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Bloomington-Normal screenwriters win award for film about a Black, male nurse during COVID-19

Xavier Jackson and John McHale pose in the WGLT studios
Lauren Warnecke
Xavier Jackson, left, of Normal and ISU communication professor John McHale co-wrote a feature length film recently awarded a Santa Barbara International Screenplay Award for its representation of diversity.

A new script by Illinois State University professor John McHale has been acknowledged for its representation of diversity.

McHale teamed up with Xavier Jackson of Normal to co-author a feature-length film based on Jackson's experiences as a Black male nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The script, titled “Nurses Versus the Virus,” won the Santa Barbara International Diversity Film Script Award for best screenplay during its 2023 cycle.

McHale and Jackson have been friends for 15 years.

“We actually met over coffee,” said McHale. “We are involved in a group of guys that get together and talk about spirituality and wellness.”

Both self-professed film junkies, they also bonded over cinema.

“We quote stuff back and forth all the time,” Jackson said. “We like the same writers; we like a lot of the same actors.”

McHale, who teaches in ISU’s School of Communication, has written 30 scripts throughout his career thus far, with about a third of those fully realized as films. He was moved by Jackson’s experiences at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The film is a work of fiction, inspired by real events.

“Certainly, Xavier’s experiences provide the meat—provide gist,” McHale said. “There’s no possible way that I could have written about the experience of a Black male in that industry without Xavier’s stories, his feelings, his recollections.”

According to a 2020 National Nurse Workforce Study, African Americans comprise 6.7% of the nearly 4.5 million registered nurses in the United States. Less than 10% of nurses of all races are male.

Depicting the pandemic's darkest days

“Nurses Versus the Virus” spans from early 2020 through the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“That was a very dark and fearful time,” Jackson said. “But also during that time, George Floyd happened. #MeToo happened. At the end of that, the insurrection happened.”

Jackson, an agency nurse, is contracted by hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities according to need. He is frequently dispatched outside Bloomington-Normal to predominantly white, rural areas. The protagonist of “Nurses Versus the Virus” similarly explores the dynamics between agency and staff nurses, and the biases and assumptions Black and male nurses encounter in their profession. But the film also addresses challenges all nurses faced during and coming out of the pandemic.

“There’s this rush to forget that COVID happened,” Jackson said. “Everybody wants to try and act as if we’ve come through it great because of those hero nurses. And even during the pandemic, there was this false narrative that these superhero nurses are holding it together.”

McHale saw how the pandemic was affecting Jackson, and “knew it was a story that needs to be told.” They have more than two dozen meetings scheduled aimed at getting "Nurses Versus the Virus" produced. They conducted a table read with ISU students last week and continue to make edits to the script.

“There are folks who were missing out on the emotional weight of it all,” Jackson said. The film opens in a hospital room with a patient being intubated, consciously aware of a machine breathing for him. He fielded phone calls from family members restricted from seeing their loved ones in the hospital.

“You’re trying to give them a hopeful picture of the whole situation,” Jackson said. “The majority of patients that got COVID, even in those days—we were able to help them recover. But the ones who the virus decided it wanted to kill, it was very deliberate. It was a spiral that sometimes took two months. By the time these people failed in their fight to live, you got to know them pretty well. There are still some of these patients that I have dreams about. … There was a real emotional cost paid.”

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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