I Thought Selling A Movie To Amazon Was My Big Moment.
Then Everything Changed.
Keith Sweet II
Keith Sweet II is a screenwriter and creative multihyphenate hailing from Compton, California. At 23, Sweet made history when he joined the “Star Trek: Prodigy” writers room as the youngest staff writer in the history of the “Star Trek” franchise. Three years later, when the strike was announced, Sweet had just sold a TV series to Amazon. After watching his mother, a Los Angeles Unified School District employee, go on strike, he’s in survival mode waiting — and fighting — for a better future in Hollywood.
Can you recall the moment when you knew you wanted to join the entertainment industry and pursue it as a career?
This is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always been a storyteller ever since I was a kid. I think that comes from my grandmother, who is from Monroe, Louisiana, and is one of the greatest orators I know. Being a kid from Compton in early 2000s, it wasn’t the safest place for little boys to be playing. I spent a lot of time in front of the TV and I was just there, watching “Close Encounters,” “Jaws,” “Alien” and a lot of other sci-fi films. Being immersed in this culture of cinema and just being like, “Oh shit, this shit’s dope.” Los Angeles and Hollywood have always been there, but growing up, it never felt like a place for me.
It really didn’t seem like an attainable dream until high school when I met my mentor, who’s now my manager, Trevor Engelson. He ran my film club at Verbum Dei High School. They had this weekly program, and he brought in industry professionals to talk to us. It was really there where I was like, “Oh, shit. You can make a career outta this? That’s crazy.” Then I fell in love with it. It became an obsession. I remember printing out the AFI’s top 100 films list, and I watched all of them and I decided I had to become the greatest.
After I graduated high school, I had the opportunity to intern at J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. During my first summer, they were doing re-shoots for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” I’m a big “Star Wars” kid, and I got a chance to work on set. I’m seeing John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, Lupita Nyong’o working and it’s my first time on a film set.
But there’s this one night in particular that’ll stay with me forever. It was like one of these late nights, and this is when I learned that buses stop running at a certain time in LA. So I’m stressing, worrying about how I’m gonna get home ’cause I don’t have a car. The crew is tired and groggy, and J.J. halts production and he’s like, “Everybody, let’s go to the roof.” And we like, “What the fuck are we going up to the roof for?” There was a meteor shower happening. We all laid here and just watched the stars with each other for a second. So I’m sitting here laying next to J.J. Abrams and Harrison Ford and John Boyega and watching shooting stars; that’s like some shit you can’t make up in LA. At that moment I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” So ever since then I’ve been chasing that high.
Tell me what the process entering the industry was like.
I went to college at St. Johns in Minnesota, and I was very far removed from Hollywood, but my mentor from high school looked out for me the whole time. I just had a privilege that other people didn’t have. He’s like my uncle, basically, who worked in the industry. By the time I graduated, he was like, “Kevin and Dan Hageman are looking for an assistant. Would you like to interview for it?” And I was like, “Yeah, I want to.” So I kind of had an in.
My first gig was as a staff writer on “Star Trek: Prodigy.” At first, I was a showrunner’s assistant on that, and I did that for a season. The bosses, Kevin and Dan, read a script of mine. They were so eager to read my work because they’re very big on promoting from within the company or within the production. I sent them something and they were like, “Oh, this is dope. Keith, this is so good that we think that you’re ready for the next level.” Through that, I became the youngest staff writer in “Star Trek” history, which is one of my dopest accomplishments so far.
Keith Sweet II started on "Star Trek: Prodigy" as a showrunner's assistant before moving up to staff writer.
Months before, were there rumblings about the strike amid your professional community? Were you prepared at all?
Yes, I had heard the rumblings, but I was not exactly prepared. But I was very fortunate that I sold a TV show to Amazon in January. So our whole thing was, can we close this deal before the strike happens? ’Cause business affairs just take so long, and I think we beat it by a couple of weeks. Now it’s just a waiting game. But gotta fight the good fight.
Even before that — which, this is the fucked up part about just how the industry works — after “Star Trek: Prodigy,” I ain’t work. I ain’t work for a full year. This is when I figured out unemployment runs out. Who knew?! Not me. It was rough. I had to get a job. I was tutoring for this tutor tech company. Then I got fired from that.
“It teaches, hopefully, the next generation that we fought hard so that we can do what we gotta do. I hope the tradition continues. When people are mistreating you, stand up, say something, fight back.”
So once we finally sold the show to Amazon, I was like, “Yes. I’m here. OK, cool. I can start feeding myself, ” because I lost my apartment. Me and my roommate at the time — he’s also a writer — we lost the apartment ’cause there’s no work coming in. So I had to move in with family. It was like, “Oh, this is my moment,” but then the strike happened. Then, I turned 26 a month into the strike and when I turned 26, I lost my mama’s great health care. Shout out to her union. Now, I’m like, out here with no health care.
It’s really just more survival mode. But I’m used to that. I’m from the streets, so a little struggling ain’t hurt nobody before. It’s just a different way to survive. The crazy part is, my mama, she worked for LAUSD and they were literally just on strike before me. She went on strike. Now I’m on strike. So we are one big strike family, I guess.
Sweet called becoming the youngest staff writer in "Star Trek" history "one of my dopest accomplishments so far."
What are you doing now to stay afloat?
Unemployment has become my best friend. Unfortunately, I’m tired of talking to them. They make it so hard to just exist. But that’s a whole ’nother conversation. Before that I was tutoring, then after the tutoring thing fell through, it landed me back on unemployment. But that’s only because I thought that we were about to sell something; I was going to get some bread and I could eat. But then God was like, “Not yet. Not yet, son.” So I’m on unemployment again.
How do you feel as though the trajectory of your career has been impacted? Especially with the strike happening just as things were really coming together, which seemingly has happened a lot for our generation.
That’s just being Black, too. I don’t feel like it affected my career ’cause I feel like my career is destined to be what it’s going to be. I’m really big into manifestations. Your purpose is your purpose. So I feel like this is just a step along the journey. In the height of the pandemic, it gave people time to really just step back and really just evaluate things. I think in that aspect, I’ve been really appreciative, and it’s beautiful to see so much support and so many people out there. I think that’s the most comforting thing in times like this, to know that you’re not alone. But then also, you go like, “Fuck, everybody’s struggling? That’s crazy.”
People just fed up at this point — and you can only back somebody in the corner for so long. You only got two reactions. Either you fall in line or you push back. I’m from around the way, so I ain’t afraid of a little squabble or two.
After seeing your mother on strike, what does all this say about the broader state of capitalism? This entertainment strike is also a working-class issue, but there’s a larger misconception that everyone in entertainment is wealthy.
Companies are trying to find something to weaponize. And people are fed up. You see how much money these corporations have made over the pandemic versus how much just the average person has lost. That wealth gap is crazy. When are we going to stop putting profit over people? There is enough money on the table for all of us to eat. We ain’t asking for nothing crazy. We just asking for what’s ours. That’s it. Nothing more. My homie is a writer’s assistant and lost his job. There’s a lot of collateral damage that these executives and companies flip it in the media and make it seem like it’s our fault, which I think is just so sick.
"It sucks that it takes so much generosity on everybody else just to make ends meet in this business. It shouldn’t have to go to such an extreme," Sweet said.
How has the creative community supported each other during this time?
I got so many dope mentors, shoutout to my boy Justin Healy, who just walked me through it, even had folks throw me some change when I needed it. Without stuff like that, I wouldn’t be here. And it sucks that it takes so much generosity on everybody else just to make ends meet in this business. It shouldn’t have to go to such an extreme. I already lost my apartment. They got what they wanted a while back with me.
You know, I come from enslaved folks. I come from people who just take beatings and keep on going. We shall overcome, that’s the motto. So, it’s rough, but through community, it feels possible. There’s a glimmer of hope in seeing people come together. Once again, when you see all the different unions come together for one cause, which is humanity, which is the people, it’s beautiful to see. And I hope it continues outside of this track and people still stay community-based and still look out for one another ’cause there should be more assets and more allocations of funds for folks in this industry, ’cause it is so hard right in between jobs. It’s an unemployment-based industry, because most of the time, you just aren’t working. There should be better infrastructure for that.
All of this is alarming, but is there any bargaining issue in particular that really stands out to you?
All of it. I don’t think anything that the folks were asking for was crazy. [The AMPTP is] trying to bleed people out. I think that’s the wild part. Some people in this industry really take business and believe it’s more important than self. Fuck the profit. People are trying to feed their kids and they preventing people from feeding their kids, which is a crazy thought.
What do you want people outside of the industry to understand about this strike? What does it mean for our generation, for preserving entertainment for the next generation, for ensuring that labor and workers’ rights are codified and protected?
It sets the precedent. It’s preserving this business that we all love and keeping it what it’s supposed to be, and not letting the tech companies come in and fuck shit up. Then, it teaches, hopefully, the next generation that we fought hard so that we can do what we gotta do. I hope the tradition continues. When people are mistreating you, stand up, say something, fight back. Never just lay there and die. If my ancestors did that, we would have been dead in the Middle Passage.
Angela Davis said, freedom is a constant struggle. As long as there’s freedom, there’ll always be people who are trying to take it from you. So you have to fight. And it is tiring, but it’s necessary. So keep going.