Playwright August Wilson, testing his muscle with a Hollywood movie studio, has asked Paramount Pictures to hire a black director for the film version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Fences." Wilson's deal with Paramount doesn't give him control over the choice of director, but he sounded insistent that the director be black in remarks made Sunday at Kinsey Auditorium in Exposition Park, where "A Conversation with August Wilson" attracted an overflow crowd.
The program, sponsored by the California Afro-American Museum, was meant to address the challenge and state of black theater. But Wilson, flanked by his longtime director and Yale Repertory Theater mentor Lloyd Richards, departed from the subject of theater to voice frustration over the number of films about blacks that are directed by whites.
Citing "Color Purple," "Soldier's Story," "Bird," and the forthcoming film on the life of Malcolm X, Wilson charged that "white people have set themselves up as custodians of our experience."
The playwright, who sold the screen rights for "Fences" to Paramount two years ago, and who has completed a first draft screenplay, continued: "I've asked Paramount to hire a black director for this film. Until the industry is ready to hire a black to direct De Niro or Redford, blacks should at least be able to direct their own experience."
"Fences," which also won the Tony in 1987, is about a black Pittsburgh family in the 1950s, one of four acclaimed Wilson dramas, each set in a different decade, which chronicle black life in 20th-Century America. The others are "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," and the latest, "The Piano Lesson," an Ahmanson presentation opening Jan. 18 at the James A. Doolittle Theatre.
Wilson, who later conceded that he hasn't seen a movie in 10 years--"I just don't go to them"--added that "it would be taken as an outrage if a black directed a Holocaust film." He said Paramount's response to his request for a black director for "Fences" was "Well, we'll see. A decision will be made."
Broadway playwrights have the clout to approve directors in theater, but movie makers march to a different drum. What makes the Wilson/Paramount potential standoff dramatic is the playwright's towering reputation and Wilson's strong feelings about seeing a black direct the movie.
In attendance at the program was a Paramount film production vice president, Kevin Jones (who is black), who later told The Times that "the reality is that the studio wants August's co-operation and wants him to work with the director, but we also want the best director for the job."
The project, Jones said, is in the hamper of Eddie Murphy Productions at the studio. Jones also commented that "I've never thought of anyone else who can play the lead role (of the father) besides James Earl Jones," who played it on stage.