By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act
The age-old story on a long-stalled film adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning play is that, the playwright insisted to the studio (Paramount Pictures at the time – this was in the late 1980s when talk of a film adaptation all began) that the director of the film be black.
Of course Paramount didn’t feel that was necessary, stating that they wanted “the best director for the job.” Even Eddie Murphy, who was then attached to star in, and co-produce the film adaptation, told Wilson that he wasn’t going to hire a director just because he/she was black.
Wilson reiterated that he wasn’t suggesting that a black director be hired simply because they are black, rather a black director who was qualified for the job.
But this wasn’t a clause in the original agreement between Wilson and Paramount, so the studio wasn’t legally bound to adhere to Wilson’s wishes (however they realized well enough that a film adaptation of “Fences” without Wilson’s blessing, wasn’t something that they wanted to do). While seeming to be taking Wilson’s wishes under strong consideration, the studio approached Barry Levinson to helm the film; obviously, Levinson isn’t black.
Needless to say, Wilson didn’t approve. Although Levinson backed away from the project anyway, after he saw the play himself, stating that he didn’t think it would translate well to the screen – at least, not the version of the script that Wilson had written. Wilson’s public objections to a white director helming the project were also of some influence.
So the project stalled.
Wilson continued to publicly express his frustration about the number of films that tell stories about black people that were/are directed by whites, arguing that “whites have set themselves up as custodians of our experience.”
There’s a really good piece on this in the New York Times (it was actually written in January 1991, not-so-long after all the above transpired). It details the journey the adaptation took, and all the different players who were involved at different times.
In fact, it’s said that at one point, Bill Duke was a front-runner for the directing job. And even Warrington Hudlin was approached, not to direct, but to come up with a short list of black directors at the time, who were qualified for the job. Hudlin provided 12 names which included directors like Gordon Parks, Charles Burnett and Spike Lee. Certainly they all would’ve been qualified.
But, apparently, Paramount wasn’t interested in any of them at the time.
There were a lot of opinions sought on this, including Norman Jewison’s, who recalls his own experiences attempting to direct an adaptation of “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in the late 1960s, which was met with much opposition from the black community, in part because he was white, and also, more importantly, because the book distorted Turner’s story. Of course, Jewison would face a similar opposition when he sought to direct Malcolm X’s bio.
The New York Times article paints a picture of a charged debate between all those involved (James Earl Jones, who starred in the 1987 premiere of “Fences” on Broadway, was one of those voices), with Wilson standing firm, and never wavering.
Ultimately, the studio film adaptation never got made, although the play continued to thrive on the stage, throughout the country.
Skip ahead to 2010 when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival of the play, directed by Kenny Leon, both giving strong performances that would earn them the highest honor in the theatre world, the Tony Award.
But what may not be universally known is that, when producer Scott Rudin first approached Denzel Washington about “Fences,” he sent him August Wilson’s screenplay adaptation of the play, suggesting that Denzel star and direct the film version of it. Denzel, a lover of the stage, first and foremost, and who also wanted to direct, felt that he needed to do the play first, before attempting a film adaptation. Rudin obviously was ok with that, Kenny Leon was hired to direct, Viola Davis came onboard to co-star, and the rest is history.
So now that he’s gotten the stage version out of his system, it looks like Denzel is now ready to return to “Fences” as Rudin apparently originally wanted – to direct a filmed version of it (and maybe co-star with Viola Davis again). After all, in the end, he’ll be meeting the late August Wilson’s criteria that a black director helm the film.
As for when this might happen, obviously several different elements have to line up – most notably financing.
Will a studio finally back an Adaptation of “Fences” with a black director? Well, it’s Denzel, and he is a *name* with a lengthy track record, so I’d say the chances this time are probably higher than they were with any of the black directors who were being considered 25 years ago.
The times have also changed a bit… or have they?