A journey of discovery


    “Life will always hand you obstacles and you must function like water, either you seep under the obstacles or go around them. If that doesn’t work, you wear them down like water on a rock,” said Tina Andrews’ father, George Andrews, in a letter he sent to her when she was 21.

    While Andrews did not pay much mind to the advice when she originally received it, she later realized that the advice was priceless.

    For the miniseries screenplay “Sally Hemings, An American Scandal,” which tells the controversial love story of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine, Andrews won the Writers Guild for Long Form Original Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Movie of the Week or Miniseries.

    “Evidently something about our project just seemed to touch people,” said Andrews, who received the awards on Saturday and Sunday.

    “At the end of the rainbow, there is that wonderful pot of gold,” said Andrews, still on cloud nine as she plans to share the success of the story with her family and the descendants of Hemings, whose ancestral roots the story validates.

    “Getting that movie made was a journey of discovery,” said Andrews, looking back on her experiences. “Sally cried out through me to tell her story.”

    It took 15 years before Andrews could find a platform for the screenplay because no one believed it, and without DNA evidence it could not be proved. Thus, television stations were concerned about being sued by Monticello, Jefferson’s estate in Charlottesville, Va.

    “They were frightened about the fact this was a love story, it was a controversial take on this relationship,” said the writer, who based her findings on literature and other historical evidence.

    In addition to proving the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson existed, the interracial story was controversial and it could tarnish the image of an American icon. The project was rejected many times before CBS took the gamble to produce the screenplay, with Andrews as a co-producer. When it finally aired in 2000, it drew a large audience.

    Andrews recently finished writing a book about her endeavors as she worked on the Hemings legacy.

    “Sally Hemings, An American Scandal, The Struggle to Tell the Controversial Story,” published by Malibu Press, will be available in stores on April 13, the 258th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday.

    In the book, Andrews weaves a passionate behind-the-scenes account of the making of the miniseries. She chronicles her personal and political odyssey as she sought to dramatize the relationship between the third president and his slave.

    “The idea of writing the book was something I was going to do all along because no one believed the story,” said Andrews. “I really wanted people to see some of the actual documentation.”

    Now, DNA results also prove the link between Jefferson and his black descendants.

    Andrews, also an actress, had to climb the professional ladder slowly. After several career transformations, she succeeded in a profession that offered few prospects for black women.

    She first became a successful actor who threaded a new path for black women on television and later became a screenwriter who remained true to herself, working on stories that mattered to her personally.

    “Who I am today is a combination of a lot of different Tina Andrews,” she said. “I have had a number of professional reincarnations; I was a daughter, an artist, an actor, a producer, a playwright and a screenwriter.”

    Andrews grew up in a stable household in an upper middle-class black section of Chicago. She has a younger brother who now is an associate minister in Illinois.

    When Andrews was a child, her father, who came from a long line of Southern preachers, inspired her to become a writer who could recount history powerfully. She grew up listening to his eloquent stories and she began to appreciate literacy because of him.

    In his workshop downstairs in their home, Andrews would spend quality time talking with her father. They talked about the opportunities she could have and he encouraged her to help create opportunities for the generations to come.

    Though he worked at a phone company and at the post office, he really wanted to be a writer, said Andrews. “He missed his calling because he was a black man and at that time there were no opportunities for black writers.”

    George Andrews died in 1987.

    Andrews credits her mother, Eloyce, for her the success she has had in show business.

    “While dad worked hard, it was my mother who took me to dance classes and made sure I had my piano lessons,” said Andrews.

    Andrews attended New York University and majored in film. Though she always aspired to be a writer, she was temporarily sidetracked when her acting skills led her to Broadway.

    In the mid-1970s, her acting career flourished when she played Valerie Grant, the first character to highlight an interracial relationship on the daytime television soap “Days of Our Lives.”

    But this relationship was not illustrated like a normal relationship. “This soap kept hammering the point,” Andrews explained, always dealing with issues pertaining to the interracial relationship.

    As the relationship on daytime TV progressed and her white counterpart asked her to marry him, Andrews knew this was not going to happen, and after five years on the show, her role ended in 1980. The stereotypes portrayed by the couple on TV frustrated Andrews, who was in an interracial relationship in her private life as well. She expressed her sentiments to the press openly. It became hard for her to get work as an actor and she went broke.

    But when she went looking for sympathy from her parents, they pushed her forward and told her to start writing empowering roles for black actors instead of dwelling on the past. “Take yourself seriously as a writer, stop being a part of the problem, become a part of the solution instead,” said her father.

    These encouragements and a role in the miniseries “Roots” led the disappointed actor to revisit her dreams as a professional writer.

    She became closely acquainted with Alex Haley, author of the popular book “Roots,” which was brought to life on the TV screen in the late 1970s.

    Later, Haley hired Andrews to collaborate with him on a PBS series he wrote called “Alex Haley’s Great Men of African Descent,” which remained unfinished because of his death.

    Haley’s death set in motion a sorrowful trend for Andrews. When her career was successful, joyful circumstances brought difficult ones concurrently, it seemed. “As I began to have luck as a writer, each project was accompanied by a tragedy,” said Andrews.

    When she got an assignment with the Walt Disney Co., her husband’s 17-year-old daughter was killed by gang members in 1993. Shortly after she got another assignment, she got a phone call from her mother; her favorite uncle and his family burned to death when gang members threw Molotov cocktails into their home.

    This pattern changed eight years ago when Andrews and Gaines moved to Malibu.

    Andrews is particularly pleased with the cozy house, perched on a canyon edge overlooking the Pacific, that she calls home.

    But Andrews’ mind does not stay still when she is at home, because this is where she spends her time working on various writing projects all at once.

    “I believe God drove me right to this door,” said Andrews.

    As he spoke about his wife of 15 years, Gaines, a documentary filmmaker, said Tina “tells the truth and she has a pure heart.”

    She is always ambitious as far as wanting to be successful and she never stops, to the degree that even when there were really not any work opportunities happening, she would still write eight hours a day, he said.

    Andrews is currently working on a new script for yet another CBS miniseries, which she takes to heart. The story will portray Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as seen through the eyes of his widow Coretta Scott King. It is tentatively entitled, “Coretta: The Woman Beside the Man.”

    As she continues to write about people, mostly women, who shared the lives of significantly important historical men, Andrews hopes to be remembered as “the writer who speaks truth to history.”