In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, directors Jordan Peele, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins and John Singleton gathered for the first in a candid conversation concerning Hollywood’s racial politics, and dropped gems on who can tell what stories, creating a lane, and destabilizing the norm.
“Are black people gonna go see white people’s movies now that we have our own?” quipped Peele when asked about the game-changing effects of the internationally celebrated Black Panther film.
The four men, who make up the only African American director nominees in the 90-year history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, had plenty of invaluable takeaways. Here are a few that resonated loudly:
There’s power not just in numbers, but in unity. I’ve met all these guys in the past couple of years, and the energy I get from all of them is this phalanx mentality where we all realize we’re exponentially stronger together than we are separately. – Peele
Find your voice, create your lane and master your craft. I learned from Francis Coppola, who had given me some advice. He said, “Try to write as many of your works as possible so that you have a singular voice.” So that’s what I was trying to do, be a writer-director. Then I got mired up in the drama where I wanted to actually explore different genres, but I felt there was a ceiling of what they wanted me to do. It’s interesting though, because I’m doing this [FX] show now, Snowfall. It’s a popular show, and I could have done it 20 years ago, but they said, “Who wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television every week?” Now, everybody wants to see Boyz N the Hood on television. -Singleton
Black stories matter. The last piece of the excuse for this sort of systemic lack of inclusion that we’ve seen, with some exceptions, was the business part of it kicking in. For so long, you’d hear this notion that the international business is not there and that black people, we’ve always watched white movies, but white people don’t come to black movies. And there are other exceptions that have inched us forward, but when Straight Outta Compton came out, it was an international blockbuster. -Peele
If you really want to be real, we could only do “black” stories. And until recently, it was, “How can black movies make money?” I don’t know if you can call it racism, maybe it’s just the business and the naivete about who our audience was. People have learned through Empire and through Black Panther and through Get Out. – Daniels
Destabilize the norm, by any means necessary. Spike [Lee] did that a lot, too. But I did feel like if [Get Out] didn’t work, it would really not work. And because I come from comedy, my whole pedigree is standing onstage trying to get everybody to laugh — everybody, not just the smart people or the dumb people or the white people or the black people. So, the premise I gave myself was this airtight box that I had to work my way out of to figure out how you make a movie where a black man kills a white family at the end of the movie and white people are going to be cheering with black people. (Laughter.) And so a lot of that was this idea of subverting what people think is about to happen. – Peele
Be responsible for your truths and do your homework. I don’t have [author Tarell Alvin McCraney’s] experience; what do I have that’s relatable to his experience? Let me go knock on somebody’s door. Let me go to a friend or a loved one who has that experience and go, “Will you share with me? And if you share with me, I promise to take the things you share and try to translate them in a way that is responsible and respectful and meaningful.” And that was what I did with Moonlight. I sat down with Tarell because Tarell lived that experience. And as an artist, I had to really have a come-to-Jesus and go, “OK, I don’t know this better than him, so I have to really inject the things he tells me.” And then from that point, we’re artists, you take authorship over the piece and you go out and you create. I do remember the scene where the two kids meet on the beach. It was so difficult because as a director, especially as a writer-director, you know, everything. And I was like, “I don’t know this shit.” I had to be really open about what I didn’t know. But I agree with Lee, it’s not black and white. It can’t be. -Jenkins
There are enough people now that you can go to, to have a conference with or to say, “I don’t understand this world, can you help me?’’ So, I’m not assailing against anybody white trying to do a black story — try it, but get someone to help you. What’s interesting when you see Black Panther is you realize it couldn’t have been directed by anybody else but Ryan Coogler. It’s a great adventure movie and it works on all those different levels as entertainment, but it has this kind of cultural through-line that is so specific that it makes it universal. – Singleton
And speaking to other directors, there’s a wide skill set needed, but nothing is more important than being the world’s foremost expert on that story and being able to impart that. – Peele
Never let ’em see you sweat. The world will be watching every move on your face, so when they mention your name, smile, and keep that same smile even if you don’t win. – Daniels