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Reported by April Taylor
Eric Monte’s story is one of betrayal, hope, and, with your help, redemption. Monte is a living legend for his role in creating the first successful show with a black cast since “Amos and Andy.” Prior to the shows he helped create in the 1970s, blacks were mainly portrayed as being uneducated and were usually cast in roles as servants, sidekicks, or clowns. Monte’s characters were intelligent and politically and socially conscious and provided positive portrayals black people could be proud of.
His story is a perfect example of why Hollywood owes a debt to African American writers and producers. Monte was born in Chicago and grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project. He became interested in screen writing at six years old. His mother Ilene was not encouraging of Monte’s dreams of creating stories that cast black people as heroes. She once told him, “There has never, ever been a black writer in Hollywood. If ever there would be, he would be some high-yellow black with a Harvard degree, not some high school dropout from Cabrini-Green!” Monte vowed to his mother that he would live out his dream and left Chicago with just $5.00 and a suitcase, hitchhiking his way to Hollywood with friend Mike Evans.
Monte and Evans became part of a group of young African American writers and directors who helped bring black culture to television. Monte’s “Good Times” portrayed a strong black family who, despite living in the ghetto, had strong family values and consistently worked to improve their lives through education and hard work. Monte’s other work includes some of the 1970s most popular and groundbreaking movies and TV Shows including writing for “All in the Family” and its spin off “The Jeffersons,” co-creating “Good Times”, and writing the 1975 film Cooley High, which was named one of the best high school movies of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
While Monte won an NAACP Image Award for his work, his most significant contributions are part of what got him blackballed from Hollywood. He refused to allow negative stereotypes about black or poor people to become part of his scripts. One example of this is the story of how the TV show “What’s Happening!” came about. Monte had attended a showing of the movie “The Education of Sonny Carson,” with a producer named Steve Krantz. After viewing the movie, Krantz commented on the movie being a portrayal of “real black life,” to which Monte responded, “No it wasn’t.” Monte then allowed Krantz to record an interview of him discussing his life growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. Monte’s story was then turned into the movie “Cooley High.”
When the TV show “What’s Happening!!” was created as a spin off of the movie, Monte never received a dime of compensation, even though he wrote the show and was the sole creator. The show went on to become the first African American teen sitcom to break into the Nielson ratings. In 1977, Monte filed a lawsuit against ABC, CBS, and Bud Yorkin for lost compensation for his development of the storyline and characters for the shows “Good Times,” The Jeffersons,” and “What’s Happening!!” He won the portion of the suit related to his contributions to “Good Times,” but because he did not have the proper legal documentation to prove his ownership rights for the other shows, he only received a $1 million settlement. The settlement represented a small fraction of the residuals earned from “Good Times,” and even worse, Monte’s opportunities to pitch new scripts disappeared as he was blacklisted and shut out of Hollywood for choosing to stand up for what he rightfully deserved.
Despite the hardships and unfair treatment Monte faced as a result of being blacklisted and misrepresented as a penniless drug addict by the media, he has formed his own independent production company, Eric Monte Publishing. He is hoping to reclaim his rightful place as a creative genius by raising the money to produce his screenplay “If They Come Back.” The play helped launch Monte’s career at one point, and he believes that producing the play will once again earn him the recognition and acclaim that was wrongfully stolen from him. Monte is currently raising money for the play’s production through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The money raised through his Kickstarter campaign will go towards producing the play in Monte’s hometown of Chicago and will help cover advertising, actors, theater rental fees, set and lighting design, transportation, costume design, and other items and staff necessary for production. In a city that currently has a 92 percent Black male unemployment rate and raging gun wars, Monte’s work could literally save some lives.
Monte passionately feels that producing this play again will help save young lives by making youth aware of the struggles that previous generations have endured to win their freedom and right to equality. Monte made a vow as a child to produce material that provides black heroes and characters that black people can take pride in, and raising the money to produce “If They Come Back” will give him the opportunity to do this and reach a new generation of black people who deserve to know the inspiration and positive portrayal Monte brings to his projects.