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This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the summer of 1991, I had my first encounter with producer Scott Rudin. We sat for a moment, making small talk, then he comes with it: “Well, the tracking this weekend says your movie is going to kill my picture, so I wanted to meet you and see who you were.” The pictures opening that weekend were Regarding Henry and my first film, Boyz N the Hood. Rudin and I had a short lunch, where I learned we shared a mutual love of theater and film and nothing else. He left promising we’d find a project together. How prophetic. Years later, he bailed me out of a $2 million development debt on Shaft at MGM. Scott took it to Paramount, where we made a huge hit.
When Amy Pascal took the position of production president at Turner Pictures, one of her few jobs outside Sony, I called her and requested that she hire a black development executive. Pascal hired Damon Lee, sight unseen, on the spot. It wasn’t her first black hire: Her protege, Stephanie Allain, had found my script for Boyz. Amy hashed out my deal over soul food at Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch. I’ll always remember her saying, “Honey, if we make you a star, we want to keep you.” I signed a three-picture deal through her coaxing.
Pascal’s and Rudin’s comments in the hacked Sony emails are troubling, but from my perspective they don’t read as “racist.” These two people have consistently hired people of color. They stand different from industry figures who would never hire a black person, no matter how qualified, for any position. We are currently in a polarized environment where offhand remarks told in bad taste get propagated to undermine a person’s whole history. This is a dangerous thing for America and especially for Hollywood, a media community built on bad taste and candor. When I read their comments, I see the humor, even if some people would find it unacceptable.
I don’t think either of these figures is racist or insensitive to any group. I’ve butted heads with the both of them and came out feeling I was treated fairly. Rudin, as anyone in this business knows, can be a bear to work with, but he’s also one of the most intelligent, driven producers in Hollywood. Like the professor in Whiplash, he demands the most from everyone. I learned a lot working with him.
Pascal and I made other pictures, and she was the first studio head to give me contractual final cut, the holy grail for directors. The success of our picture Baby Boy helped establish the financial precedent for Sony to continue making African-American-themed pictures and led to a whole new division, Screen Gems.
I’ve been in this business for over 20 years now. And I’m pretty sure I have a rep — for better or worse — of calling it like I see it. The news headlines are dominated by stories built on race: the striking visual of Barack Obama, the first African-American president; a video of Eric Garner being choked to death by Staten Island police; the Hands Up/I Can’t Breathe marches; and Bill Cosby being accused of drugging and raping several women (most of them white). All of these real-world concerns are creating an atmosphere of fear. Fear makes people act irrational.
What does this have to do with leaked emails?
Everything. Does anyone recall the Salem witch hunt trials? Creative people and the facilitators of creativity cannot fully function in a fearful environment. Yes, mutual respect is needed, but who wants to kvetch over every word said even in private? There really is no privacy anymore in a social media culture.
I’m sure everyone has conversations over email that they’d rather not have made public. But to hold a person’s whole life in question over flippant comments, made quickly without thought, is dangerous and un-American. HUAC anybody? Been there, done that. But then, again, Hollywood is sequel-driven.
Writer-director John Singleton’s credits include Boyz N the Hood.
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