Telling Stories, Transforming Minds

by University Relations

In 1832, a Quaker schoolteacher risked everything by admitting African-American women into her school, unleashing a nationwide fight for educational freedom and withstanding an onslaught of threats and attacks. More than 180 years later, Prudence Crandall and her students, the brave women who initiated the first integrated classroom in the United States, captured the attention of Elizabeth (Schuler ’05) Smith, who brought this story to life through the powerful and creative medium of screenwriting.

Smith came across Crandall’s story while working for Broad Reach Productions in Boston, and she urged her producer to slate it as their next feature film project. “Something struck me about this young woman who had everything—a stable career, house, school—yet knowingly sacrificed it all for others,” said Smith. She dove into two and a half years of intense research and writing, piecing together the story from historical documents and interviews with descendants of both Crandall and her students. “Writing a historical fiction screenplay as my first professional project proved extremely difficult at times, but this significant story had to be told. In the end, it bolstered my writing skills and confirmed for me that God has called me to the screenwriting profession.”

Smith discovered this calling as an English major at Azusa Pacific. During her last semester, she registered for Barbara Nicolosi Harrington’s screenwriting class to fulfill a credit. When Smith turned in her first screenplay, Harrington, executive director of the Galileo Film Studio at APU, recognized extraordinary talent: “I saw a depth in Elizabeth’s writing that undergraduate students rarely achieve. I knew she could have a profound impact if she pursued screenwriting.”

Harrington hired Smith as her assistant at Act One, an organization she founded in Hollywood that prepares Christians to work in the entertainment industry. From there, Smith earned her master’s degree in writing at the prestigious Carlow University in Ireland and launched a successful career as a screenwriter in Boston.

In an age where television, movies, and other digital media dominate daily life, creative storytelling through these mediums has grown increasingly influential. Smith sees the potential for transformation in her audiences. “Films make people view the world differently. As an artist, my challenge is to cause audiences to leave the movie theater better people with a stronger sense of responsibility than when they entered,” said Smith.

Smith’s ability to tap into these deep emotions comes from her own struggles
and triumphs. As an undergraduate, she battled cancer, undergoing intense treatments while carrying a full class load and discovering how to lean on her faith and the help of others in a Christ-centered community like APU. Now cancer-free, she draws upon the fear, pain, and triumph of that experience as she writes.

“A writer has to embody the pain of her characters,” said Smith. “I may not know what it means to be Prudence Crandall in the 1830s—a woman who sacrificed much in a fierce battle against racism. But I know what it means to battle. I know a loving community can sustain us through impossible hardships. I can write about that subject with believability and understanding.”

Originally published in the Summer '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.