When he was alive, legendary playwright August Wilson had one unofficial rule for those hoping to stage a major production of one of his play: no white directors. So when it was announced that Tony Kushner had been brought on board to work with Denzel Washington on the film adaptation of Fences, one of Wilson’s most famous works, many cried foul.
Kushner is best known for penning the play Angels In America and the Oscar-nominated film Lincoln, and has been tapped to polish up Wilson’s “rough” screenplay. According to Deadline, Kushner and Washington plan to “use everything Wilson has done,” but some wonder why Washington–who has a deal with HBO to produce all ten of the plays in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh cycle”–choose not to honor Wilson’s unspoken rule and hire a Black writer.
While Kushner is certainly talented and experienced, celebrated Black writers like Suzan-Lori Parks, Anna Deavere Smith, Charles Fuller, Attica Locke, and George C. Wolfe could have also adeptly shaped Wilson’s work for the big screen while also bringing nuance and necessary familiarity with the subject.
Additionally, as Hollywood struggles to fix its diversity problem and figure out ways to support filmmakers of color, it seems odd that Washington would tap a white screenwriter to adapt Wilson’s work given the playwright’s stance on white folks adapting the Black experience.
In 1990, after a film adaptation of Fences starring Eddie Murphy had fallen through because Wilson expressed his preference for having a Black director who “shared the same cultural responsibility of the characters,” the Tony Award winner told a crowd he was tired of white folks telling Black stories.
“Whites have set themselves up as custodians of our experience,” he explained. “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.”
Similarly, Mr. Washington, we should be writing them too.