Who Gets to Tell a Black Story?
December 17, 2007 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Prior to his critically acclaimed program The Wire, creator Edward Burns wrote the HBO miniseries The Corner, which also focused on the drug trade in Baltimore. Charles S. Dutton, an African-American Baltimore native and former convict probably best known to most as TV's "Roc," was chosen to direct the miniseries. Who Gets To Tell a Black Story?, part of a Pulitzer-prize winning NYT series on race in America, examines Dutton's take on how to make a TV program which portrays a mostly African-American cast of characters, the struggles and differing perspectives of Dutton and Burns, and how race is portrayed in Hollywood.

The Wire junkies looking for a pre-season five re-up may be able to stomp some life out of the following package of previous MeFi links, which everybody already posted while I was trying to craft an awesome, meticulous post about The Wire: HBO prequel videos, an outstanding profile of Burns from the New Yorker, the marriage of the real-life people who formed the basis of The Wire's Omar and The Corner's Fran (this article itself is mentioned towards the end of the Burns profile), an examination of the legal principles in Burns's book Homicide, an interview with the actress who plays Snoop.
posted by whir (24 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The Corner is excellent and highly recommended for Wire fans.

True Story: I grew up in Baltimore and Ed Burns drove me to school about 3 times a week when I was a kid. Very incredibly bizarre that he is now one of the creators of my favorite show.
posted by dhammond at 10:11 PM on December 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should also mention that the NYT piece is pretty much spoiler-free, for those who care about that kind of thing.
posted by whir at 10:24 PM on December 17, 2007

I just watched that series yesterday. No lie.

And it's great.
posted by streetdreams at 10:37 PM on December 17, 2007

^as eponysterical as it gets.
posted by Hat Maui at 11:39 PM on December 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I read the book when it first came out and loved it greatly. I'd been a big Homicide fan (both book and film), and really expected to like the TV series, but when I watched the first episode, I was so disappointed, I couldn't watch any more.

Perhaps I should give it another shot.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:05 AM on December 18, 2007

That's a great NYT story.

Thanks, I would not have seen it otherwise.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:06 AM on December 18, 2007

[I]f they went to a studio and said, 'I want to do the movie of Hannibal.' They'll say, 'Yeah, well, we have to call in Al Pacino or the latest young Italian actor to play Scipio,' the guy who defeated Hannibal many years after all his conquests. And, damn it, that's who the story will center around."

Poorly chosen example, I think. Having read Sir Basil Henry Liddell-Hart's biography A Greater than Napoleon, I'd rather watch a movie about Scipio Africanus than about Hannibal any day of the week: Elephants over the Alps is picturesque, but Scipio was a major military and political about whom history largely forgot. And in case it's what he's thinking of, I doubt that Hannibal, a Carthaginian, should be cast as a Negro anyway -- Carthage was Mediterranean, not sub-Saharan African. So who's playing race games now?

But yeah, this sucks as much now as it did when Robert Townsend called Hollywood on it twenty years ago.
posted by pax digita at 3:36 AM on December 18, 2007

Ed Burns was a bus driver????
posted by ejoey at 3:39 AM on December 18, 2007

That's a really interesting article, thanks. I'm not sure what to make of his insistence on a more racially mixed crew when shooting, though.
posted by patricio at 3:50 AM on December 18, 2007

The Corner is brilliant... but boy, is it depressing. Great article.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:15 AM on December 18, 2007

The Corner and Homicide are two really impressive books.

If you're looking for more in that style (though not necessarily as good) there's also There are No Children Here and Tally's Corner.

I'm reupping HBO just to finish off season five.
posted by drezdn at 6:33 AM on December 18, 2007

Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal also crossed the Alps, coming to Hannibal's aid. (Crap names ran in the family; their father's name was Hamilcar.) The Romans defeated Hasdrubal, cut off his head, and catapulted it into Hannibal's camp. Hardcore!

The Cathagenians were Phoenician.

we have to call in Al Pacino or the latest young Italian actor to play Scipio

Duh. Scipio was Roman, born in Rome. "Africanus" was an honorific because he defeated Hannibal in Africa.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:07 AM on December 18, 2007

Ed Burns was a bus driver????

He was a police officer. I'm pretty sure dhammond is talking about carpooling.

I genuinely can't decide if Dutton is kind of an asshole, or somebody with a legitimate grievance. I guess there's no reason he can't be both. My white liberal guilt and my David Simon fanboy are having a fistfight.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:27 AM on December 18, 2007

It sounds to me like Dutton is someone with a legitimate grievance (and a legitimate fear of being exploited) who could have handled that a whole lot better. That said, he's not exactly the first temperamental director in film history...
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:34 AM on December 18, 2007

Yeah, it sounds like typical producer-writer-director mutual suspicion, just exacerbated by the seriousness, uniqueness, and racial sensitivity of the project. Great article though, and good to see that Dutton wasn't pleased with, or primarily responsible for, the two elements of The Corner that felt silly to me: the orange-tinted doo-wop flashbacks and the introductory lecture.
posted by stammer at 7:43 AM on December 18, 2007

Oh, and how much do I want to see David Simon's film epic of Melvin Williams, structured after Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses? A billion much, that's how much.
posted by stammer at 7:50 AM on December 18, 2007

I vote for Dutton as an asshole with legitimate grievances. At the very least, the guy is bringing an extraordinarily unique perspective to Hollywood (there are plenty of actors who are ex-cons, but how many directors?). I was most interested in what he had to say about how much of the black experience should be "shared" via art. And no doubt his struggles with the fine line between shining a light on tragic situations and exploitation is a very real concern. But I wonder if he pondered his own issues with racial assumptions when he discovered that the co-writer he'd assumed was white was actually a light-skinned black man. He kind of glossed over that discovery in the interview.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:00 AM on December 18, 2007

Duh. Scipio was Roman, born in Rome. "Africanus" was an honorific because he defeated Hannibal in Africa.

Interestingly, the article doesn't even mention "Africanus." Make of that what you will.

I thought he was making an example of making the movie about Hannibal, not his eventual foil Scipio. You and I and lots of other people know of Scipio's honorific, but I think it's beside Dutton's point: Can't get a black man in a starring role because he has to co-star beside whitey. As I've said, it's too bad he couldn't have come up with a more comprehensible example than a (Phoenician) Carthaginian versus a Roman ( if he's bitching about the African-American experience. Tunisia and Morocco aren't exactly sub-Saharan; we're talking about Semitic people, not Negroid. (Anybody else remember the flap about getting a black guy to play Anwar al-Sadat?)

I know I'm beating on a trivial point here, but "who gets to tell a black story" presupposes it's a "black story" to tell, and I'd think a guy who's at least aware of the name "Scipio" could've found a better way to get his point across in order to support his point of view. Hell, how about a movie about Toussaint L'Ouverture? (Not that the story's any more apt to put @$$es in seats than one about Scipio and Hanniabal, anyhow.)

On preview: Dunno about the "@$$hole" part, but "ahistorical with legitimate grievances" fits pretty well.
posted by pax digita at 8:40 AM on December 18, 2007

Maybe "asshole" is too strong a word, but I definitely get the sense that Dutton was carrying a *huge* chip on his shoulder, and did very little to share his concerns with the people he had to work for and with. Many of his complaints sound perfectly valid, but I don't see that he did much to bring them directly to the attention of the people who had *hired him* to do the job. Maybe the story is being poorly told, but I got the image of a strong-willed, opinionated, intelligent director who was essentially sulking about not being asked for his opinion enough.

I really don't want to focus on that part, though. I was less interested in who was right or wrong than I was in hearing Dutton's thoughts on the nature of storytelling across racial lines, and how racial issues can cause problems for even the most progressive minds.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:04 AM on December 18, 2007

I was most interested in what he had to say about how much of the black experience should be "shared" via art.

I thought that was the most interesting part of the article as well, Banky. I was left wondering what his objections could possibly be? There's a difference between saying 'I'm not comfortable in sharing my own experience of x', and someone saying 'nobody has any business portraying these aspects of their experience in a book or a movie'. The first seems perfectly reasonable. The second seems barking mad.

Everybody, whether they be individuals or groups, have aspects of their own history that they might be embarrassed about, ashamed of, or just that they cherish as so precious that they don't want to share them. Storytelling though, is one of the ways in which humans are able to connect to people, either as individuals or as groups, who initially might appear to be very different to us. When these experiences are shared in a skillful manner, the reader or viewer begins to empathize and to understand people whose experience or worldview initially seems different from themselves. We begin to see the similarities as well as the differences. And through that process, our attitudes shift. People that we initially thought of as morally reprehensible or lacking in some other qualities are revealed as humans, flawed in many of the same ways that we are, prone to make poor decisions, in many of the same ways as we do, and shaped by external forces larger than themselves, in just the same way that we are.

Why anyone would think it desirable to be prescriptive about that process is a bit of a mystery to me, but if there is a decent argument to be made, I'd be interested to hear it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:38 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

I vote "asshole."

Because if Simon would have been a lesser principled person, and if left to Dutton's hostile temprament and anger, the series itself would have never gotten made at all.

And in essence it's this final result that gives us an outstanding piece of art that has such profound insight beyond both of these guys.
posted by tkchrist at 9:52 AM on December 18, 2007

I genuinely can't decide if Dutton is kind of an asshole, or somebody with a legitimate grievance.

Could the fact that he knifed a guy to death be a clue as to which?
posted by Justinian at 11:08 AM on December 18, 2007

"we have to call in Al Pacino or the latest young Italian actor to play Scipio"

Duh. Scipio was Roman, born in Rome. "Africanus" was an honorific

No, he was making a point about how Hollywood makes ethnic stories with a white protagonist, e.g. Mississippi Burning.

Tunisia and Morocco aren't exactly sub-Saharan; we're talking about Semitic people, not Negroid

Dutton probably believes in "Black Egypt" and other African-centered theories of ancient history; to him, Hannibal is at least a fellow continental. It is not that he is uneducated, it is that he is self-educated.
posted by dhartung at 11:37 AM on December 18, 2007

Could the fact that he knifed a guy to death be a clue as to which?

It's a pretty good clue if you want to know which he was *then*, but considering how much work he put into reinventing himself while serving his time, and the life he's had since, I'd argue that maybe his knife-fighting days shouldn't be held against him now.

Then again, I maybe hadn't really considered his time in jail. Doing any significant amount of time is almost certainly going to make you a little jaded, and more than a little angry, especially (I'd imagine) if you're the type to accept your punishment and attempt a genuine rehabilitation. The system doesn't do a great job of differentiating between types of prisoners, and he probably experienced a fair amount of unjustified bullshit while locked up. With that in mind, I'm maybe a little more inclined to cut him a break on what I took to be problems of his own making (i.e. not speaking up when feeling put out by the writers and/or HBO).
posted by Banky_Edwards at 1:08 PM on December 18, 2007

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