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February 98 Message
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I presume that by now everyone who intended to has seen the film Amistad. Steven Spielberg’s selection to direct the film instead of an African American director has been an issue. While the focus has been on the director, hardly anyone seems to have noticed that the script was written by David Franzoni and Steve Zallian. Those troubled by Spielberg’s selection included director Spike Lee, Cortland Milloy of The Washington Post and the poet Haki Madubuti. In contrast, in Newsweek Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson stated, "What’s important is that it’s finally getting made – no matter who made it and as long as it’s quality work." Spielberg stated, "This story is about American history, not just African history." My response to Spielberg’s statement is that, "This story is about African history, not just American history." Moreover, Patterson’s position that it doesn’t matter who made [or wrote] it as long as it’s "quality work" must be addressed.

In 1993 I attended a performance of August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize winning play Fences at Center Stage in Baltimore. Fences is about the life and death of Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbageman in the 1950s. The presentation brought back special memories as I am from Pittsburgh and saw every day "garbage men" like Troy Maxson. The father of one of my friends was a Pittsburgh "garbage man." It should be noted that all "garbage men" were Black as is August Wilson. But to be a "garbage man" was like being Black twice in Pittsburgh.

At the conclusion of the performance the dramaturg led a discussion of the play and a gentleman in the audience – it is noteworthy that he was European American – stated that a few weeks earlier he had read the play and he asked why the ending in the performance we had seen was different from what he had read. He stated that in his reading when Troy Maxson's brother Gabriel was unable to bring forth sound from his horn to alert St. Peter that Troy was coming, he then did an atavistic dance and the gates of heaven opened. In the ending we saw, Gabriel did not dance but seemed to reach up and pry open the gates of heaven so that Troy Maxson could pass through. The response to the question by the dramaturg seemed vague and unfocussed to me. But he made clear that the change had been made by the play’s director.

If the question had not been asked, I would have had no way of knowing that the ending we had just seen was not the one written by August Wilson and I would have gone home feeling enriched by the experience of the play just as it was presented. But the question the gentleman asked gave me new information about the play that troubled me. I read the ending for myself and concluded that to change it was wrong. When Gabriel is unable to bring forth sound, August Wilson wrote in his instructions:

"…There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization. It is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand. He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and life giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual. LYONS attempts to embrace him. GABRIEL pushes LYONS away. He begins to howl in what is an attempt at song, or speech. He finishes his dance and the gates of heaven stand open (as wide as God’s closet.)

GABRIEL: That’s the way that go!

(BLACKOUT)"

In the Akan language spoken in Ghana, West Africa the work Sankofa means to return to your past in order to move forward. To me the ending, as written by August Wilson, is far more powerful in its statement than what was presented to us by the director. Gabriel, not withstanding his "insanity" and "abnormal" mind, spiritually sees what 400 years of our experience in America has carefully trained us all not to see. The atavistic dance is the mechanism of reconnection – after 400 years of separation – with a 10,000 year old ancestral heritage that makes Troy Maxson whole and able to move forward. Gabriel, in his "madness", makes the atavistic linkage between the natural world of this existence with the spiritual world beyond the gates for Troy Maxson - and all of us.

During the questioning period at the end of the performance, I noted that many European Americans spoke with great feeling about the universality of the play. Again and again they stated (it seemed with relief in their voices) that it was "Not a Black Play." On that occasion and in many similar situations in life I have been made uneasy by such comments by European Americans. It is true that the play contains universal truths. But all too often what I think I am hearing in European Americans expressions in celebration of universality with respect to "ourstory" is really a way of again avoiding, evading and denying any confrontation with the particularity of the African and African American cultural experience and therefore the totality of our humanity and theirs – a true universality.

The director of the play was Black, proving again that high melanin content in the skin does not compensate for low cultural consciousness in the brain. I wrote to the director of the play and thanked him for a very moving and illuminating dramatic presentation, but I told him that I believed that the change he made was major. I expressed my concern that we, as an African people in America, not collaborate in the denial of the totality of our humanity. The change he made blocked all of us from realizing the greater liberatory truths that were present in August Wilson’s ending.

I never received a reply from the director. However, I had sent a copy of my letter to August Wilson. About a month later I received a package including a letter from August Wilson’s assistant who wrote:

"Please forgive my boldness here but I feel compelled to respond to your letter. As Mr. Wilson’s assistant I receive all of his correspondence and so I read your letter concerning the changes that Mr. Donald Douglass made in his production of Fences. I was strongly moved by your thought provoking and beautiful letter. As a white person I felt deeply touched by the truths you expressed. It was a truly rewarding experience for me to be able to read this letter before I passed it on to Mr. Wilson."

Included in the package was an autographed copy of Fences.

In response to Patterson, Spielberg and others who believe that it doesn’t matter who tells a story, the above account illustrates both the weakness of their position and how vigilant African Americans must be to protect our culture and history. Even August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, directed by a Black director with a Black production dramaturg, could be modified in such a way as to turn it 180 degrees at the end. The ending written by Wilson was rooted in the African world view of the connectedness of the natural and spiritual worlds expressed through the rhythm of the dance. The changed ending was removed from the historic African world view and put in the center of a European world view that celebrates man, the individual, in conflict with and overpowering the natural and spiritual worlds.

Spielberg and the writers can create a quality presentation of a fictional or historical story but it will be no more and no less than their version growing out of the particularity of their Eurocentric cultural vision. There are other versions of the story that must be told in the search for truth. This was recognized by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize awardee William Faulkner who stated:

"I think that no one individual can look at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and you see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it. But taken all together, the truth is in what they saw though nobody saw the truth intact…It was, as you say, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. But the truth, I would think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird which I would like to think is the truth."

A film system – and also an education system – grounded in a Eurocentric culture that is repressive and intolerant of the telling of their own story by conscious African American, Native American, Hispanic American, Asian American and Arab American peoples, thereby making them marginal to history, must be confronted and cannot be permitted to continue.

Sankofa!



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Last modified: September 9, 1999