Op-Ed: Charlotte seeks to be too perfect and needs to grow up

Op-Ed: Charlotte seeks to be too perfect and needs to grow up
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(Marcie Kelso is a partner at Kelso Communications)

Charlotte was a whole new world for me in 1996, when I was recruited to move here and create the Charlotte Regional Film Office to market our region to the film industry. Charlotte had witnessed the success of Wilmington as a film production center and wanted the same for this area in its quest to lead in all things business.

During my interviews with the Charlotte Regional Partnership (then called the Carolinas Partnership), I was impressed as I learned of Charlotte’s “can do” spirit and of the determination of the region’s leaders to compete with the major film production centers like New York, Los Angeles, etc. This fit into Charlotte’s master plan, which as we’ve often heard has always been to create a “world-class city.”

To me, Charlotte seemed a refreshing alternative to the older and more reserved Richmond where I’d lived for the prior four years during my tenure with the Virginia Film Office.

As I began to welcome film directors, producers and location managers to tour the Charlotte region, I heard over and over again how clean the city was, and how new it seemed.

One would think that those were welcome compliments, ones that the city wanted to hear as it knocked down old buildings and neighborhoods to make way for “progress.”

But these qualities were not necessarily a plus.

In production, filmmakers are often looking for depth of character as much in locations as in actors.

Case in point: Sweet Dreams, a biopic about Patsy Cline starring Jessica Lange, was filmed in Martinsburg, West Virginia, instead of Kline’s real hometown of Winchester, Virginia. Why? Because the filmmakers thought Winchester looked too perfect.

Charlotte does indeed work to be perfect, and it’s hard to grow up and admit you’re not. Right now, it’s kind of hard to be Charlotte. But just as growing pains segue into great adult experiences, so too will Charlotte benefit from becoming a true grownup city.

As the discussion continues about how to make Charlotte and our region more inclusive for those of all socioeconomic backgrounds, I often think of the impression that Charlotte makes on filmmakers.

Producers have used Charlotte as a generic city, one that is clean, modern and upscale, as we’ve seen in such disparate films as the Jodie Foster drama Nell and the Gwyneth Paltrow-Jack Black farce Shallow Hal. But just as film requires locations that are “real” above all, I think that the Charlotte region can only improve with open, honest and not always positive discussion and reflection.

Those who suggest that non-flattering or negative remarks about our community put us on a slippery slope toward failure are mistaken.

We need to get real.

I hope that entering a new era of candor about who we really are as a region will allow us to face certain realities that can only let us grow. Charlotte needs to learn to be a really good Charlotte, not a “me too” place, or an imitation of “insert name of other city here.” And some of this discussion will be difficult.

We need to be able to admit that Charlotte is not the best in all things.

We aren’t hip like Austin or urban like Chicago.

It’s time to take a long look at ourselves and acknowledge what we are and what we are not.

This work will require more than simply establishing a task force. The recent unrest shone a searching light on some dark corners in Charlotte.

During the flurry of social media over the past weeks, one especially telling tweet was sent by County Commissioner Bill James:

Not to drag politics into things, but I strongly disagree with Mr. James.

This statement is rife with class and ethnic divides. We don’t need fear and suspicion to drive discussions, we need to talk about systemic change. Indeed, better integrated schools are a good beginning to creating a unified city.

Every part of Charlotte should have a voice, and be acknowledged and celebrated for what it can bring to the table.

This means a lot of hard conversations to come, because change doesn’t happen overnight.

At the same time, I am optimistic and excited about this new chapter in the evolution of Charlotte Mecklenburg. I think we are on a challenging path, but a path that can lead us to be a multi-dimensional city with a unique character we can truly call our own.

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