Why August Wilson Was No Tyler Perry

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The name of the late playwright August Wilson rings like a bell in literary and dramatic circles. Wilson, however, remains an unknown quantity in the world of Hollywood. This giant of the stage and master of dramatic prose has been a non-entity on the silver screen. Why, one might ask, has the work of the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Award winner never been accorded the celebrated Hollywood green light?

The answer to such a question is both simple and complex. The 10 plays that comprise what has been called Wilson's ''Pittsburgh Cycle''—featuring a different drama relative to African-American existence set in each decade of the 20th century—is not your average run-of-the-mill cycle of black representation. The complex, nuanced, dialogue-driven, historical portrait of blackness across the previous century is not easily reducible to the type of rote clichés that often define racial representation in Hollywood these days. Since Wilson was not known for creating gun-toting grandmothers in drag or chicken-stealing incest victims, his work would probably seem alien to those who embrace such examples of postmodern minstrelsy as authentic black life. In the contemporary culture of Hollywood—where tired remakes, unnecessary sequels, big budget sci-fi schlock, and the tedious adaptation of old television shows rules the day—an appreciation of Wilson's more deliberate, methodical approach is about as incongruous as the thought of Alice Waters owning a McDonald's franchise. Wilson's work is too intelligent to survive the dreaded industry development process, where all the creative life is often sucked from potentially brilliant works.

The substance of, say, Fences or The Piano Lesson, is over the heads of people who regard any film with more than three African Americans in it as a ''black film.'' To suggest that Hollywood just doesn't get it is an understatement. For years, going back to the days of the blaxploitation era, Hollywood has routinely tended to categorize most films featuring multiple African Americans as ''black'' regardless of the actual genre of the film itself. The differences between comedies and dramas, biographies and crime sagas all get lumped into one gigantic category known as ''black'' or ''urban.'' The exception to this rule would be those films that feature a movie star like Will Smith. Such star power tends to mean bigger production and marketing budgets along with a predominantly white supporting cast. Yet considering that there's only one Will Smith, unless he decides that he wants to do an August Wilson adaptation, it's probably not going to happen.

Beyond this, the usage of the phrase ''black film'' is generally pejorative in Hollywood, which in turn means a much smaller budget and fewer screens. In other words, the reductive process of Hollywood number crunching tends to elide any distinctions of say gender, class, age, location or genre when it comes to so-called ''black film.'' Blackness in such an environment is regarded as monolithic. August Wilson's sophisticated dramaturgy doesn't easily lend itself to such unfortunate circumstances. With this being the case, attempting to pitch the cinematic value of August Wilson to some superficial doofus in a Hollywood executive suite would be akin to trying to explain astrophysics to a wino.

Yet the thought that Hollywood doesn't get it or doesn't want to get it, is itself nothing novel necessarily. When one considers that Hollywood is on that constant paper chase, what they do get is green, and I'm not talking about the environmental green here either. If in Hollywood's mind August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom or Two Trains Running were thought to be potentially profitable, then such film titles would already be in your Netflix queue. I am not saying that such films would or wouldn't be popular at the box office. That would depend on quite a few other business and creative factors, of course. What I am saying is that the process by which Hollywood makes decisions and their rather limited knowledge of African- American culture not classified as pop culture, does not favor something as complex as the work of August Wilson getting made when the industry's view of black life has tended to be much more simplistic.

That being said, this prompts another question. If by chance Hollywood got smarter overnight and decided to green light some August Wilson plays, would people go to see these movies? Sure, some people most certainly would. (And with the exception of Fences, Wilson's plays, while critically acclaimed, garnered no real box office gold.) The legacy of Wilson's work as a playwright and the current, briskly selling revival of Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis on Broadway attest to continued interest in the celebrated scribe.

But beyond a dedicated following of people knowledgeable of Wilson's career or other theater-minded patrons, how many people would actually find such intelligent work appealing, when for years now all they have seen is one kitschy Tyler Perry ''coonfest'' after another on screen? Would audiences, particularly contemporary African-American audiences, embrace a view of themselves that is not consistent with the type of cinematic cultural pornography that foregrounds rather grotesque stereotypes defined by pathology and dysfunction as genuine black life? Would those same people who have helped to make Tyler Perry so rich easily embrace depictions that were not so broad, melodramatic, and especially, over the top? Could it be that August Wilson's work is too intelligent for both studio heads and certain segments of the movie-going audience?


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