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August Wilson Gets His Wish - Denzel Washington Is Ready To Direct 'Fences' For The Screen

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by Tambay A. Obenson
February 1, 2013 10:59 AM
14 Comments
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The age-old story on a stalled film adaptation of August Wilson's award-winning play Fences is that, the playwright insisted to the studio (Paramount Pictures at the time - this was in the late 1980s) that the director of the film be black.

Of course, Paramount didn't feel that was necessary, stating that they wanted "the best director for the job." Even Eddie Murphy, who was then attached to star in and co-produce the film adaptation, told Wilson that he wasn't going to hire a director just because they were black. 

Wilson reiterated that he wasn't suggesting that a black be director hired simply because they are black, but certainly a black director who was qualified for the job. 

But this wasn't a clause in the original agreement between Wilson and Paramount, so the studio wasn't legally bound to adhere to Wilson's wishes (however they realized well enough that a film adaptation of Fences without Wilson's blessing, wasn't something that they wanted to do). While seeming to be taking Wilson's wishes under strong consideration, the studio approached Barry Levinson to helm the film; obviously, Levinson isn't black. 

Needless to say, Wilson didn't approve. Although Levinson backed away from the project anyway, after he saw the play himself, stating that he didn't think it would translate well to the screen - at least, not the version of the script that Wilson had written. Wilson's public objections to a white director helming the project were also of some influence.

So the project stalled on. Wilson continued to publicly express his frustration about the number of films about blacks directed by whites, arguing that "whites have set themselves up as custodians of our experience." Sound familiar? 

There's a really good piece on this in the New York Times (it was actually written in January 1991, not-so-long after all the above transpired). It details the journey the adaptation took, and all the different players who were involved at different times. 

In fact, it's said that at one point, Bill Duke was a front-runner for the directing job. And also worth noting, Warrington Hudlin was approached, not to direct, but to come up with a short list of black directors at the time, who were qualified for the job. Hudlin provided 12 names, which included directors like Gordon Parks, Charles Burnett and Spike Lee. Certainly they all would've been qualified.

But Paramount's interest was in making a film that they felt would be commercial enough to make them money - hence, they likely felt that a white director, who wouldn't come with the *weight* of blackness on their shoulders, would give them the best chance at that.

As you can read in the New York Times piece, there were a lot of opinions sought on this, including Norman Jewison's, who recalls his own experiences attempting to direct an adaptation of The Confessions of Nat Turner in the late 1960s, which was met with much opposition from the black community, in part because he was white, and also because the book distorted Turner's story. Of course, Jewison would face a similar opposition when he sought to direct Malcolm X's bio.

The New York Times article paints a picture of a charged debate between all those involved (James Earl Jones, who starred in the 1987 premiere of the play on Broadway, was one of those voices), with Wilson standing firm, and never wavering. 

Ultimately, the studio film adaptation never got done, although the play continued to thrive on the stage, throughout the country. 

Skip ahead to 2010 when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival of the play, directed by Kenny Leon (a black director by the way), both giving strong performances that would earn them the highest honor in the theatre world, the Tony Award.

But what may not be universally known is that, when producer Scott Rudin first approached Denzel Washington about Fences, he sent him August Wilson's screenplay adaptation of the play, suggesting that Denzel star and direct the film version of it. Denzel, a lover of the stage, first and foremost, and who also wanted to direct, felt that he needed to do the play first, before attempting a film adaptation. Rudin obviously was ok with that, Kenny Leon was hired to direct, Viola Davis came onboard to co-star, and the rest is history. 

So now that he's gotten the stage version out of his system, will Denzel ever return to Fences as Rudin apparently originally wanted - to star in and direct a filmed version of it? After all, he'll be meeting the late August Wilson's criteria that a black director helm the film.

It looks like he will, according to an interview Washington gave to the UK's Empire magazine this week, while plugging Flight across the pond. In the interview, when asked whether he'll ever direct again, Denzel first expresses his love for directing, saying he likes directing for the screen, even more than he loves acting for the screen. He adds that, whenever he's wanted to direct any of the handful of projects he's been wanting to direct, he gets a script like Flight, and is compelled to take it.

And after some initial hesitation when asked about what projects he has lined up to direct, Denzel finally gives up the goods, and tells Empire that he's ready to direct Fences the film now. In fact, he tells them that he even brought the screenplay with him on his UK press tour, so that he can continue to work through it. But he clearly, really wants to do it now. 

As for when he thinks it might happen, he tells Empire that he isn't sure, obviously because it's not so simple. Several different elements have to line up - most notably financing.

Will a studio finally back an Adaptation of Fences with a black director? Well, it's Denzel, and he is a *name* with a lengthy track record, so I'd say the chances this time are probably higher than they were with any of the black directors who were being considered 25 years ago.

The times have also changed a bit... or have they?

Again, I encourage you to read the New York Times 1991 piece (titled Did Hollywood Sit on 'Fences'?). Click HERE to do so.

And also, click HERE for Denzel's interview with Empire. In addition to Fences and Flight, they talk briefly about the possibility of a Safe House 2, which Denzel says a script is being written for. But didn't his character die in the first one? Maybe it'll be a prequel...

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14 Comments

  • belmont1929 | February 3, 2013 9:05 PMReply

    The best way to understand Wilson's point of view is to read his opinion in full which can be seen in the essay The Ground on Which I Stand, a talk given on 26 June 1996 at the Theatre Communications Group national conference at Princeton University. In that presentation he lays out his reasoning and the history that compelled him to fight for the notion that certain kinds of black directors (not just any black director) are important for the full realization of his vision for his work. That essay was printed in the September 1996 issue of American Theatre and in the Black Literary/Art/Culture Journal Callaloo (vol. 20.#3 - Summer 1997). We should also remember that Robert Brustein, a theater critic who was, at times, dismissive of Wilson's work as well as Lloyd Richards' direction of Wilson's plays, wrote an essay entitled Subsidized Separatism, (American Theatre, Oct 1996) as a response to Wilson's essay. American Theatre allowed Wilson to include a response to Brustein in the same issue.

    So, we have at least 2 moments when Wilson spoke for himself, explained himself, and did so eloquently. Let's check out his words and let him speak for himself. He deserves, at least, that kind of respect from us.

  • ALM | February 2, 2013 9:26 PMReply

    If they don't greenlight this with Denzel attached as the director, then they are really smoking something.

  • CareyCarey | February 1, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    Friday, January 18. It was cold in New York City. We are working the day watch out of Black Dispora Division. My partner's Sergio. The boss is Indie Wire. My name's Tambay. I was working at my flat, and it was 10 AM when I got this thought. Are there any topics/subjects at the center of stories told on film that you think should be written, directed and produced specifically by people of African descent?

    August Wilson: I don't give a damn whose money it is, but if somebody puts their hands on my Fences, it better be a black hand or I'll kick his ass back across the fence. I insist that the director of MY film be black.

    Alphonso: "Well Mr. Wilson, with all due respect, I believe anybody can tell a story about any subject that they have a passion for and have the proper research to hopefully capture the essence of the subject.

    August: Paasion and proper research my ass. If he's white, he ain't right and I mean it.

    Libby: You tell'em August, it's like having a room full of white directors deciding if they will tell the life of Nat Turner and then claiming which one is best when no black person was in the room. It seems people are quick to say race/ethnicity means nothing when it comes to black storytelling, but me and Mr Wilson ain't falling for that bullshit. Didn't a Jewish guy direct Shindlers list? Do I think Martin Scorses being Italian gives him special insight and nuances to write about Italians. Yes... a thousand times YES. I'd rather die than say no.

    Mark & Darla: Well Mr. big mouth Libby, while you're running your big black lips, why don't you tell us about the two white directors who did excellent work telling the black experience stories Nothing But A Man and Claudine.

    Agent K: GTFOOH! Am I the only one that get this gibe of white men can tell stories of black people better than black people themselves.

    Jmac: I certainly got that vibe Agent K.

    Bondgirl: All of you need sit down. Just because a black person is in charge doesn't guarantee the film to be told with ingrained cultural nuance. Not every black person working in Hollywood is progressing the black power movement, anymore than the folks working at the post office are.

    August: Bondgirl, your eyes may shine and your teeth may grin, nor am I calling you a big black sin, but whitey is not going to direct this film. So act as if race and ethnicity doesn't have any inpact in storytelling, it's a lie.

    BEE: Right on, August! Just like I was glad when Spike said something similar, I'm glad Wilson said it.

    Sergio: This case has now been tried in Department 187 of the Superior Black Court of the State of New York, in and for the black folks of the world. The white defendants were examined by 10 psychiatrists appointed by the court and judged mentally incompetent.

  • starry118 | February 5, 2013 12:18 AM

    :D

  • Agent K | February 2, 2013 5:26 AM

    LOL! You are somethin' else man.

  • Anton | February 1, 2013 6:29 PMReply

    I'm so excited about this! Two of our greatest black actors in a movie version of our greatest Black dramatist's most celebrated stage play?! This could potentially bring Denzel a Best Director Oscar and a Best Actress Oscar for Davis!

  • Jerome Preston Bates | February 1, 2013 6:21 PMReply

    This is great news,Go Denzel,bring onViola

  • Bee | February 1, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    "Wilson continued to publicly express his frustration about the number of films about blacks directed by whites, arguing that "whites have set themselves up as custodians of our experience."" Right on, August! Just like I was glad when Spike said something similar, I'm glad that Wilson said it.

  • urbanauteur | February 1, 2013 12:01 PMReply

    Naaaw....you got it all wrong baby!..let the great-actor's actor/director:BILL DUKE ..helm the reigns, why? just check out ALL previous teleplays..which are phenomenal!...check out his interpretation of Lorraine Hansberry (uncensored version of her play) A Raisin in the Sun_starring_Danny Glover/ Jeff Stetson's underrated gem_The Meeting_starring_Dick Anthony Williams & Jason Bernard/ Charles Gordone's No Place to be Somebody_starring a cast of 15 etc...bottom line he's your guy or possibly Kasi Lemmons who would add so much dimension to this great play.

  • Donella | February 1, 2013 1:25 PM

    Bill Duke and Kasi Lemmons are great suggestions.

  • urbanauteur | February 1, 2013 12:53 PM

    @TROY, you must practice-OPHTHALMOLOGY? or is that just CRYSTAL GAZING?? tell me whats the square root of 2? and its certainly not your pompous ignorance..;-)

  • Troy | February 1, 2013 12:38 PM

    I think you should direct because you have the forethought of the dimensions another director who is yet to tackle the project. You must have great sight beyond sight.

  • ojieimoloame | February 1, 2013 11:32 AMReply

    I reallly do hope they do it for the screen so that Viola can get her well deserved Oscar for best actress.

  • Micah | February 1, 2013 1:48 PM

    Viola for a EGOT!

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