August Wilson’s 1990 Spin Essay on Fences: “I Don’t Want to Hire Nobody Just ‘Cause They’re Black”

NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Actors SaCha Stewart-Coleman, Mykelti Williamson, Chris Chalk, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Russell Hornsby take a bow during the curtain call for the Broadway Opening of "Fences" at the Cort Theatre on April 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

“I don’t want to hire nobody just ’cause they’re black.” Eddie Murphy said that to me. We were sitting in his house in New Jersey discussing the possibility of Paramount Pictures purchasing the rights to my play Fences. The subject was film directors. I said I wanted a black director for the film and he said, “I don’t want to hire nobody just ’cause they black.” My response was immediate. “Neither do I,” I said. What Mr. Murphy meant I am not sure. I meant that 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 finally, who shared the same cultural responsibilities of the characters.

That was more than three years ago. I have not talked to Mr. Murphy about the subject since. Paramount Pictures did purchase the 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 rendered in a foreign tongue. I have often heard the same verbatim response, “We don’t want to hire anyone just because they are black.” It has taken me three years to learn to read the implication in that statement. What is being implied is that the only qualification any black has is the color of his skin. For some occupations this seems to work just fine. I doubt if anyone has ever heard the owner or the coach of an NBA team say they didn’t want to hire anybody just because they were black.

In the film industry the prevailing attitude is that a black director couldn’t do the job and to insist upon on 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 certainly 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 Pictures in January 1990, a well-known, highly respected white director wanted very much to direct the film. Since I don’t go to the movies I don’t know his work, but he is universally praised for his 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 Pictures is doing by not hiring a black director? This is a fair, if shortsighted, question which deserves a response.

First, 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 various and 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 aesthetics. Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student they are 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.

The suggestion from a high-ranking Paramount executive that they simply hire a “human being” made me realize that something else is going on here. What is going on here is something very old. It has to do with how Africans were first viewed in this country, the residuals of which still affect and infest our society. The early plantation owners, unfamiliar and uninterested in African culture, viewed their slaves as slow, dull-witted, childlike, and otherwise incapable of grasping complex ideas. This was, if incorrect, at least an honest view. African culture, its style and content, was so incongruent with European sensibilities and beliefs that Africans seemed primitive and slow and dull-witted. Elsewhere there were whites who bore a different witness and testimony. On Nantucket Island, for example, sailors who had sailed around the world on whaling expeditions and had been exposed to various cultures saw Africans as black-skinned humans of a different culture capable of all the diversity of human conduct and endeavor.

The shortsightedness of the plantation owners must be thought of as willful. While viewing African slaves with curiosity they did not allow that curiosity to lead to an examination of the people or their culture. To do so would have been to extend a hand of welcome into the human community. This would have led to a cultural exchange of ideas, postures, worldviews, language concepts, eating habits, attitudes, style, concepts of beauty and justice, responses to pleasure and pain, and a myriad of other cultural identities. It was easier and a point of justification for their ideas of Christianity, to ignore Africans by cosigning them to the status of subhumans, whom they in their benevolence had rescued from the dark ages that reigned in the jungles of Africa.

Their assigning of Africans, and others of different cultures, to a subhuman status had been sanctioned by the founding fathers, who were writing about equality and self-evident truths while systematically eliminating the native population and lending support and credence, through their documents and laws, to the enslavement of blacks in the South.

I suspect to pursue a cross-cultural exchange would have done a violent damage to the plantation owners’ idea of the correctness of their being and their manner. They insisted that their ideas about the world and how to live in it were the only correct and valid ideas about human life. Their manners and their being reigned supreme. This led to the idea of white supremacy. Such an idea cannot exist without something to measure it against. If whites were intelligent, then blacks must be ugly. If they are imaginative, then black must be dull. These notions, while not embraced by all whites in the society, led to the creation of a linguistic environment in which they could grow and prosper. They became part of the society’s consciousness and part of its truth. 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; commenting violation of public regulations, 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 Pictures 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 idea 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 Pictures and the film Fences—whether we as blacks are going to have control over our own culture and its products.

Some Americans, both 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, both black and white, would deny that a black American culture even exists. Some Americans, both 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 of thereof, that the Hollywood and independent mills grind out—let it be every man for himself.

As I write this I am still waiting for Paramount to hire a director for the film Fences. I want somebody talented, who understands the play and sees 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 shares the same cultural sensibilities of the characters. The last time I looked all those directors were black. I want to hire them just because of that.

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