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Race, Barriers and Battling Nerves: A Candid Conversation With Oscar’s Only 4 African-American Directing Nominees in 90 Years

Gathered for the first time, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and John Singleton break down the politics of who can tell what story, the doors that didn't open and the game-changing impact of 'Black Panther': "It almost feels like, 'Are black people gonna go see white people's movies now that we have our own?'"

In late January, Jordan Peele became just the fourth African-American filmmaker in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for best director. The 39-year-old behind Get Out follows John Singleton, who in 1992 was the category’s youngest-ever nominee at 24 when he was recognized for directing Boyz N the Hood, along with Lee Daniels, now 58 (Precious, 2009), and Barry Jenkins, 38 (Moonlight, 2016). If this elite group were expanded to include all black directors, it would add only Britain’s Steve McQueen, who earned his nomination in 2014 for helming 12 Years a Slave. None of these prior nominees ultimately took home the Oscar. With the March 4 ceremony looming and the racial makeup of the Academy and the industry at large under increased scrutiny, THR gathered the quartet for a candid conversation about how success can feel like failure, the doors Black Panther has opened and why not one of these guys was able to enjoy his big night.

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John, take us back to 1992. You’re 24 years old, and you’re at the Oscars as the first African-American best director nominee ever. You’re up against Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone … what do you remember?

SINGLETON Well, first of all, I’m fuckin’ scared. (Laughs.)

Why is that?

SINGLETON Because I thought it meant my career was over. I thought, “That’s their way to get me out.” I was really very humbled by it, too. I was a year out of film school when it happened, and I just sat down and tried to write and study film even more than I already had so I was up to that honor. At the same time, as a black man in America, my other fear was not wanting to necessarily lose myself in the hype of Hollywood.

Lee and Barry, can you empathize with that feeling of fear?

DANIELS For sure.

JENKINS Definitely. For me, I didn’t make Moonlight for the awards conversation, and when it ended up there, I was shocked the whole way. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. And then with how things ultimately went in the end [with the mistaken announcement that La La Land had won best picture], because of how loud it was and all of that other stuff, I’ve never been as distraught as I was at the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars.


Why, exactly?

JENKINS I mean, did you see the show? (Laughs.) It’s not the kind of thing where you go running off with pompoms. Something had changed. I wasn’t sure what that thing was. I wasn’t sure that thing was mine or who it belonged to because of how everything happened. And it made 2017 a very long year.

DANIELS When you come from the African-American experience, you don’t really think about doing anything to get an Oscar. You don’t even know whether the movie’s going to be seen, let alone be appreciated by your peers or accepted into the Oscar category. And so, I know exactly what he thought (looks at Singleton), and I know exactly what he’s going through (looks at Peele). You just don’t feel a part of the party.

You four are part of an exclusive club now. Which directors deserve to be in it who aren’t?

JENKINS The list is far too long. You’d have to include both men of color and women. But the fact that Spike [Lee] is not sitting in this room …

SINGLETON I always feel like I got nominated because Spike was passed over for Do the Right Thing [in 1990].

PEELE Both Do the Right Thing and Boyz N the Hood are masterpieces. For me, I always wanted to be a director. Since [I was] 12 years old, it was my dream. And I think one of the reasons I didn’t go into it was because I had John, I had Spike, we had the Hughes brothers and Mario Van Peebles at the time, and it felt like these geniuses were the exceptions to the rule. And I felt like, race aside, it’s the hardest thing to do to convince people to give you money to make your vision, and I think I was protecting myself and I moved away from that dream. I followed acting because it was this immediate response from the audience, and clearly my soul needed that kind of fortification. But then in recent times, seeing what Lee has done and what Steve and Barry have done and now it’s Ava [DuVernay], Dee [Rees], Ryan [Coogler], F. Gary Gray, it feels like this renaissance is happening where my favorite filmmakers are black, and it’s a beautiful club to feel a part of.

You certainly get that collegial feel from social media, where you all seem to promote one another’s work.

PEELE Part of the cultural learning curve with this, too, is tied up with this thing that every time a black achievement happens, it’s a black achievement. It’s like the first African-American to do this or that, and I think we’re all eager to get to that point where it’s not a first.

DANIELS To me, that’s the beauty of what is now. I grew up in a time when there could only be one.

SINGLETON Yeah, you were a special case, an anomaly. It was the Sidney Poitier equation for everything.

DANIELS I knew there was some change happening when I wasn’t nominated for The Butler [in 2014]. Before my agent or my publicist or even my mother called me, Steve McQueen [who was nominated that year for 12 Years a Slave] called me. He was like, “Bro, you should be here with me.” And I just said, “You’re there. Take it home.” It was that kind of camaraderie that’s really amazing and wasn’t there before.

PEELE I’ve met all these guys in the past couple of years, and the energy I get from all of them is this phalanx mentality where we all realize we’re exponentially stronger together than we are separately.

What were your personal inflection points when you guys realized that the game was rigged and not necessarily in your favor?

DANIELS When did I figure out the game was stacked against me? When I was born. Next question.

PEELE Yeah, it just is. That’s the thing, people are talking about this day and age we live in, and we hear so much about the racial climate and this idea of, “Where did this come from?” Black people know it’s the same damn world we’ve been living in all along. It’s louder and a little more emboldened now than it was a couple of years ago, but it’s all the exact same sentiments. So that’s it, man. Always.

I’m curious to hear what doors these nominations did and didn’t open up for you. Were you suddenly on the lists for big studio movies?

SINGLETON I wasn’t offered everything, but I also wasn’t sitting waiting to be offered everything. After I was nominated, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with me. I knew what I was going to do myself, though. I had my next movie [Poetic Justice] lined up with Janet Jackson and Tupac starring in it already. I learned from Francis Coppola, who had given me some advice. He said, “Try to write as many of your works as possible so that you have a singular voice.” So that’s what I was trying to do, be a writer-director. Then I got mired up in the drama where I wanted to actually explore different genres, but I felt there was a ceiling of what they wanted me to do. It’s interesting though, because I’m doing this [FX] show now, Snowfall. It’s a popular show, and I could have done it 20 years ago, but they said, “Who wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television every week?” Now, everybody wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television.

DANIELS If you really want to be real, we could only do “black” stories. And until recently, it was, “How can black movies make money?” I don’t know if you can call it racism, maybe it’s just the business and the naivete about who our audience was. People have learned through Empire and through Black Panther and through Get Out.

SINGLETON Even though there’s America and there’s black America, there’s a pluralism in entertainment right now. Jordan’s film is not a full black cast, but it’s a black movie and it’s also not a black movie. It’s a piece of popular culture.

JENKINS Jordan Peele is America. (Laughter.)

SINGLETON He can go do a movie with anybody. He can do a movie with a full cast of different types of people.

DANIELS And that’s the door that he opened.

Jordan, how conscious was that decision to serve both a black and non-black audience?

PEELE Spike did that a lot, too. But I did feel like if this movie didn’t work, it would really not work. And because I come from comedy, my whole pedigree is standing onstage trying to get everybody to laugh — everybody, not just the smart people or the dumb people or the white people or the black people. So, the premise I gave myself was this airtight box that I had to work my way out of to figure out how you make a movie where a black man kills a white family at the end of the movie and white people are going to be cheering with black people. (Laughter.) And so a lot of that was this idea of subverting what people think is about to happen.

You’re all laughing.

SINGLETON I’m imagining Jordan pitching this shit. “I’m going to kill a lot of white people in the movie and everybody’s going to be happy and it’s going to make $300 million around the world.”

PEELE That was basically it, man. (Laughs.)

DANIELS But you couldn’t have known that it was going to be this big …

PEELE Oh, I didn’t know that they’d even make it. (Laughs.) So, when I finally got to “This movie’s getting made,” I was like, “OK, OK, well, if it ever gets released — which, we’ll see — it’s going to do something special.” But from a business standpoint, I knew if I gave the black audience the movie that they’ve been yelling for my whole life, that would be big. And I knew that if I gave the horror audience — another loyal fan base — a movie that they hadn’t seen in a while, a throwback piece to some of film lovers’ favorite horror movies, then that would be something. And then I just hoped everybody else would come together.

Lee, a few years ago, you said as part of a THR Roundtable that you hated when white people wrote for black people. Does this apply to directing as well? This is a subject that’s come up this season with Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

DANIELS I loved Detroit and I love Kathryn Bigelow. Maybe that’s not the woke answer, but we are artists at the end of the day. Who tells us what we can and cannot do? The press? They plant this shit. We are artists, and if we fail, then we fail.

Do the rest of you agree? Or are there certain subjects that would be better left to white or black filmmakers?

JENKINS I have an interesting perspective on this now having made Moonlight. I debated if I should even make that film because I’m not gay.

DANIELS And yet he was able to tap into the human condition that transcended sexuality.

What was that process of getting to a “yes,” Barry?

JENKINS What’s interesting in the question for me is to be aware that the question exists at all. And then to do the work and to be responsible about it. I don’t have [author Tarell Alvin McCraney’s] experience; what do I have that’s relatable to his experience? Let me go knock on somebody’s door. Let me go to a friend or a loved one who has that experience and go, “Will you share with me? And if you share with me, I promise to take the things you share and try to translate them in a way that is responsible and respectful and meaningful.” And that was what I did with Moonlight. I sat down with Tarell because Tarell lived that experience. And as an artist, I had to really have a come-to-Jesus and go, “OK, I don’t know this better than him, so I have to really inject the things he tells me.” And then from that point, we’re artists, you take authorship over the piece and you go out and you create. I do remember the scene where the two kids meet on the beach. It was so difficult because as a director, especially as a writer-director, you know, everything. And I was like, “I don’t know this shit.” I had to be really open about what I didn’t know. But I agree with Lee, it’s not black and white. It can’t be.

PEELE As the tear goes down the cheek …

DANIELS Yeah. (Laughs.) And John told me this when it was my turn, and I don’t know whether you will be able to, but embrace that you are talented and that you deserve to be at the table. Take it in. I didn’t.

JENKINS I have mixed emotions. It’s cool to be here now a year later because all the things I felt like I wanted to do heading into the ceremony, I did. We went and made Beale Street [based on the James Baldwin novel], and we’re making Underground Railroad at Amazon. Those were things that were going to happen whether we lost or won. And for two minutes, we lost. And in those two minutes, I was still self-satisfied because I knew I’m going to go off and do these things, you know? Winning or losing is not gonna take any of those things off the table. But it’s bittersweet because when that switch happened, I didn’t enjoy it. And I look back on that whole process, the process that you (looks to Jordan) have handled very well, my friend, and all that shit comes together at the end and because of how things went down, I didn’t enjoy it. And I’m never going to get the opportunity to enjoy that — because even if it happens again, it won’t be the same. Moonlight was a very special film for me. It was super-personal, as this film is for you, so, bro, I’m gonna have to say what he said: Smile, yeah, but enjoy that shit, man, ’cause you earned it.

This story also appears in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.