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When August Wilson Insisted on a Black Director for a Hollywood Adaptation of ‘Fences’…

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

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).

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Having a black director on a black project is no guarantee that they'll have better insight than a white director. Despite having both written and directed "School Daze," Spike Lee clearly did not have a handle on the intra racial divide depicted in the film. If anything, the film endorsed the kind of colorism that he claimed the film was against.


    No, it’s not a guarantee. There are no guarantees in life.


White people take the SOUL and the SPIRIT out of Black movies. Every Real Black knows this. The movie ends up like a Blank Slate. Like America.

White People in america ridicule other races culture. Yet they have NONE. Riddle me this? What culture has white people created in America?


That's not a culture. That's an ADDICTION.


I just wish black Hollywood would stop whining about white Hollywood and pool their money & resources together. If that happens and they are successful, white Hollywood would take note and hire other black writers, directors, producers, actors and cinematographers to compete.

Anthony Rayner

The best director for a project should get the job regardless of race … the problem is that black directors aren't given, in "Hollywood", opportunities based on their talents as directors, otherwise there would be black directors helming films with all white casts. If there was equal opportunity no one would care about the race of any director.

Johnny Ray

We live in a new era of Film making that doesn't need Hollywood or any major conglomerate to tell authentic stories of the African American experience. That is why I feel like this conversation is outdated, we don't need to beg Hollywood to hire black directors in order to tell our stories.We can do it ourselves.


Spike Lee has pissed on his legacy. His movies are terrible now.

Wise Woman

What matters on this issues is actors think and the average actor doesn't care whether a director is a one armed Mexican midget who came to this country and was revealed to be Hack the Ripper in a precious lifetime. There are very few really good directors and a person's race is irrelevant. Can he/she direct. Actors will not tolerate this type of stupid discussion in terms of who is qualified to direct.


I agree that a black director was needed for the James Brown film. The trailer had no heart and I knew I didn't want to see it. However. I'm not sure if Spoke Lee was the person to direct.


I'm truly surprised there are no comments on Wilson working with the great Lloyd Richards on several of his plays. Perhaps Wilson, through his experience with Richards, understood the nuances that a Black director could pick up (with excessive explanation) in Wilson's aesthetic. Perhaps as a result, Wilson expected the same type of experience to be emblematic to any film adaptation of his work, but soon found out that Hollywood was/is a different sort of animal.


It's the same old, same old. I know, I know, Hollywood is different. No, it's the same. When you sell the right to your property, your house, anything intellectual it's no longer yours. I don't have to honor your request unless you put a stipulation in to the agreement of sale. The problem with Hollywood isn't the owner's of the studio's it's the successful actor and actresses that don't reinvest and purchase their neighborhood theaters and purchase rights to new literature. When you sell, you've lost the ability to determine the outcome. I'm just trying to remember the last time a white person sold their intellectual material to a black person and then complained about the right to betray the character or that it must be directed by a white person…formulate a plan for production which includes a director and actors and do it your damn self. oops but we can do that..

Floyd Webb

Same question for the entire history of cinema in america and the world. Time for us to solve our own problems for ourselves and not be stuck in the groove of the history of our oppression.

Time to make a new history. We know we at war. We can't refight the old battles, only create new theaters of resistance. I hate to hear us whining about this crap!


Most films about African-Americans are made by whites. If you recall "Hotel Rwanda", "Ray", "The Last King Of Scotland", "The Help", and "42." The industry is willing to spend the money as long as whites are in control. Spike Lee was supposed to direct a film about the L.A. Riots in 1992, and he is no longer directing that film. A Asian films guy will be directing L.A. Riots film.


I heard August made a similar request regarding a Broadway production, but his WHITE WIFE did not follow through with his request


I’m a straight, white male, but I can definitely see how this story needed a black director to get it exactly right. It’s just the way some stories are. There are also probably stories that would be best directed by a gay director or a woman director as well.

I also happen to think that a lot of stories about white people would be better directed by minority directors because white people are much more prone to be blind to our own culture (like Americans who don’t think they speak with an accent but that British people do). Someone outside white culture would very often have more insight into it.

I don’t think that members of minority groups have exactly the same blind spot because they experience their culture as quite separate from white culture.

This is over and above the basic idea that equal opportunity requires that industries make a conscious effort hire people who might be overlooked because they are “not like us.” It’s OK with me if someone equally qualified gets hired “because he’s black.” God knows there are stupider tiebreakers than that and there’s always an element of guesswork in any decision. Life is not math.

I love Denzell Washington and can’t wait to see this film!

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