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John Singleton Channels August Wilson – Pens Op-ed On White Directors Helming Black Films

John Singleton Channels August Wilson - Pens Op-ed On White Directors Helming Black Films

John Singleton penned an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter addressing the lack of black directors helming black films within the studio system. It’s a wonderful coincidence that I happened upon the piece immediately after I published the post just below this one, on black directors who’ve directed black films that grossed over $100 million.

In the piece, Singleton tackles an issue that we’ve discussed and debated on this site in the past – and continue to do so. 

Singleton laments 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, 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 questions this 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 suggests 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 there being that studio execs should be required to interview at least one minority candidate when looking to hire writers and directors for jobs.

As he realizes, that’s just not something that will ever happen, and shouldn’t be expected!

You can read the full article, titled, “John Singleton: Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie?” HERE if you’d like. It doesn’t make any earth-shattering revelations, although I’d assume Singleton’s motivation is to hopefully reach the many industry people who read The Hollywood Reporter, and start a conversation on the matter.

But it’s a question that we’ve addressed a few times on S&A, whether directly or generally. See Tanya Steele’s “Slavery In The White Male Imagination” piece from last year HERE. And also Andre Seewood’s “Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies” piece from earlier this summer, HERE

Maybe the most direct of them all was this post from the old S&A site, which featured 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 call “black cinema.”

It inspired several thoughts and recollections in me. Especially that age-old discussion we’ve had periodically on how to define “blackness,” or the proverbial “black experience,” or “black stories,” “black aesthetic,” or “black film” – all labels that simply cannot be readily given meaning to.

Are there stories/experiences that are uniquely “black,” and others that are uniquely “white” that wouldn’t work in the reverse? What do you think? Obviously, a work like Roots, a uniquely African experience, set in a specific time period, certainly wouldn’t mean the same thing if the characters were all white. It simply wouldn’t exist. Or a tale on the Holocaust during WWII under the Nazi regime, and its aftermath, simply wouldn’t work with an African American cast. Of course, one could suppress the actual events themselves, and instead focus on the very essence of brutal oppression that both groups of people have in common historically; and in that case, the color of the skin of the players wouldn’t matter much.

Is it time that we stop trying to define what “black cinema” is or what “black stories” are, since it’s often a frustrating, and contentious endeavor, since we can’t universally agree on what that is? Our experiences (the experiences of black people all over the world) are far too varied to validate that notion; in essence, this concept of some singular, “identifiable blackness.”

I’m not implying that we as filmmakers should not wrestle with the idea of a black aesthetic. I do constantly, hence this discussion. I think, once we start to see some volume and variety from black filmmakers the world over, identifiable patterns and trends might emerge (at least, that’s the hope), and thus, a clearly identifiable “black aesthetic;” or maybe not!

Some of you may already be familiar with film critic and cinematographer 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 as an inspiration.

Anyway… here’s Wilson’s op-ed which I think directly hits on Singleton’s THR piece:

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.

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Comments

Accidental Visitor

I should add the best way to create opportunites for black directors is for the black directors who are already in place and are getting chances in Hollywood to go out and make great cinema. Whether that cinema leans towards mainstream entertainment or the more artistic variety, if the movies are very well recieved that leads to Hollywood insiders being more comfortable in giving black directors further opportunities as well as bringing in new black talent.

Hate to bring up Steve McQueen's name again but I must. I realize that some whie folks in the industry may not have even realized he was black and that many would not have even paid attentiion to his first two movies if they were not about white characters. But that being said he just made a movie about slavery with a black leads and a few sizable parts for black performers and the acclaim that movie is getting means that every Hollywood studio would want to do business with him for a high prestige Oscar type of motion picture. And basically every white A list actror/actress would now jump at the chance of being in his next films/. Why? Because he produces fantastic work. And when people see that you can do that they no longer care (or not as much) about what your skin color is. They only care about what you could possibly do for them! Period. Spike Lee still has some of that clout. Singleton lost all of it a long time ago. No one is jumping to be in a Singleton film. Whose fault is that? is it entirely Hollywood's fault or does Singleton take the blame? Same goes for Gary Gray. A. Fuqua, the Hughes Brothers, etc. The goal is not just to make a film, the goal shoul be to make a GREAT film. You do that and people will notice and call your name. And if enough of those people being called out for their great work are black, other black filmmakers following them would benefit.

Accidental Visitor

"This issue IS NOT about them nor the few films that YOU didn't like. This issue/debate/argument is speaking to the lack of opportunity given to black directors to helm black films within the studio system, not an indictment of Spike's and Singleton's missteps. "

Good grief. A guy like Steve McQueen got about the same (if not initially less) opportunities that Spike and Singleton got and he seems to improving as an artist. Singleton on the other hand hit his peak in his first film and got worse from then on out. He had an opportunity. He had just as much of a chance to be as good as his contemporaries like Paul Thomas Anderson or david Fincher. He got nominated for an Oscar. He was invited to spend time to talk with his idols like George Lucas and Spielberg. He was a rare black insider. But he didn't have the talent or the drive to back up all the expectations. He made stupid decisions early on to cast people he wanted to hang out with like Tupac and Janet Jackson to play the main parts in his films. Steve McQueen actually picks tremendous actors to work with! Singleton's scripts were uninspired and his direction even more so. Nothing would have made me happier than Singleton having a tremendous career and setting a standard for all black directors following him who were looking to work in Hollywood. But that wasn't the reality. So stop the bs about him not having opportunities. The guy had plenty but squandered them. The last good movie he was associated with was "Hustle & Flow" and he only produced that. The white guy who wrote and directed that movie made a better "black film" than 95% of the junk that has bene put out by black dirctors over the last ten or so years, which, ironically somewhat shoots down the argument Singleton is trying to make. And it is an old argument. if Singleton wants to keep the conversation going then so be it. But how is he going to drag in a movie like "The Help"? It was based on a book by a white woman so, subject matter or not, what's the big deal that a white director brought it to screen? The book itself was the problem because it was such a whitewash. The film adaptation was destined to be more of the same.

FactChecker

First, let me say, thank you Tambay for sharing this brilliant piece of intellectual thought by the late Mr. Wilson.

I agree with everything the late playwright said, but do take exception to the following:

"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."

Actually, that novice white directors are routinely given those types of budgets, or that little known white actresses are routinely given the leads in their own TV shows, etc. is also part in parcel of his editorial, but I'm trying to stay on point and not go down that road.

Sadly, Hollywood, is it's own slave system, when you think about it. It's just like TV talk news programs (Think: CNN) that aren't helmed by a black male pundit. White America swears, up and down, that they're unable to find capable black people to carry out the work. Which, of course, is bullshit!!

Particularly, as we reflect on 50 years of integration and two to three generations, now, of some of the most educated black Americans, since we were brought to this country. But most whites would prefer NOT to give blacks a chance, and that goes for artistic work that belongs to us.

And shame on you, Sergio, for dragging Singleton's personal woes into this. John Singleton is not someone who has turned his back on the black creative community. That was a really cheap shot. I don't hear F-Gary Gray or the Hughes brothers speaking out about this. Spike Lee, of course, has, by far, been the greatest champion of trying to help other blacks, across the board, in this industry, a foot in the door. …And although Singleton hasn't been as visible, in years, as Spike, at least he's not lost his way.

As one poster pointed out, Denzel honors both his art and craft, working with black and white directors, and making films about the black experience. Meanwhile, Will Smith plays it safe. Not since the best performance he ever starred in — Six Degrees of Separation — has Smith performed in any movie with a remote element that can be considered artistic or lends itself to any kind of intellectual thought or deep soul searching.

Walter Harris Gavin

We're our own worst enemy. There is nothing written in stone that says, "One must take a job when offered." But black actors in Hollywood have always had the Hattie McDaniel mentality that "I'd rather work for $7000 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one." But even during slavery there were always "collaborators." If we want to see "black" directors tell "black" stories the "black" actors "can just say no" when offered roles in "black" films where the director, or writer isn't black. And we the audience don't have to support the film when it comes out if it gets to the screen. Hollywood responds to one color and that color is green. So when casting calls go out for black folks to play characters in stories about black life where the creative forces behind the scenes are lily white just don't show up. Go play a round of golf instead.

sergio

Singleton is worried because his career is in jeopardy right now. His previous attempts to break of the "black mold" and become a more "mainstream" director have failed. 2 Fast 2 Furious is still considered the worst film of the whole series and that film he made with that shirtless guy from those Twilight movies was a disaster that sank without a trace, So now all have has to fall back on, so to speak, are black films and if he believes more and more of them are going to white directors he's getting nervous

And he's got all those kids, 5 or 6 of them, with all those baby mamas that he has to support. No wonder he's sweating bullets.

BIG BLACK

This is nonsense. Filmmaking is an art form. If a white artist (or director) has a vision for a piece of art that deals with African-American life, they should be allowed to express that. Same goes for a black filmmaker who wants to make a movie about white life, or tell a story where all the characters are white. Did you see Steve McQueen's debut feature HUNGER, Mr. Singleton? Not a single black person in the movie. That brother won the best new director at Cannes for that film which he also wrote. Are you saying he shouldn't make that movie because he's black. This is such BS. Singleton is a bitter, washed up filmmaker that nobody wants to work with because he's described as difficult. Also, remember, he had an opportunity to put other young black filmmakers on, but he chose to give that opportunity to a white filmmaker (Craig Brewer's, HUSTLE & FLOW) and a latino filmmaker (Franc Reyes, ILLEGAL TENDER). This op-ed seems quite silly and hypocritical to me.

Blackman

Black directors SHOULD direct Black Films.

AND

white people should NEVER……EVER review a Black film.

black people are not people with White cultural insides. white people denigrates Black Culture and other cultures that does not meet their BLAND, DULL, BORING, NOTHINGNESS whiteness.

HereNorThere

Good one from Singleton. Well said.

Black people need to keep supporting black movies even more since white people won't.

QUENTIN

Like I commented on the previous thread:

Considering the theme of white directors directing films with an entirely black cast, I think it's unfair to mention films like DJango Unchained mainly because the characters in the story came from the imagination of a white director. A white director wrote it. Is Tarantino, a more than capable director, supposed to write the film and let a black director direct it? Of course not.

Accidental Visitor

I wish Singleton would concentrate more on the quality of films African American directors put forth once they do get an opportunity. In Singleton's case I feel he has been a major disappointment since his debut "Boyz n the Hood" (and even that film feels dated…felt dated as early as 10 years ago). I know many of my fellow African Americans love them some "Rosewood" but I found that film to be a huge missed opportunity. Stop worrying about white folks directing movies dealing with black stories and black people (or, as in one case involving Spike Lee, crying about a white diector not including black characters). Concentrate more on your art and hitting the ball out of the park when you do get an opportunity to step up to the plate.

turner

Hold up! Didn't he direct that epic piece of "white boy" cinema, Abduction? Turn around if fair play and no one was stopping him from doing better work than his damn self.

Boone

Thank you for bringing this to the forefront today, Tambay. Once again, my hat is off to Mr. August Wilson with deep gratitude and reverence, and to Mr. John Singleton for the courage to speak out.

To the Contrary

Well many Black directors pass on Black projects all the time. Many refuse to even consider Black biopics

Brother Imhotep

Brilliant. It is refreshing to read this from dear brother John Singleton, who is unapologetically black. Few have the courage of their convictions. This brother continues to be one of my heroes.

Daryl

It's truth in what John Singleton is saying but this issue is getting tired. We got to stop waiting on hollywood to do the right the thing and do for self. We got the tools and money now to tell our own stories. Let hollywood do them and we'll do us. About the Jackie Robinson movie that Spike Lee was going to do, I think he should still do it, forget the water down movie 42, get some black financers to back him up because I know he want water the story down. He could also try and go on kickstarter for that movie to get made. Why don't we start writing op-ed pieces on how black people should invest in their own movies and ways to do it instead of talking about what hollywood is not doing, forget hollwood, they look at black directors, actors , actresses, producers as second class, in other words they don't take black films or talent seriously. The problem is too many of us don't understand our own power, we been conditioned to be subservant and believe we are powerless thinking we need white folks to come in and save the day for us, that's the only way we can make it. On another note ,John Singleton put up his house up to get the movie Hustle and Flow made written and directed by a white director, I'm just saying would he have did the same thing for a black director, do the math, so this piece is a joke coming from him when he did the same thing he speaking out against.

CareyCarey

WOW! This post and all the links and all the references to other writers was music to my ears!

Yes, I am in the crowd who believes white director should view black subjects/films, "cultural nuances and unspoken, but deep-seated emotions that help define the black American experience" as their kriptonite, and thus, they shouldn't put their hands on it.

And did y'all read Wilson’s op-ed I Want A Black Director! OH MY GOD! Wasn't that a brilliant , masterful, must read piece of literature for everyone, white and black? His argument was so tight, so round, so fully packed that any attempt at a counter-argument, in my opinion, would be a fool's errand or the voice of a racist, or the voice of a black man who lives in a place of dreams called post-racial America.

I also have to give a hat-tip to Tambay. Needless to say he's a good writer in his own right, and today he splashed us with a little personal commentary, opinions and such, while framing the post with arguments from all sides. Additionally, as I inferred above, he injected the right links at just the right times, without voicing an opinion ("pro" nor "con") on any of them. Yep…today…the boy did the damn thang.

Anyway, there's so much to read, chew on and digest in this post (and it references) that I have to do it… one more, two more or three-mo'-again so I can really get filled up on this fine smorgasbord of delectable insight into Black Truth and the realm of Black Consciousness.

But, before I leave I has to sing another song. It goes out to all white directors and Hollywood's gatekeepers. Most of you know this song sung by a popular and FINE female group from the 90's…here it goes:

I remember how it used to be…you never was this nice, you can't fool me, Ooh, bop!
Now you're talkin' like you made a change…the more you talk the more things sound the same.
No, you're never gonna get it
Never ever gonna get it
No, you're never gonna get it
Never ever gonna get it
Never ever gonna get it
Ooh (Mr. White Director)! Fine ass En Vogue –> youtube.com/watch?v=kgDORvds824

And, as Les McCain said in his Talk To The People album… "Boy, don't touch it…don't put your hands on it…you better watch-out… be careful now, you better let it lay"

Ol' skool Les McCann's Let it lay–> youtube.com/watch?v=KLjhRi0s2Lw

Donnie Leapheart

"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."

This sums it up. The comments on this article on The Hollywood Reporter is just filled with white people defensively rejecting any and all points he made in the piece. Or making racist comments themselves.

This is why we (all people who care about change, not just black or white ppl) need to build our own instead of forever being slaves to established ways of doing things. There's too much money in the overall community to not mobilize or combine efforts in some way. We clearly know there is a domestic and international market for seeing American black culture in film. There has been for nearly a century. With technology connecting people spread all over the world more than ever, why is it so hard to coalesce and eliminate the gatekeepers to deliver the art straight to the consumer the way it artistically should be?

Celeste

With some films like "42" I think it's both an American experience and a African (black) American experience. The problem with having a white director is that he or she will understand the American part but totally miss the other experiences based on being a member of a historically and culturally marginalized community, that define the character. This is the problem that I had with "The Help."

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