John Singleton: Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie? (Guest Column)
"42" and "The Help" had white helmers; "The Butler" and "12 Years a Slave" didn't. The Oscar-nominated director questions the studios' motives in telling black stories with scant African-American input: "It's as if the studios are saying, 'We want it black, just not that black.' "
This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Whenever a black-themed film comes out, I get the call. And even more stops on the street. "Yo, man. What did you think of that flick?" The truth is, I wish folks would ask me what I think of some general releases. (My two favorite movies of the summer were comedies: Seth Rogen's This Is the End and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.) But, hey, I guess commenting on all things black is my lot in life, being that I'm a recognizable African-American face in an industry that isn't exactly the gold standard when it comes to diversity.
Like everything else in Hollywood, though, black films tend to come in waves, and by some standards 2013 is turning into a banner year. Nearly a dozen black movies will be released before it's over. And with awards season just around the corner, three indie flicks are right in the mix: Ryan Coogler's remarkable and unquestionably authentic debut, Fruitvale Station; my friend Lee Daniels' The Butler, which has drawn a diverse crowd and topped the box office three weeks in a row; and the film everyone is waiting for, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.
Hollywood's black film community has always had a one-for-all-and-all-for-one attitude, openly cheering the success of any black-driven movie in the hope its box-office success will translate into more jobs and stories about people of color. But, at the same time, the success of black-themed movies like The Help and this year's 42 points to a troubling trend: the hiring of white filmmakers to tell black stories with few African-Americans involved in the creative process.
The good news first: The Butler, a period drama inspired by a real-life White House butler, has grossed $100 million domestically to date. I'm sure more than a few studio execs checking Labor Day weekend grosses did a Buckwheat double take, like "What wuz dat?" -- and that's not racist, 'cause I'm black and I can say that.
While 12 Years a Slave doesn't open until Oct. 18, I've seen it and can tell you it's a work of art. McQueen, who is black and from the U.K., has created a raw, unflinching look at a black man's descent into one of the darkest chapters of American history. It's as authentic as it gets. And there should be Oscar nods for McQueen; screenwriter John Ridley; lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives the performance of a lifetime; and, hopefully, Michael Fassbender, who plays the most compelling big-screen villain this year. (It should be noted 12 Years a Slave would not have seen the light of day if not for Brad Pitt, who produced the film and has a small but crucial role in it. There are few stars as big-hearted as Pitt with an interest in exploring challenging subjects. More should definitely follow his bold example.)
This past spring also saw the release of 42, which was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. I took my whole family to the theater and was happy to see that Jackie Robinson's inspiring story was well told. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman stepped up to the challenge of portraying Jackie, who seemed to carry the weight of an entire race on his shoulders.
And I was delighted to see my childhood hero Harrison Ford in an underrated character performance as Branch Rickey. For me, Helgeland -- with support from Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, who served as a consultant, and black producer Darryl Pryor -- hit it out of the park. 42 wasn't overly moralistic and didn't sugarcoat the hardships Robinson endured on and off the field while integrating Major League Baseball.
Yet I couldn't help but wonder how different Spike Lee's version of Jackie's story would've been had he gotten the financing to direct his planned biopic years ago when he had Denzel Washington attached to star. Lee envisioned going beyond Robinson's exploits on the diamond and dramatizing his later years as a businessman, prominent Republican and figurehead for racial equality.
One could argue that Lee couldn't get his film made and Helgeland did, end of the story. But hold up. There's more to it. What if the commercial success of "black films" like 42 and The Help, which also had a white director, are now making it harder rather than easier for African-American writers and directors to find work?
That is exactly what people in certain Hollywood circles are debating. When I brought up the issue with a screenwriter friend, he replied, "It's simple. Hollywood feels like it doesn't need us anymore to tell African-American stories." The thinking goes, "We voted for and gave money to Obama, so [we don't need to] hire any black people."
Just to be clear, there are several white filmmakers who have told black stories and gotten it right. Norman Jewison -- who made In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier's Story and The Hurricane -- is Canadian, with no direct ties to black American culture. But he is a socially conscious renegade who tells stories with great care and sensitivity, and those works, in particular, are phenomenal. And Taylor Hackford did an amazing job with his Ray Charles biopic Ray, which he co-wrote with James L. White. It was a story close to his heart, earning him an Oscar nom for directing and winning a best actor award for Jamie Foxx. Another classic.
I could go on and on about the white directors who got it right and others who missed the mark. But my larger point is that there was a time, albeit very brief, when heroic black figures were the domain of black directors, and when a black director wasn't hired, the people behind the film at least brought on a black producer for his or her creative input and perspective. Spielberg did that on The Color Purple (Quincy Jones) and Amistad (Debbie Allen). Tarantino had Reggie Hudlin on Django Unchained.
But now, that's changing; several black-themed movies are in development with only white filmmakers attached, including a James Brown biopic. That's right, the story of "Soul Brother No. 1, Mr. Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" is being penned by two Brits for Tate Taylor, director of The Help.
A compelling argument can be made that Brian Grazer, the project's primary producer, has had multiple successes with black talent such as Eddie Murphy and Denzel. And Mick Jagger also is involved, and the Brits tend to have a greater appreciation for African-American creative culture than most white Americans.
Still, it gives one pause that someone is making a movie about the icon who laid down the foundation of funk, hip-hop and black economic self-reliance with no African-American involvement behind the scenes. One of Brown's most famous lines was, "I don't want nobody to give me nothing; open up the door and I'll get it myself." How is that possible when the gatekeepers of this business keep the doors mostly locked shut in Hollywood?
In the black film community, the consensus is that we're entering a new era of "Al Jolson movies." Jolson, for the uninitiated, was the star of the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer in 1927, and is best known for donning blackface and singing "Mammy." He is an apt symbol for what slowly is becoming the norm in Hollywood. Even when there are black directors or writers involved, some of the films made today seem like they're sifted of soul. It's as if the studios are saying, "We want it black, just not that black."
Audiences, though, can smell what's real and what isn't. And there is a noticeable difference between pictures that have significant contributions from African-Americans behind the scenes and those that don't. That's why I can fully relate to the disappointment some friends feel upon hearing about producers holding meetings on black-themed movies without even noticing that no one in the room speaks the language or intimately understands that world.
There are cultural nuances and unspoken, but deep-seated emotions that help define the black American experience. The rhythm and cadence in which we carry ourselves among one another is totally alien to most non-blacks, even if it is a constant fascination to them.
Some in the black film community think that Hollywood needs to pass a Rooney Rule like the NFL, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate when looking to fill a head-coaching position. But that'll never fly. In many ways, The Help's $170 million domestic box office set a new paradigm for how Hollywood wants its black pictures: uplifting, sentimental and inoffensive. It's no one individual filmmaker's fault. It reflects the latent racism that influences what gets made and what doesn't in the studio system.
What Hollywood execs need to realize is that black-themed stories appeal to the mainstream because they are uniquely American. Our story reminds audiences of struggles and triumphs, dreams and aspirations we all share. And it is only by conveying the particulars of African-American life that our narrative become universal. But making black movies without real participation by black filmmakers is tantamount to cooking a pot of gumbo without the "roux." And if you don't know offhand what "roux" is, you shouldn't be making a black film.
When he was nominated for the best director Oscar in 1992 for his first feature Boyz n the Hood, Singleton became the youngest person and first African-American nominated in that category. His subsequent films include 2 Fast 2 Furious, Shaft and Four Brothers.