Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

August Wilson - "I Want A Black Director!"

The following essay by the late African American Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson, was first published in Spin Magazine, October 1990, and was later reprinted as a New York Times op-ed piece.

Consider it another item to throw into my ongoing deconstruction of the category we call "black cinema."

As I come across worthwhile essays/articles that broach the subject, I'll post them here for you all to ingest and digest... what you do after that is entirely up to you. However, I'd love to hear your thoughts after you read it all.

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.

That's it!

Share your thoughts in the comment section...


  1. Anonymous said...

    Hmm well where do you stand? Do you feel there should be no black cinema separate from cinema itself? I read someone's comment on a youtube video about spike lee discussing black cinema and the commenter suggested film is film. In response to that cultural labeling is as relevant as genre labeling. A movie is a movie that can be defined by it's content. Is there no foreign film it's just film? Does the change of characters racial dynamics make a film less of a film? If a story has black people in it does it make it a black story?

    I can't say that someone from one race wouldn't be able to write or direct a story involving another race. To remark on Wilson's insistence on a black director whose to say the black director they choose will be able to relate to the story. Perhaps he wants the black director because at the end of the day there will be one small bit of relation to the characters that will be enough to give the film it's proper due. (because what black person wants to show black people in a bad light)

    In my first short there is one black person in it. The story isn't black or white but the main actor I casted is white. Now, that being said I do want to tell black stories because there are a lot of other people to tell other stories. In this case I just popped out a story. If I were to write a black story that required a director besides myself, I would take Mr. Wilson's stance and say I want a black director. However, I am carrying the banner for black filmmakers. teehee

  2. Anonymous said...

    i meant to mention the color purple and spielberg but i forgot. that was a great film. but i won't spend a lot of time defending the point that it can be done.

  3. The Obenson Report said...

    In a utopian society, we wouldn't have these categorizations; alas, we don't live in a utopia, and we DO have these categorizations and labels and such. So, the challenge is finding the most ideal way to navigate this flawed society that created these divisive classifications.

    I understand Wilson's POV; but, I think it's a bit presumptuous of him to assume that a black person would innately connect with his story in a way a white person would not.

    As a black man, I would PREFER that the majority of stories told about black people were written and directed by black people. But, my reasons differ in some aspects from August Wilson's. Not necessarily because I feel a black writer/director can connect on some deeper level with "our" stories, than a non-black writer/director could; but rather, more significantly, because I want to see more black people in positions of power in the industry - both in front of and behind the camera.

    That to me is much more important, and I believe will have a profoundly more significant overall impact on cinema, in the long term.

    I've stopped trying to define what "black cinema" is or what "black stories" are. It's a frustrating, and fruitless endeavor; 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 is rather limiting.

    Let's just worry about making good films about black people, rather than making "black films." I think, once we start to see some volume and variety from black filmmakers, this will stop being an issue of debate altogether.

  4. Anonymous said...

    last paragraph ;) point made.

  5. Karen said...

    I get what he's saying but I have to disagree. Anyone can tell a good story and anyone can direct that story just as long as they aspire for excellence in their craft.

    The current script I'm working on is about a biracial person and while I would love to have a biracial director, what I want even more is to have a director who believes in the integrity of the story with great passion and who can do so will great skill.

    With all that said, I desperately want to see more minorities getting top-notch behind the camera jobs in Hollywood (director, cinematographer, executive producer, etc.) And when I say minorities I mean blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Native Americans, Indian Americans, people with disabilities and women (and anyone else I left out). Diversity is so important! And not Tokenism, the authentic kind!

  6. Unknown said...

    I like Wilson's point and I'd like to bring the discussion to the larger culture. As I read Wilson's words in 1990, I thought about 2008 and Barack Obama. I thought about his presidency and its affect on black people. A black law professor and election law scholar I know made an interest point about Barack as president and the effect his administration will have on the lives of black people. He pointed out that in American history, most presidents served a specific constituency group. This professor concluded the black community was Obama's main constituency. He questioned whether we'd be his first priority. I bring this point up because I believe it relates to Wilson's observation in this way. Wilson believed the foundation of his work, rooted its self in the unique experience of the African in America. He believed his story needed the history of this experience as anchor in the life of the director who brought said story to the screen. Lastly, he seemed to believed in order for such a history to anchor the life of said director, said director would need to be more than an "observer" of the experience, but would need a strong, frankly "genetic" connection to the history. My issue with wrestling with the idea of a black aesthetic is not whether or not Wilson's observations are correct. My issue is how we as so called "black" filmmakers are so quick to toss the discussion of this matter under the banner of " a good story teller is a good story teller." I've noticed in the discussion of a film aesthetic, provisions are made for the Italians, Russians, French, Germans, British, South Americans, Africans and even Americans. But for the African American, no recognition of a film aesthetic is made. One would think the African American would be given the benefit of time and space to grow breath and depth of canon, in order to define said canon. One could argue, quite rightly, given the devastation of culture, the African American experience needs more time to shape and define its cinematic aesthetic and align and clarify its position on an argument and definition for said aesthetic. Instead, when it comes to black stories (and in so many ways we agree to define them as black stories), we accept the argument that a good story teller is a good story teller regardless of race. Such an argument makes sense if everyone in the room is allowed and is supported in telling any story they want whenever they want. But frankly, in the world of mass cinema, the role of osmosis storytelling is reserved for white men. A young ambitious white man is given the room to tell any story given to him to direct. He is also given room to tell said story badly and given a second opportunity to hone his skills as a story teller. No such luxury is allotted to black directors. Wilson's observations force us to contend with this larger point. When do we get to control our stories, our issues, our problems? If Obama said for the next four years he would like to help black people do better in this country, we would consider such a statement political suicide. But Dick Cheney calls the business community his only constituency and its only a footnote in the New York Times. When do our concerns come first? How can we recognize black literature, black music, black theater but fall short when it comes to black film? I'd begin to answer that question by saying in terms of music, theater, and lit, no outside participation is needed to create or distribute works of art. Countee Cullen didn't need Paramount or Focus Features to get his work out. No rational person believes "The Bluest Eye," or "Beloved" could be told by any other person but a black woman. In the early life of jazz music, it was considered inferior to classical music. Even Wilson created plays in relative obscurity. I make these two points to say, in music and in theater, time help define and recognize the distinct nature of the black aesthetic. I believe because film is such a participatory art and because as black film makers are obsessed with immediate recognition from the larger culture, we disregard the importance of claiming the right to define our canon and aesthetic.

  7. The Obenson Report said...

    Hans - all excellent points. This statement says it all: "given the devastation of culture, the African American experience needs more time to shape and define its cinematic aesthetic and align and clarify its position on an argument and definition for said aesthetic."

    As I've previously said, I feel like we may be putting the cart before the horse. 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 this will stop being an issue of debate altogether. At the moment, we have very little of substance to go on.

    Although, maybe one can take a closer look at the plethora of straight-to-video productions that line the shelves of the "black cinema section" at your local Blockbuster... we're certainly not lacking in volume there.

  8. Unknown said...

    I guess what I'm saying is that as young filmmakers, we shouldn't give up our right to try to wrestle with the ideas around our aesthetic.

  9. The Obenson Report said...

    Hans - agreed!

    Where I have a problem is when some try to impose their own ideas of what "blackness" (and all its connotations) should mean to other artists and the work they create. I refuse to define, or have anyone or any group claim a monopoly on how portrayals of and stories about black people are realized. That should be left up to the individual. Our experiences (the experiences of black people all over the world) are far too varied. The notion of some singular, identifiable blackness is rather limiting - especially at this stage.

    When Morrison wrote "The Bluest Eye," I don't think the first thing that came to her was, I'm going to write a "black book." She wanted to tell a story about a life that she hadn't read about yet, because no one else was telling that particular story. So, she wrote it. And I think we can say the same about music and theatre...

    So, I'm not implying that we as filmmakers should not wrestle with the idea of a black aesthetic... I do constantly, hence this discussion; but, just don't let that always be the sole impetus for your creations. Just do it.

  10. Anonymous said...

    I agree with everything everybody here has said.

    Tambay what you said about taking a closer look at the "plethora of straight-to-video productions that line the shelves of the "black cinema section" at your local Blockbuster," immediately struck me. There might be some value in taking on the challenge of watching the bulk of those films. But that will be an unattractive project because most of those films are bad =)

    I'm glad we're having this discussion and that even though our opinions are diverse, we're still having respectful, healthy conversations and I'm learning.

  11. ReelAphro said...
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  12. ReelAphro said...

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