Thursday, September 19, 2013

August Wilson: I Want A Black Director!

The indiewire blog Shadow & Act reposted 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.

That piece is below.

August Wilson
I Want A Black Director!
by August Wilson

“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.

Read more about this piece at Shadow & Act as well links to other similar pieces here


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John Singleton: Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie?

Chad Boseman in 42 Inset John Singleton
John Singleton: Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie? (Guest Column)
by John Singleton, The Hollywood Reporter
September 19, 2013

Whenever a black-themed film comes out, I get the call. And even more stops on the street. "Yo, man. What did you think of that flick?" The truth is, I wish folks would ask me what I think of some general releases. (My two favorite movies of the summer were comedies: Seth Rogen's This Is the End and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.) But, hey, I guess commenting on all things black is my lot in life, being that I'm a recognizable African-American face in an industry that isn't exactly the gold standard when it comes to diversity.

Like everything else in Hollywood, though, black films tend to come in waves, and by some standards 2013 is turning into a banner year. Nearly a dozen black movies will be released before it's over. And with awards season just around the corner, three indie flicks are right in the mix: Ryan Coogler's remarkable and unquestionably authentic debut, Fruitvale Station; my friend Lee Daniels' The Butler, which has drawn a diverse crowd and topped the box office three weeks in a row; and the film everyone is waiting for, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.

Hollywood's black film community has always had a one-for-all-and-all-for-one attitude, openly cheering the success of any black-driven movie in the hope its box-office success will translate into more jobs and stories about people of color. But, at the same time, the success of black-themed movies like The Help and this year's 42 points to a troubling trend: the hiring of white filmmakers to tell black stories with few African-Americans involved in the creative process.

The good news first: The Butler, a period drama inspired by a real-life White House butler, has grossed $100 million domestically to date. I'm sure more than a few studio execs checking Labor Day weekend grosses did a Buckwheat double take, like "What wuz dat?" -- and that's not racist, 'cause I'm black and I can say that.

While 12 Years a Slave doesn't open until Oct. 18, I've seen it and can tell you it's a work of art. McQueen, who is black and from the U.K., has created a raw, unflinching look at a black man's descent into one of the darkest chapters of American history. It's as authentic as it gets. And there should be Oscar nods for McQueen; screenwriter John Ridley; lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives the performance of a lifetime; and, hopefully, Michael Fassbender, who plays the most compelling big-screen villain this year. (It should be noted 12 Years a Slave would not have seen the light of day if not for Brad Pitt, who produced the film and has a small but crucial role in it. There are few stars as big-hearted as Pitt with an interest in exploring challenging subjects. More should definitely follow his bold example.)

This past spring also saw the release of 42, which was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. I took my whole family to the theater and was happy to see that Jackie Robinson's inspiring story was well told. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman stepped up to the challenge of portraying Jackie, who seemed to carry the weight of an entire race on his shoulders.

And I was delighted to see my childhood hero Harrison Ford in an underrated character performance as Branch Rickey. For me, Helgeland -- with support from Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, who served as a consultant, and black producer Darryl Pryor -- hit it out of the park. 42 wasn't overly moralistic and didn't sugarcoat the hardships Robinson endured on and off the field while integrating Major League Baseball.

Yet I couldn't help but wonder how different Spike Lee's version of Jackie's story would've been had he gotten the financing to direct his planned biopic years ago when he had Denzel Washington attached to star. Lee envisioned going beyond Robinson's exploits on the diamond and dramatizing his later years as a businessman, prominent Republican and figurehead for racial equality.

One could argue that Lee couldn't get his film made and Helgeland did, end of the story. But hold up. There's more to it. What if the commercial success of "black films" like 42 and The Help, which also had a white director, are now making it harder rather than easier for African-American writers and directors to find work?

That is exactly what people in certain Hollywood circles are debating. When I brought up the issue with a screenwriter friend, he replied, "It's simple. Hollywood feels like it doesn't need us anymore to tell African-American stories." The thinking goes, "We voted for and gave money to Obama, so [we don't need to] hire any black people."

Just to be clear, there are several white filmmakers who have told black stories and gotten it right. Norman Jewison -- who made In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier's Story and The Hurricane -- is Canadian, with no direct ties to black American culture. But he is a socially conscious renegade who tells stories with great care and sensitivity, and those works, in particular, are phenomenal. And Taylor Hackford did an amazing job with his Ray Charles biopic Ray, which he co-wrote with James L. White. It was a story close to his heart, earning him an Oscar nom for directing and winning a best actor award for Jamie Foxx. Another classic.

I could go on and on about the white directors who got it right and others who missed the mark. But my larger point is that there was a time, albeit very brief, when heroic black figures were the domain of black directors, and when a black director wasn't hired, the people behind the film at least brought on a black producer for his or her creative input and perspective. Spielberg did that on The Color Purple (Quincy Jones) and Amistad (Debbie Allen). [Quentin] Tarantino had Reggie Hudlin on Django Unchained.

But now, that's changing; several black-themed movies are in development with only white filmmakers attached, including a James Brown biopic. That's right, the story of "Soul Brother No. 1, Mr. Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" is being penned by two Brits for Tate Taylor, director of The Help.

A compelling argument can be made that Brian Grazer, the project's primary producer, has had multiple successes with black talent such as Eddie Murphy and Denzel. And Mick Jagger also is involved, and the Brits tend to have a greater appreciation for African-American creative culture than most white Americans.

Still, it gives one pause that someone is making a movie about the icon who laid down the foundation of funk, hip-hop and black economic self-reliance with no African-American involvement behind the scenes. One of Brown's most famous lines was, "I don't want nobody to give me nothing; open up the door and I'll get it myself." How is that possible when the gatekeepers of this business keep the doors mostly locked shut in Hollywood?

In the black film community, the consensus is that we're entering a new era of "Al Jolson movies." Jolson, for the uninitiated, was the star of the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer in 1927, and is best known for donning blackface and singing "Mammy." He is an apt symbol for what slowly is becoming the norm in Hollywood. Even when there are black directors or writers involved, some of the films made today seem like they're sifted of soul. It's as if the studios are saying, "We want it black, just not that black."

Audiences, though, can smell what's real and what isn't. And there is a noticeable difference between pictures that have significant contributions from African-Americans behind the scenes and those that don't. That's why I can fully relate to the disappointment some friends feel upon hearing about producers holding meetings on black-themed movies without even noticing that no one in the room speaks the language or intimately understands that world.

There are cultural nuances and unspoken, but deep-seated emotions that help define the black American experience. The rhythm and cadence in which we carry ourselves among one another is totally alien to most non-blacks, even if it is a constant fascination to them.

Some in the black film community think that Hollywood needs to pass a Rooney Rule like the NFL, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate when looking to fill a head-coaching position. But that'll never fly. In many ways, The Help's $170 million domestic box office set a new paradigm for how Hollywood wants its black pictures: uplifting, sentimental and inoffensive. It's no one individual filmmaker's fault. It reflects the latent racism that influences what gets made and what doesn't in the studio system.

What Hollywood execs need to realize is that black-themed stories appeal to the mainstream because they are uniquely American. Our story reminds audiences of struggles and triumphs, dreams and aspirations we all share. And it is only by conveying the particulars of African-American life that our narrative become universal. But making black movies without real participation by black filmmakers is tantamount to cooking a pot of gumbo without the "roux." And if you don't know offhand what "roux" is, you shouldn't be making a black film.

When he was nominated for the best director Oscar in 1992 for his first feature Boyz n the Hood, Singleton became the youngest person and first African-American nominated in that category. His subsequent films include 2 Fast 2 Furious, Shaft and Four Brothers.

Dankwa Brooks Commentary: I really can't say I disagree with Singleton and I'd go far as to say that 42 was one of the ONLY black themed movies helmed by a white director that ever captured any racial resonance to me. The rest, even the ones he mentioned, seemed empty and vapid to me. As a black man I need to "feel the racism" and from my lifelong experience as a moviegoer the films by white filmmakers hardly ever do that.

Read comments about this column at The Hollywood Reporter here

Right here on the 'Nother Brother Entertainment blog, our reviews of:
The Help
Fruitvale Station

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