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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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