I accept that he is a very fine film director. But he is not black. He is not a product of black American culture—a culture that was honed out of the black experience and fired in the kiln of slavery and survival—and he does not share the sensibilities of black Americans.
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I have been asked if I am not, by rejecting him on the basis of his race, doing the same thing Paramount Pictures is doing by not hiring a black director? This is a fair, if shortsighted, question which deserves a response. First, I am not carrying a banner for black directors. I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way. A history. We share political and economic systems, and a rapidly developing, if suspect, ethos.
Within these commonalities are specifics. Specific ideas and attitudes that are not shared on the common cultural ground. At the point where they intercept and link to the broad commonality of American culture, they influence how that culture is shared and to what purpose. White American society is made up of various European ethnic groups which share a common history and sensibility. Black Americans are a racial group which do not share the same sensibilities. The specifics of our cultural history are very much different. We are an African people who have been here since the earlyth century.
We have a different way of responding to the world. We have different ideas about religion, different manners of social intercourse. We have different ideas about style, about language. We have different aesthetics.
Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student they are or how well-meaning their intentions. I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans. What is going on here is something very old. It has to do with how Africans were first viewed in this country, the residuals of which still affect and infest our society.
The early plantation owners, unfamiliar and uninterested in African culture, viewed their slaves as slow, dull-witted, childlike, and otherwise incapable of grasping complex ideas. This was, if incorrect, at least an honest view. African culture, its style and content, was so incongruent with European sensibilities and beliefs that Africans seemed primitive and slow and dull-witted. Elsewhere there were whites who bore a different witness and testimony.
On Nantucket Island, for example, sailors who had sailed around the world on whaling expeditions and had been exposed to various cultures saw Africans as black-skinned humans of a different culture capable of all the diversity of human conduct and endeavor. The shortsightedness of the plantation owners must be thought of as willful. While viewing African slaves with curiosity they did not allow that curiosity to lead to an examination of the people or their culture. To do so would have been to extend a hand of welcome into the human community.
This would have led to a cultural exchange of ideas, postures, worldviews, language concepts, eating habits, attitudes, style, concepts of beauty and justice, responses to pleasure and pain, and a myriad of other cultural identities.
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It was easier and a point of justification for their ideas of Christianity, to ignore Africans by cosigning them to the status of subhumans, whom they in their benevolence had rescued from the dark ages that reigned in the jungles of Africa. Their assigning of Africans, and others of different cultures, to a subhuman status had been sanctioned by the founding fathers, who were writing about equality and self-evident truths while systematically eliminating the native population and lending support and credence, through their documents and laws, to the enslavement of blacks in the South.
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