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When August Wilson Insisted on a Black Director for a Hollywood Adaptation of 'Fences'...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 4, 2014 at 7:06PM

It's truly astonishing, and even depressing that, a long 24 years later, we continue to wrestle with the issue
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August Wilson

Reactions to Tanya Steele's "The Gentrification of Black Film" piece published earlier today (in which she argues for opportunities be given to black filmmakers to tell stories about black people, because, in part, "one has to be connected to the experience of the subject"), I remembered similar essays discussed on this blog, like John Singleton's "Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie?" most recently, for example.

In the piece, Singleton lamented the fact that a number of recent films that tell stories about real-life black people, or that are based on our history (like films about Jackie Robinson, James Brown - which Tanya's piece focuses on - as well as "Django Unchained" and "The Help") are increasingly being handed over to white writers and directors - within the Hollywood studio system specifically. And he questioned the trend, arguing that there are indeed what he calls "cultural nuances and unspoken, but deep-seated emotions that help define the black American experience," suggesting that black writers and directors are better equipped to appreciate and express those nuances and emotions on screen, more-so than their white contemporaries.

He even further suggested that maybe Hollywood needs to pass a "Rooney Rule like the NFL," which requires that team owners/managers interview at least one *minority* candidate when looking to fill head-coaching jobs - the correlation here being that studio execs should be required to interview at least one "minority" candidate when looking to hire writers and directors for jobs - something that will likely ever happen, and shouldn't be expected!

Despite what might be considered a provocative title, Singleton didn't really make any earth-shattering revelations (at least to us), although I assumed that he's motivation was to hopefully reach the many industry people who read The Hollywood Reporter, and start a conversation on the matter. 

Did it work? I can't say just yet. 

But it's a matter that we've addressed a few times on S&A, whether directly or generally, by likely all of us who contribute to this site.

Maybe the most direct of them all was this piece I shared on the old S&A site, 5 years ago - an essay by the late African American Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson, which was first published in Spin Magazine, the October 1990 issue, and was later reprinted as a New York Times op-ed piece.

Titled "I Want A Black Director!," consider it another item to throw into our ongoing deconstruction of what we broadly call “black cinema.”

On a related note, some of you may already be familiar with Arthur Jafa’s theories in his essay titled "Black visual intonation" – essentially, an ongoing search for cinema that is aesthetically black, turning to black music for inspiration.

Without further ado, here’s Wilson’s op-ed which I think directly hits on past articles published on this blog on the question of who gets to tell *our* stories. It's truly astonishing, and even depressing that, a long 24 years later, we continue to wrestle with the issue:

I Want A Black Director!

“I don’t want to hire nobody just ’cause they’re black.” Eddie Murphy said that to me. We were discussing the possibility of Paramount Pictures purchasing the rights to my play “Fences.” I said I wanted a black director for the film. My response [to his remark] was immediate. “Neither do I,” I said.

What Mr. Murphy meant I am not sure. I meant I wanted to hire somebody talented, who understood the play and saw the possibilities of the film, who would approach my work with the same amount of passion and measure of respect with which I approach it, and who shared the cultural responsibilities of the characters.

That was more than three years ago. I have not talked to Mr. Murphy about the subject since. Paramount did purchase rights to make the film in 1987. What I thought of as a straightforward, logical request has been greeted by blank, vacant stares and the pious shaking of heads as if in response to my unfortunate naiveté.

I usually have had to repeat my request, “I want a black director,” as though it were a complex statement in a foreign tongue. I have often heard the same response: “We don’t want to hire anyone just because they are black.” What is being implied is that the only qualification any black has is the color of his skin.

In the film industry, the prevailing attitude is that a black director couldn’t do the job, and to insist upon one is to make the film “unmakeable,” partly because no one is going to turn a budget of $15 million over to a black director. That this is routinely done for novice white directors is beside the point.

The ideas of ability and qualification are not new to blacks. The skills of black lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and mechanics are often greeted with skepticism, even from other blacks. “Man, you sure you know what you doing?”

At the time of my last meeting with Paramount, in January 1990, a well-known, highly respected white director wanted very much to direct the film. I don’t know his work, but he is universally praised for sensitive and intelligent direction. I accept that he is a very fine film director. But he is not black. He is not a product of black American culture-a culture that was honed out of the black experience and fired in the kiln of slavery and survival – and he does not share the sensibilities of black Americans.

I have been asked if I am not, by rejecting him on the basis of his race, doing the same thing Paramount is doing by not hiring a black director. That is a fair, if shortsighted, question which deserves a response.

I am not carrying a banner for black directors. I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way.

As Americans of various races, we share a broad cultural ground, a commonality of society that links its diverse elements into a cohesive whole that can be defined as “American.”

We share certain mythologies. A history. We share political and economic systems and a rapidly developing, if suspect, ethos. Within these commonalities are specifics. Specific ideas and attitudes that are not shared on the common cultural ground. These remain the property and possession of the people who develop them, and on that “field of manners and rituals of intercourse” (to use James Baldwin’s eloquent phrase) lives are played out.

At the point where they intercept and link to the broad commonality of American culture, they influence how that culture is shared and to what purpose.

White American society is made up of various European ethnic groups which share a common history and sensibility. Black Americans are a racial group which do not share the same sensibilities. The specifics of our cultural history are very much different.

We are an African people who have been here since the early 17th century. We have a different way of responding to the world. We have different ideas about religion, different manners of social intercourse. We have different ideas about style, about language. We have different esthetics.

Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions.

I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.

Webster’s “Third New International Dictionary” gives the following character definitions listed under black and white.

White: free from blemish, moral stain or impurity: outstandingly righteous; innocent; not marked by malignant influence; notably pleasing or auspicious; fortunate; notably ardent; decent; in a fair upright manner; a sterling man; etc.

Black: outrageously wicked; a villain; dishonorable; expressing or indicating disgrace, discredit or guilt; connected with the devil; expressing menace; sullen; hostile; unqualified; committing a violation of public regulation, illicit, illegal; affected by some undesirable condition; etc.

No wonder I had been greeted with incredulous looks when I suggested a black director for “Fences.” I sat in the offices of Paramount suggesting that someone who was affected by an undesirable condition, who was a violator of public regulations, who was sullen, unqualified and marked by a malignant influence, direct the film.

While they were offering a sterling man, who was free from blemish, notably pleasing, fair and upright; decent and outstandingly righteous with a reputation to boot!

Despite such a linguistic environment, the culture of black Americans has emerged and defined itself in strong and effective vehicles that have become the flag-bearers for self-determination and self-identity.

In the face of such, those who are opposed to the ideas of a “foreign” culture permeating the ideal of an American culture founded on the icons of Europe seek to dilute and control it by setting themselves up as the assayers of its value and the custodians of its offspring.

Therein lies the crux of the matter as it relates to Paramount and the film “Fences” – whether we as blacks are going to have control over our own culture and its products.

Some Americans, black and white, do not see any value to black American lives that do not contribute to the leisure or profit of white America. Some Americans, black and white, would deny that a black American culture even exists. Some Americans, black and white, would say that by insisting on a black director for “Fences” I am doing irreparable harm to the efforts of black directors who have spent the last 15 years trying to get Hollywood to ignore the fact that they are black. The origins of such ideas are so very old and shallow that I am amazed to see them so vividly displayed in 1990.

What to do? Let’s make a rule. Blacks don’t direct Italian films. Italians don’t direct Jewish films. Jews don’t direct black American films. That might account for about 3 percent of the films that are made in this country. The other 97 percent – the action-adventure, horror, comedy, romance, suspense, western or any combination thereof, that the Hollywood and independent mills grind out – let it be every man for himself.

By the way, regarding Tate Taylor (a white filmmaker) directing "Get On Up," the James Brown bio that's at the center of Tanya Steele's piece, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind readers that Spike Lee was initially attached to direct the film, but was replaced by Taylor.

This wasn't the first time a project that Spike was attached to direct, would be eventually helmed by a different filmmaker - specifically a white filmmaker. For example, he spent years trying to get his Jackie Robinson project financed and produced (unsuccessfully), only to later watch Legendary Pictures and Brian Helgeland launch a Jackie Robinson picture, with Chadwick Boseman starring (it was released in 2013).

You'll recall that a film based on the life of the James Brown had long been in the works, with Spike Lee directing, and Brian Grazer overseeing the production. Something happened, Spike was suddenly no longer attached to direct, but Brian Grazer was still on to produce. Why?

In an interview with Rolling Stone a year-and-a-half ago, Grazer was asked that question specifically. Here's the section of the interview where it's all addressed:

RS: What happened with Spike Lee, who was said to be directing the original movie project before Brown's death?

BG: He was the choice when I had the rights. I had just produced Inside Man with him. When the rights left me, I didn't have any control, and I couldn't make director choices. So when it came later with new people and new rights holders, we weren't doing it with Spike Lee anymore. The world was different then. Now you have to make movies for less money.

RS: When it was announced that Lee was no longer involved and that a white director, Tate Taylor, was on board, the blogosphere went nuts. How do you respond to those comments?

BG: What would I say? I view that a bunch of different ways. Mick and I don't see the world that way. I started my career making Boomerang and CB4. I've made so many movies where I've supported black artists. Tate made The Help, and that had almost an entirely black population. I just want to try to make the best movie.

RS: Were you surprised by those reactions?

BG: Well, I didn't read them! I can't make movies like that, where I'm going to look at some blog and change the course of the whole movie. I also think Mick is so amazing. For him to decide he's going to participate and split half the money – he's a man of integrity, and I feel pretty good about that.

So what I gathered from Grazer's response was that the choice for who to direct the film, was out of his control, after James Brown died, and the ownership of rights to Brown's life story became more complicated, as they now fell under a different set of rights holders, who, I assumed, didn't want Spike Lee to direct the film.

Grazer added that the world was different then (when Spike was attached to the project ), and, today, movies have to be made cheaper. I wasn't quite sure what he meant there, except to wonder if Spike's asking fee was higher than Tate Taylor's? Or the budget for Spike's version of the film was more than what financiers were willing to spend on a Spike Lee-directed film about James Brown?

The answers themselves raised even more questions, which meant, even more speculation. Spike never publicly addressed his replacement - at least, I'm not aware that he ever did. If you know something I don't, please share.

In the interview, Grazer shared how much of a James Brown fan he was, and how long he'd been trying to get the project off the ground (12 years since he bought the rights), as well as how much of his own money he'd invested in ($2 million). He also shared that, at one point, Al Sharpton was a consultant on the movie.

You might remember that, at one point, Wesley Snipes was Spike's man for the starring job.

As recently as 2009, it seemed like the project was as close to a sure-thing as any can get, with Spike saying in an interview with MTV News, "We're doing it together – it's going to happen... He’s my man."

He was referring to Wesley Snipes in that quote.

Spike added that he intended to use James Brown's "authentic voice" for any musical sequences in the film; essentially, Wesley would lip-synch.

Years later since that interview, little seemed to have further developed on the project, and it looked like it was dead. That is, until the announcement of Tate Taylor's attachment...

By the way, the screenplay for the film that's now in theaters was penned by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, who are also white, like the director (they wrote the script for "Fair Game," the Naomi Watts and Sean Penn film).

This article is related to: August Wilson, Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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