Julian Schnabel Asks Why White Filmmakers Shouldn't Tell a Story About a Person of Color

Julian Schnabel-Getty-H 2019
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"Why can't a white person tell the story of a black person?" Schnabel asked.

Divisive director and artist Julian Schnabel recently sat down for an interview with The Guardian. In his chat with the U.K. outlet, published Friday morning, Schnabel shared his thoughts on the controversy surrounding white people telling the stories of people of color.

The issue launched into the public zeitgeist this year because of Green Book and the criticism the Oscar-winning film faced for director Peter Farrelly's portrait of African-American musician Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali). Backlash ensued after several of Dr. Shirley's relatives expressed their disappointment in how parts of his life were portrayed on film.

But Schnabel commented on the matter in regard to the blowback the Whitney Museum received over its inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in a 2017 exhibit. Till is the 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for wolf whistling at a white woman. 

"Why can’t a white person tell the story of a black person?" he asked, adding that he once "made a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat." Continued Schnabel, "Was I exploiting him by making that movie about him? I think I did him a solid by making that film. My daughter Lola says: 'Everyone is pink inside.'"

In regard to Green Book's real-life subject Dr. Shirley, his great-niece Yvonne Shirley previously claimed that the film's depiction of the composer as estranged from his family and "disconnected from the black community" was false. Some critics also lambasted Green Book for what they perceived as a "white savior" narrative. 

In October 2018, the Directors Guild of America reported that a record high percentage of scripted episodic television directing jobs went to people of color, with 24 percent of the 2017-2018 season's episodes helmed by people of color. However, according to a study published in January by the Directors Guild of America, only 10 percent of directors on films that earned at least $250,000 at the 2017 box office were people of color.

"It's outrageous that we're once again seeing such a lack of opportunity for women and people of color to direct feature films," DGA president Thomas Schlamme said at the time. "Our new study shows that discriminatory practices are still rampant across every corner of the feature film business. These numbers hit home how the chips are stacked against women and people of color."

Added Schlamme, "Inclusion is a fight we've been fighting with the industry for four decades now, and it's been an uphill battle to get them to change their hiring practices."