The Power of the Pen

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster writer-director Bomani J. Story on how he first encountered great writing through hip-hop lyricism.

It started when my Big Big Sister played the track. Loud. Downstairs. In the Great Room. Out the speakers.

Our first date, couldn’t wait to see you naked
Touch you in every secret place
I could hardly wait to bust freely
Got you red-hot, you so happy to see me
Make the front page, prime time, live on TV
Nigga, my girlfriend, baby 45 but she still live
One shot make a nigga’s heartbeat stop

She stopped the song. “What’s he talking about?” she asked me. I had to be 10, 11 or 12 at the time. “His girlfriend,” I said. She shook her head. Spun it back. And, played Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend” again.

My girlfriend blacker than the darkest night
When niggas act bitch-made she got the heart to fight.
Nigga, my girlfriend, though we separated at times
I knew deep inside, baby girl would always be mine
Picked you up when you was 9
Started out my life of crime with you
Bought you some shells when you turned 22
It’s true, nothin’ compares to the satisfaction
That I feel when we out mashin’; me and my girlfriend

“What’s he talking about?” She tested me again. “Nigga, his girlfriend!” I screamed! “Listen to the lyrics!” My Big Big Sister screamed back! She ran that shit back again.

Nigga, my girlfriend, baby 45 but she still live
One shot make a nigga’s heartbeat stop

Now I stopped the track, but not from annoyance. From the brilliance. I turned to her with wide eyes and a mind busted wide open. “He’s talking about his gun.” All the verses in the song changed like the second watch of The Sixth Sense.

Bomani J. Story around the time he discovered hip hop.

It was over for me. How could a sequential order of words be so clever, deep and breathtaking? I started listening to a lot of rap. Another song that caught me was Nas’ “Last Words,” where the song takes the perspective of a prison cell, and turns it into a horror story.

When you cry I make you feel alive inside a coffin
Watch you when you eat play with you mind when you sleep
Make you dream that you free then you wake up to me
Face to face with a cage no matter your age
I can shatter you turn you into a savage in rage

These weren’t just cool written lines. There was more to it. There was stuff between them. I was so moved by how they could have such an impact. I became a zealot for the written word.

I remember in high school, I’d be sitting at the lunch table, arguing with my boys about what’s more important in the music, the lyrics or the beat. I’d yell at them, “If it’s all about the beat, why do they even put rappers on it!? If the beats are so cold, then only listen to the damn instrumentals!” They’d just start beatboxing “Grindin’” by Clipse. Everyone would join in, banging the instrumental beat on the lunch tables without saying a word. My friends would stare at me saying, “Nigga, shut up! Don’t nobody care about the lyrics.” And they’d keep vibing to the beat. But I cared. I loved the words.

When I went to college, the argument evolved and moved into cinema. A bunch of film school nerds arguing about directors and writers. Visual storytelling versus the written word. “It starts on the damn page, bro!” I’d point to crazy lines from Charlie Kaufman or Aaron Sorkin. They’d bellow back with wild shots from Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher. Now, as an older man, I recognize the importance and contributions of all sides of an artistry, but I still can’t help what spoke to me the most with my journey in music and cinema.

Bomani J. Story during his time at film school.

Even in some of my favorite films, the wordplay moved mountains. Take Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Chuck Tatum, an unemployed, slick-talking ex-journalist from New York, wants a job. How does he convince Jacob Q. Boot, the owner of a small-town newspaper company, to hire him? Chuck asks Mr. Boot if he wants to make an easy $200 a week.

What’s all this about my making $200 a week?

Mr. Boot, apparently you’re not familiar with my name.

Can’t say that I am.

That’s because you don’t get the Eastern papers out here. I thought maybe once in a while somebody would toss one out of a Super Chief and you might have seen my byline – Charles Tatum. Worked in Chicago – worked in New York – Detroit.

What about the two hundred?

I was coming to that. Mr. Boot, I’m a $250 a week newspaper man. I can be had for $50.

Boom! Just like that, a line tells you everything you need to know about who you’re dealing with. First of all, this sleazy guy was lying about making $200 a week. He only said that to get in the door. Second, it makes you wonder if he’s such a great newspaper man – why’s he so cheap now? Third, you definitely believe he’s a damn good salesman, because anyone who can talk their way into an office and sell someone on those lines is good and confident at what they do. And, this is all just with one line of a screenplay. I haven’t even gotten to the poetry of the action lines yet, like in Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for L.A. Confidential, based on James Ellroy’s novel of the same name.

Would you be willing to beat confessions out of suspects you knew to be guilty?


Would you be willing to shoot hardened criminals in the back to offset the chance –


Then for God’s sake, don’t be a detective. Stick to assignments where you won’t have to make those choices. Patrol, Internal Affairs, but not the Bureau.

After this first exchange in the beginning of the film, Exley says two words, and it lets you know he’s by the book and not a corrupt cop. [Spoiler Alert!] At the end of the film, Exley watches Dudley walk away after killing innocent people. Dudley is the mastermind criminal behind it all. So what does Exley do?

The SHOTGUN BELCHES FLAME. Dudley goes down, shot in the back.

The poeticism of this moment in the script is just in an action line. It solidifies Exley’s full change in character without him uttering a word. His transformation from by-the-book to do-what-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done, even if it’s corrupt. A poetic and clever way to deliver a message and make the audience feel satisfied. All from a sequence of words. An action. A stroke of the pen. The tapping of a typewriter. The pressing on a keyboard. And this is just one way of executing writing. There’s levels to the shit.

Laya DeLeon Hayes in Bomani J. Story’s The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster.

The fact that songs and stories like these could hold such impact through the simple use of words changed how I move in the world. It changed how I’m entertained by the arts. It changed how I write. Or better said, it changed how I aspire to write. To create meaning between the lines. To give an audience something more than just information. To give them truth, empathy, compassion, education, laughter, fear and a plethora of other feelings. This all starts with the pen, and it ends with the words. Because after you’re done with a song, all you remember is the feeling a stroke of the pen brought you, like a punchline from Jadakiss’ “Show Discipline.”
I bring the heat like I’m Satan himself.”

Or a final line in a two-hour movie that captures how you feel in one moment, like the last words of Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

How would you like to make yourself a thousand dollars a day, Mr. Boot? I’m a thousand-dollar-a-day-newspaper man. You can have me for nothing.

Writing can leave you breathless. Like I was when my sister was playing Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend” for me for the first time.

“His gun. He’s talking about his gun,” I said with my whole chest and a spirit full of confidence. She played it again.

I was too immature to understand your ways
Inexperienced back in the days
Caused so many arguments and strays
Now I realize how to treat you, the secret to keep you
Being faithful, ’cause now cheating’s lethal
We’re closer than the hands of time
Deeper than the drive of mankind
I trust you dearly, I shoot blind

My Big Big Sister questioned me, “Or is it about man’s toxic relationship with his woman? Or America’s toxic relationship with its guns? Or both?”

“I don’t know.” I thought hard. “It can be any of those things,” I whined. I remember her last words that left me with wider eyes than when I first thought I figured the song out.

“That’s the power of the pen.”

I ran that track back and played it again.

Bomani J. Story is the writer, director and producer of the new horror film The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, which is in theaters from June 9 through AllBlk, RLJE and Shudder. Bomani spent time writing his own short stories as a child and cut his teeth on filmmaking when he started making shorts at San Bernardino Valley College, before finishing his studies at USC’s school of Cinematic Arts. He wrote Rock Steady Row, which went on to win the Best Narrative Feature, and the Audience Award at 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.