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ISU Professor accepts international diversity film script award

Written by on October 19, 2023

Photo provided by Professor John McHale

NORMAL, Ill. – Illinois State University Professor John McHale has been awarded the Santa Barbara International Diversity Film Script award for his script “Nurses Versus the Virus.”

McHale shares the award with his coauthor, Registered Nurse Xavier Jackson. The two met over 15 years ago but recently worked together to write the screenplay for a drama feature film detailing the experiences of Fred Hampton, a fictional nurse serving during COVID-19.

The story details Hampton’s experiences both as a nurse and as a black man serving in a traditionally pink-collar job, those predominantly occupied by women. The experiences and stories Hampton lives through echo the ones that Jackson went through during the pandemic. Jackson spoke on the feelings many nurses have after working through the pandemic, treating a traumatized population.

“People in general, patients and patient families, and nurses in general, subsequent to covid, are a lot more hostile,” Jackson said.

These are feelings that nurses across all demographics feel, Jackson and McHale worked together to incorporate these experiences into the script.

While it is a drama feature film script, comedy elements are still found in many parts of the script. McHale talked about why this is important and why he felt the need to include it.

“We do incorporate a lot of humor, as a writer, I know the audience wants to experience an emotional color wheel,” McHale said. “When there is dramatic tension, an audience wants to get a chance to laugh to relieve that dramatic tension.”

McHale and Jackson also had the shared goal of sharing the narrative of doctors and nurses, especially during the time of COVID-19. In his research, McHale found no films that told this story, so the two aimed to bring attention to the everyday lives of healthcare professionals.

“The real motivation to write this was to celebrate the work that nurses did, to try to help in one of the greatest health crises in the 21st Century,” said McHale.

Originally, the script was called “Nurses and the Virus that Changed Everything,” due to the immense changes that COVID-19 caused the healthcare industry. Nurses, social workers and other hospital employees have not forgotten the days of the virus that much of the public has. The most significant change was healthcare professionals leaving the industry all together.

Jackson talked about how it felt to be on the frontlines of a global pandemic felt to nurses.

“I think that the pat on the head and ‘Great job, nurses, you guys are heroes,” crap really left us with a lot of bitterness in the end,” said Jackson. “You can do the research, there are stories of increased suicide rates among healthcare professionals, alcohol and drug use, divorces and all of those things that go with people who have been spread emotionally thin.”

Jackson elaborated on where healthcare professionals should have been able to spend that energy.

“The energy we had to pour into covid, emotional energy, should have been spent on interpersonal relationships, family, blah, blah, blah,” said Jackson. “Without that energy, those relationships crumble.”

The Santa Barbara International Diversity Film Script award was given to McHale and Jackson after it was selected among the top 1% of all other entries. McHale spoke on the pride he felt after this recognition, detailing how rewarding it was for him as a writer.

“It is very validating that the jury at the Santa Barbara Film Festival decided to confer this honor upon us,” McHale said. “I feel as if this is the culmination of decades of practicing and honing my writing craft.”

Jackson also spoke highly of their shared achievement and was appreciative that their skills could work this well together.

The script currently has no plans to be picked up for a movie, however Jackson joked his top choice for the lead of Hampton would be stand up comedian and actor Dave Chappelle. According to Jackson, Chapelle would be excellent at demonstrating both the emotional and comedic timing required of the role.