I Want A Black Director

August Wilson 14By August Wilson

“I Want a Black Director”

From IndieWire.com

“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.



One thought on “I Want A Black Director

  1. Reblogged this on A.Nzinga's Blog and commented:
    Having directed 7 of the ten plays from the Century Cycle in chronological order and in production for Jitney with the intention of finishing the cycle in chronological order next year — I have found the alchemy inherent in Wilson’s spell of a cycle. It is black magic, meant to transform, awaken, inspire, educate, and most of all it is a spell of rememberance — outside the circle the story has a different meaning, it can not be phantomed (outside the circle) in its entire majesty. It’s a most peculiar and particular type of jazz you can play the notes but overstanding the tune is not automatic — if it was few white directors would attempt Wilson. When they do it is the comedic notes that are part of comi-tragedy that they choose to elevate using it to mediate the iron and water Wilson sewed into each tale. As a black director Wilson’s iron and water are as important to me as air. I overstand. I am of the same kiln — standing on the same ground, walking in the shadow of one of the greatest playwrights in modernity. Wilson is talking to us, cheering for us, praying for us to remember– it is our story to overstand, to elevate, to preseve, to fiercely protect. I do not know that white directors approach the work with the reverence it demands, I am sure they do not approach it from the same ground, I understand their attraction to the work– some of the best theater ever written in America, however perhaps a true overstanding of the work would convey the necessity of diretors who unabashedly stand on the same ground as Wilson to properly honor the work and its ambitious intention. It is said: Gnatola ma no kpon sia, eyenabe adelan to kpo mi sena. (Ewe-mina)
    A moins ce que le lion ait son propre narrateur, le chasseur aura toujours la belle part de l’histoire. (French)
    Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. (English)Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter (Igbo, Nigeria). Until lions start writing down their own stories, the hunters will always be the heroes (Kenya and Zimbabwe). In short when lions have guns the story of the hunt is told differently. Wilson is our lion with a gun. The stories are not to be told by hunters.

    Walking with Wilson,

    Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD
    Exective Director,
    Lower Bottom Playaz, Oakland CA

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