The Collegian
Thursday, December 01, 2022

Steven Spielberg to turn professor's article into movie

<p>Leadership Studies Professor Lauren Henley's essay will be adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg's production company. Portrait courtesy of Henley.</p>

Leadership Studies Professor Lauren Henley's essay will be adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg's production company. Portrait courtesy of Henley.

Steven Spielberg’s production company acquired the rights to a professor's article, "The Richest Black Girl in America," with plans of turning it into a film.

Leadership Studies Professor Lauren Henley wrote the article about a young Black girl in the Jim Crow era for the digital magazine Truly*Adventurous in February 2021. Spielberg's company, Amblin Partners, then bought the article in October 2021 and chose Azia Squire, a writer on the Netflix series "Bridgerton," to adapt Henley’s article into a feature script, according to the official press release.

Henley said Truly*Adventurous had reached out and asked her to write the article. The magazine focuses on producing narrative, long-form nonfiction pieces with the aim of pitching them to Hollywood executives, Henley said.

It was exciting and surprising when Truly*Adventurous notified her Amblin Partners bought the article because it was unusual for a piece to get picked up so soon after publication, Henley said.

“They told me it’s a needle in a haystack," Henley said. "It could be really successful, but it could take a while and maybe no one will ever want this story."

The article tells the true story of Sarah Rector, an 11-year-old Black girl living in the Jim Crow south, who goes from being impoverished to becoming one of the richest people in America after finding oil reserves under her family’s farmland. Despite many attempts to take advantage of her newfound wealth, Rector was able to skillfully regain control of her own finances.

Henley said her writing normally focused on crime and Black life in America during the late 19th and early 20th century, so writing Rector’s story helped expand her range of research.

The article is just one example of Henley’s talent for creating compelling narratives from her research, wrote Sandra Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, in an email to The Collegian. It is thrilling that Henley’s contributions to the African-American historical record are getting recognized as Henley’s work often tells the neglected, but important stories of Black women, Peart said.

It is not surprising that Henley’s work was picked up to be a feature film given her innovative scholarship and powerful storytelling, wrote Leadership Studies Professor Crystal Hoyt in an email to The Collegian. Social psychologists use the term “BIRG” (basking in reflected glory) to describe a tendency to associate with successful peers and Hoyt wrote she is often “BIRGing” in Henley’s academic successes.

The fact that Amblin Partners is making a movie about Rector’s story represents an overall shift in the entertainment industry toward highlighting more Black successes rather than hardships, Henley said.

“I think in some ways, Sarah Rector’s story is imagining what's possible for this little girl who went from nothing to having a whole lot more than she could have ever imagined and then still kind of being tampered with all of this sort of injustice that she faced," Henley said. "I think it's a feel-good story and one that transcends racial lines."

Contact news writer Katie Castellani at katie.castellani@richmond.edu.

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