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…