Film Script: Phyllis Wheatley

This film script on Phyllis Wheatley was written and created by Brodie Willard, a student at Texas A&M University. 


Critical Introduction

“Text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, [or] illustrations…they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it…to ensure the text’s presence in the world,” -Gerald Genette Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation

The act of reading is not exclusively bound to an audience’s cognition. Whether a reader is curled up on a couch while flipping through the pages of a freshly acquired novel or squinting at their glistening phone screen on a packed commuter bus, the experience is impacted by the sensations of sight, smell, sound, and touch. Because of the importance of these factors, paratextual analyses incorporate them when determining what elements beyond the actual literature influence a reader’s interpretation. However, there is a certain irony in describing the significance of these physical cues solely through mere text. To avoid this irony, I plan on creating a non-traditional visual approach to an analysis, such as a video essay, which will include visual examples of the previously mentioned senses to provide support for the analytical claims.

Additionally, this project will seek to resonate with an audience of my peers, so as to encourage a broadened idea of how literature, film, music, and artwork can be approached and analyzed in a setting that matches the sensory appeals of their medium. To achieve this, the short film will serve as an introductory example of the strategies that can be applied in an analysis. For instance, a video can also establish a more fluid integration of evidence than in a written paratextual analysis; displaying a shot of an original text accompanied by narration that simultaneously explore the sights of the page melds the rhetoric of an essay with the visual of the work. Admittedly, figures could be attached to a standard written version, but the audience would have to break from the argument to view and compare them with the author’s stance, thus disrupting the overall flow and slowing the comprehension of the piece.

As for the actual work being analyzed, early editions of Phillis Wheatley’s collection Poems on various subjects, religious and moral will serve as the focus for the analysis, because her writing style makes her an apt subject for a discussion over paratext. Since she was a slave during the early stages of her career, many of her books of poetry frequently marketed her race as a sort of curiosity, which she developed into veiled critiques of those that would oppose abolition. Due to this subversive approach to writing, the paratextual content of her work exhibits a portrayal of a black woman as a thinking, feeling, and capable individual. Wheatley is a striking historical figure due to her unusual origins and tact with expression; through these conditions, she manages to weave an image of herself as an author and as an individual into her work.

In conjunction with Wheatley’s poetry, the focus of the video essay will be further supported by several outside sources. The primary source that will be integrated most directly in the film is a personal interview with Dr. Lucia Hodgson, a specialist in African Diaspora and African-American literature, which will go over subjects such as her interpretation of the paratext in Poems on various subjects, how she identifies Wheatley’s writing persona through visual cues, and her thoughts on Wheatley’s experience in relation to that of abolitionism and African-American Literature. Through these subjects, the rhetoric of the work will be able to expand on potential topics such as academic views of paratext, expanded analyses of Wheatley’s tonal choices, and the sociological impacts on literature and culture around her. Alongside that, works like Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation will allow the script to establish and explore definitions and expectations of paratextual theory for the intended audience, so that they may better familiarize themselves with the requirements of making an academic analysis. Biographical sources, such as The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, will be used for historical context in the introduction, but will not comprise the primary focus of the narrative.

By creating a visual paratextual analysis of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, I intend to both display the textual persona of the author and create an inspirational model for fellow students to consider and learn from when conducting reviews of literature and media. Through its research, the resulting video essay will share contemporary aspects on Wheatley’s writing style and reflect the ideals of paratext. Not only will this project strive to represent the works of Phillis Wheatley, but also represent her in a way that compliments the sensational appeals that come with indulging in her texts.



1. OPENING SCENE. BLACK SCREEN                        1

SCENE: Still shot. The screen is blacked out. Everything is silent for the first few seconds. “Rosie” chorus slowly fades in. Shot of Phillis’s portrait slowly fades in with the song.

2. CUSHING. MIDDAY                               2

SCENE: Rolling shot. The camera moves through Cushing library in point-of-view as introduction narration begins. The book is waiting at a table.


Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa with a name that has since been forgotten. She was only around 7 years old when she was transported across the Atlantic Ocean and bought by another human being, John Wheatley. She was to be a domestic servant. And yet, despite her disparaging circumstances, she would go on to become one of the most well-known and celebrated poets in the 18th century.

3. CUSHING. SECOND FLOOR. MIDDAY                      3

SCENE: Over-the-shoulder shot. READER is progressing through the book, starting off with the pretext and Preface. Interview dialogue commences, focusing on connecting Wheatley to African-American literature. Interspersed with shots of specific poems. Titles should be centered and coincide with Dr. Hodgson’s comments.

TITLES TO INCLUDE: “O Maecenas”, “An Answer to the Rebus, by the Author of these Poems” “Ode to Neptune”, “On Being Brought from Africa”, “A Hymn to the Morning”, “A Hymn to the Evening”, “A Farewell to America”

4. CUSHING. SECOND FLOOR. MIDDAY                      4

SCENE: Establishing shot. READER refocuses on the initial dedication page and public address. Close up on eyes darting over the text. Series of shots of the names and key words used. The camera mimics the movement of the eye.

DIALOGUE: This scene must focus on the credibility this vouch meant for Wheatley, but also show her interactions with these powerful people. Ultimately, the section should lead in to the topic of abolition.

5. CUSHING. SECOND FLOOR. MIDDAY                      5

SCENE: Tilting shot(s). The camera will scroll down full pages. The pages used will primarily be the shorter works to better capture their full tone and emotion without need for lengthy context in this instance.

DIALOGUE: This section should be fairly source-free, as it is focused on the tone of the textual formatting. Dynamic readings of emphasized text will serve as a coupled example of both audio and visual cues.

6. CUSHING. SECOND FLOOR. MIDDAY                      6

SCENE: Panning shot(s). The camera ‘reads’ over abolitionist lines, specifically “Remember, Christians,” at first, then switches to the more classical lines like “Ode to Neptune”.

DIALOGUE: As the sociological implications of Wheatley’s work is discussed, the shots and cinematography must reflect both the active and passive examples of abolitionist writing.

7. CUSHING. EVENING                                   7

SCENE: Rolling shot. The book is put away and the READER begins to leave the library as they close. Glare from sun should blind the camera.


Her story was not an easy one, but it was a challenge she rose to meet. Phillis Wheatley was an unquestionably gifted writer who used both a subtlety of words and presentation to communicate her beliefs and abilities. Because of this, her paratext is ripe with hidden streaks of her confidence as an author and showcases the skill many would doubt in her simply due to the color she shared with Cain. Fortunately, she refined her authority as a writer and was able to join th’ angelic train.

8. BLACK SCREEN                                       8

SCENE: Still shot. The screen fades to black. Everything is silent for the first few seconds. “Black Betty” (Original version from the Texan Prison) chorus slowly fades in and fades out with the credits.


Works Cited

  1. Gates, Henry Louis. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. Civitas Books, 2010.
  2. Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation. Vol. 20. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  3. Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on various subjects, religious and moral. By Phillis Wheatley, negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England. London, MDCCLXXIII. [1773]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Texas A&M University College Station, 2018.


Copyright 2018 Dylan Brodie Willard

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