline in her books — depends on whites.
From Central Park to Little Fires
Back in the early 2010s, African American film director Lee Daniels conceived a ridiculous-sounding new show about a Black record-producing family and shopped it to the Fox network. Only a handful of people thought it would work. Lee Daniels, perhaps best known for directing the films The Butler and Precious, wanted to create a modern-day, campy soap opera like the 1980s’ Dallas, except his version would feature rich African Americans.
In 2014 Daniels tapped Locke to join the show’s writing staff even though years earlier she had walked away from TV.
“I was trying to figure out income, frankly,” she says. When she asked her agent to set her up with a job, “one of the scripts we read was the Empire pilot episode, and I thought, ‘This is different,’ and I was into the idea of how they showed and shattered class lines. Lee was there, and it was just a fit.”
Empire wound up being the most successful show on television in 2016, bringing in more ad revenue for its network than any other series. The show won awards and proved that a Black television drama could command attention, ratings and top ad dollars.
Danny Strong, an Empire co-creator and a reliable gauge of Hollywood temperatures, says that Locke brought her A-game.
“Attica was a true standout in the writers’ room for the first three seasons,” says Strong, also an executive producer of the series. “I absolutely loved working with her. She’s so much fun and has a fantastic energy about her.”
Next came When They See Us, the 2019 docuseries about the Central Park Five — the Black teens wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in New York City. In exposing wrongdoing, it fell in line with Locke’s civil rights–centered storytelling vision. Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay specifically asked Locke to write for the series, which went on to break Netflix streaming records.
Most recently, Locke worked on the Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, now a streaming hit. Ng felt safe leaving her bestselling book in Locke’s gifted hands.
“When I visited the writers’ room, I was thrilled to learn that Attica was also a fiction writer,” Ng says. “It’s like having someone who’s bilingual on your team: I knew Attica would have a deep understanding of the pace and narrative structure of a novel and that she’d be able to help translate that story to fit the needs of a TV show because she knew that world as well.
“Incidentally, Attica wrote one of my very favorite lines in the show, one that doesn’t appear in the book — when Mia [played by Kerry Washington] says to Elena [played by Reese Witherspoon], ‘You didn’t make good choices, you had good choices.’”
For Locke, the choices she’s made — and perhaps a bit of luck — have set her on a path to success.
“I’m aware of a touch of magic in that I have had great luck,” she says. “I will also say that for all of this, I’ve said no to a bunch of stuff. But choosing to walk away and write novels is the thing that gave me the career I have now, both as a novelist and as a person who works in television. It came at the right time for me to grow up and believe in my voice.”
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs ’99 is features editor at Zora, Medium’s new publication focused on the experiences of women of color.