Every Wednesday night growing up in tiny Palmyra, N.J., Taii Bullock ’02 would sit down to family dinner at her Aunt Jeane’s house with at least 20 relatives.
“It looked like something out of a 1950s movie,” she says.
Now Bullock is ready to make her own movies.
Next year, the Quincy House government concentrator will embark on a two-year Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Southern California’s (USC) prestigious School of Cinema-Television, where she’ll focus on screenwriting. She hopes that the program, which is very competitive, will launch her career as a screenwriter and director of feature films.
And yesterday (June 5), when Bullock delivered one of two Ivy Orations at Class Day, her classmates may have had a sneak preview of her first feature film.
“Like most aspiring filmmakers from here, I want to do a Harvard movie,” she says. Like her Class Day speech, which poked fun at some of the past year’s events at Harvard, her future film will, she hopes, take a light-hearted look at the stereotypes and pomp that surround her soon-to-be alma mater.
“There is a lot of funny stuff that goes on at Harvard,” she said, “You can make it a fun place.”
Flair for the dramatic
While Bullock has sampled the full smorgasbord of Harvard fun, from Quincy House social life to tutoring at a local elementary school through the Housing and Neighborhood Development program (“I play a mean game of Red Light, Green Light,” she boasts), she’s dined heartily on drama for the past two years.
On the executive board of Black Cast (Black Community and Student Theater), a student-run drama organization that supports black and minority theatrical productions around campus, Bullock was assistant director of “A Raisin in the Sun” last year and produced Eleganza, a charity fashion show, for two years.
Her crowning achievement, however, was “Women in Color,” a collection of student-written short plays that Bullock co-directed with Terry Chang ’02; it played in February 2002 at Agassiz Theatre.
“It was beyond what I could have imagined,” says Bullock. The plays layered race upon gender upon generation to challenge common ideas and bring complex issues to the fore.
The vignette that Bullock wrote for the production probed attitudes around differences in skin-tone within the black community. When a light-skinned woman dates white men, her darker cousin chides her that “if you marry one of those white boys, your kids will be clear.”
It’s funny, says Bullock, like much of her work, but behind the mask of humor is a deep-rooted problem.
“A lot of times black people are very enraged, and rightfully so, when others make assumptions about them because they are black,” she said. “But then when [similar assumptions are] internalized and made an intra-group problem, there’s this tacit acceptance.”
A diverse Harvard
Audiences at Bullock’s future movie might be surprised at the richly diverse Harvard she portrays. Yet that diversity, which includes a multihued palette of close friends and traditionally paler institutions like Finals Clubs (“sometimes you just hang out there because … you can watch free cable”), has defined Harvard for her.
“It’s one thing I really cherished about my Harvard experience,” she says. For all the idylls of small-town Palmyra, it is not an ethnically diverse hamlet.
“Although it’s cute and quaint, it is like a 1950s movie,” she says, “there’s a train track down the middle, and black people live on one side and white people on the other.”
Bullock’s experiences were similarly bisected: At home, she lived among black people in a tight family community with deep roots in Palmyra. At Palmyra High School, where she graduated second in her class and was the only alumnus ever to be accepted to Harvard, hers was often the only black face in the room.
She celebrates the black, white, Hispanic, South Asian, and Indian friends she’s made at Harvard and the racial diversity they bring to her blocking group or to dinner in Quincy dining room. It’s genuine, she said, not an artifice of any well-intentioned social engineering.
“We’re not all joining hands and singing ‘We Are the World,'” says Bullock. “It’s just my friends, we all call each other on cell phones and decide we’re going to get together for dinner.”
‘What I want to do, what I need to do’
Bullock speaks of her future with a clarity and a passion that she admits eludes even some of her fellow Harvard students.
Although the screenwriting bug did not bite her until her junior year, when she wrote 10-minute plays for “Dramatic Arts I,” it bit hard and is not letting go.
“When I write something or direct something … that touches someone or really entertains them … I can’t explain the feeling that washes over me,” she says. The positive audience reaction to “Women in Color” further fueled her, yielding an enormous emotional payoff for “every tear, every splinter, every paper cut, every screaming, frustrating, hair-pulling hour [co-director Terry Chang] and I spent.”
So when she received her acceptance letter from the University of Southern California on a Monday, she sent her confirmation and deposit check back to Los Angeles by Wednesday. A directing course she took at USC last summer set her squarely on that path; “there wasn’t anything to think about” in accepting the school’s offer, she says.
After two years of courses in writing screenplays and sitcoms, Bullock plans to hone her craft and connections with writing jobs before tackling feature films, directing and writing witty comedies in the style of Ben Stiller, Wes Anderson, or Chris Rock. It’s a career that’s high on glamour but low on stability, and Bullock is prepared to meet the challenge with an intense determination.
“It’s what I want to do, it’s what I need to do, it’s what I’m going to do,” she says. “I don’t know how, but somehow, God and I are going to find a way and we’re going to do it.”