Even as a thriving emergency room doctor, Misan Sagay heard the rumblings of a deeper dream.
She had always loved stories and the transportive magic of movies. It was through film that the tropical breezes of Gidget Goes Hawaiian blew into her childhood home in Cambridge, England. It was film that allowed her to trade the rigors of medical school for a glamorous Roman romp in La Dolce Vita.
But Sagay never saw herself in these images. Black women were largely absent onscreen, or they were side characters, supporting someone else’s story.
It was so unusual to see a black person on TV when Sagay was growing up that she remembers her whole family yelling and pointing at the screen any time it would happen.
The stories and memories made by the movies are what bind us as a human family, she says, and without representation, going to the cinema is “like looking at a family photograph album and you’re not there.”
All her life, Sagay yearned to see herself in the stories she loved. So, despite a hard-earned medical career, she knew she had to write them.
Though she had never written a screenplay, she was no stranger to storytelling. A creative child and lifelong reader, she’d been making up narratives since she was a kid.
“I used to write quite involved stories for my dolls, actually,” Sagay says. “I invented a whole village and I would write about all the different people who live there.”
Plus, she says the medical profession is built on stories.
“If you look at the life of a doctor, your whole day is telling stories. It’s meeting people who tell you their story. It’s you looking behind that story to know what’s really going on, because you often need to do that with a diagnosis, and then it’s repeating that story to somebody else in order to achieve what you want to achieve with the patient,” she says.
“So people say, ‘How different is medicine?’ For me, telling stories and being very interested in people and the human condition was, really, what I did.”
Writing them down was actually the new element. So with the discipline of a doctor, in stolen moments around work and raising her two boys, Sagay diligently crafted her first screenplay.
And in the kind of moment Hollywood dreams are made of, The Secret Laughter of Women was immediately produced and brought to the screen.
“I wrote a script and that script was made, and I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is easy,’” Sagay says with a hearty laugh from her home in London.
A romance starring Nia Long as a native Nigerian (like Sagay) who falls for a British writer played by Colin Firth, the 1999 film launched Sagay’s professional writing career. It caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who tapped Sagay to be a writer on the 2005 TV movie Their Eyes Were Watching God.
That’s when Sagay hung up her scrubs to write full time. She established a strict routine that saw her rising before dawn each day.
“That’s always my best writing time,” she says. “I love those early mornings when no one else is awake and the wonderful moment where, as a mother, you know your children are asleep and well and breathing. There’s nothing more you can do. And for those three or four hours, I can just let go. I can let go of all the daily stuff and just write.”
At 8 a.m., she’d log off and take her sons to school.
Over years of thoughtful writing and painstaking research, Sagay used those early morning sessions to create the kind of rich, historic tale she’d dreamed of seeing as a kid.
The result was 2013’s Belle, the story of a mixed-race girl raised as an aristocrat in 18th-century England. Based on true events, the drama was inspired by Sagay’s visit to Scotland’s Scone Palace while she was in medical school. She was transfixed by a painting there that depicted young, regal Lady Elizabeth Murray holding hands with an equally regal-looking black girl, identified as “Dido, the housekeeper’s daughter.”
Sagay discovered that the real Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray grew up as sisters in the home of Lord Mansfield, an influential British barrister.
In Sagay’s story, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the center of the action, the author of her destiny. The powerful Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) supports her story.
Belle was internationally acclaimed, winning widespread recognition for Sagay, Mbatha-Raw and director Amma Asante. It also brought Sagay an invitation to join the Academy, which she calls “one of the best days of my life.”
But when she first pitched the idea for the film, executives didn’t understand the focus on Belle.
“What people would always say is, ‘Why are you making it about her when there’s this amazing character Lord Mansfield, who is a giant in the legal world and he’s so important?’” Sagay recalls. “It’s rather as though somebody wanted to make a film about this house and chose to make it about one of the mice in the cupboard.”
In other words, why focus on the black girl when it could be about the white guy, the exact cinematic imbalance Sagay set out to rectify in the first place.
But thanks to widespread efforts to raise awareness of Hollywood’s overwhelming whiteness — and all the stories and talents that have been overlooked as a result — things are finally changing, she says.
It used to be that before she could pitch a project, “I would have to pitch my relevance,” justifying that an audience would be interested in what happens to a black female protagonist.
“It was exhausting,” she says.
Lately, though, the industry’s appetite for diversity has grown. Sagay has even found herself pitching ideas to executives who look like her.
“What thrills me about the changes I’ve seen is that they haven’t just happened organically. It’s people of goodwill and decency who’ve said we’re going to make a difference. We’re going to change things. And it has made a difference.”
It’s not just about increasing opportunities for people of color or tapping into a wealth of unheard writers and stories. It’s about reinserting diversity into humanity’s shared family history as seen in film and shaping a future where all kinds of different stories and people are valued.
“It’s so often that the film industry leads reality. I don’t know how many black presidents I saw onscreen before there was a real one,” Sagay says. “We’re not followers. We’re leaders. We form public perception, which is why it’s such an amazing privilege but also an amazing responsibility.”
Even two decades after changing careers and following her heart into storytelling, Sagay still has big dreams. She’s working with artists she admires and writing stories in all genres, from biopics to fantasy, including a long-dreamed-of tale about a black princess. More than that, she’s envisioning and contributing to a landscape where black writers can adapt Jane Austen and films about African kings are as beloved as those about British monarchs.
“It’s terribly important that the community, that our art, reflects the world,” Sagay says, “and that there’s never a little girl in Cambridge who’s never seen herself onscreen.”
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