A long-gestating biopic about James Brown has shaken up its production lineup: Producer Brian Grazer has fired Spike Lee and replaced him with director Tate Taylor. The news will undoubtedly stir up controversy for symbolic reasons, if nothing else—handing over the reins of a film about a notable black figure from a black director to a white one certainly looks bad. And it’s true that, given the limited opportunities for people of color in Hollywood, the decision stings a little. But the main issue is not that the director is white—as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild proved this summer, it is entirely possible, though admittedly tricky, for a white director to tell a compelling story about black characters. The problem is that Taylor’s claim to fame is having directed one of the most patronizing and old-fashioned movies about racism Hollywood has lately produced—The Help—and that hardly bodes well for the memory of the Godfather of Soul. Is this really the best Hollywood can do?
Taylor’s movie got Oscar nominations—and a win for Octavia Spencer—but The Help was rightly controversial for its whitewashed depiction of the Civil Rights Movement. In a film that purports to be about black service workers in the South, the narrative ultimately focuses on Emma Stone’s character, the young white woman who brings the maids’ story to the people of Mississippi. This is a standard and unfortunate Hollywood approach to such subject matter, and aside from the lingering shots meant to convey the intense emotions of the black characters as they encounter prejudice—which were, admittedly, sold well by the movie’s terrific actors—Taylor’s direction failed to rise above the flimsy material. The moment of “comeuppance” which fans cited as a highlight of the film—it involves a racist employer's unknowing ingestion of a pie made of shit—is, despite its seemingly in-your-face vulgarity, a typically safe way of dealing with racial inequality, implying that a silly symbolic gesture signals any kind of tangible victory for Spencer’s character.
Can Taylor progress from such vacuous stuff to make a genuinely socially conscious movie about the man who was not afraid to sing, in the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, “I’m black and I’m proud”? I have my doubts. And it’s especially disappointing given what this production had going for it. In an inspired bit of casting, Eddie Murphy has been rumored as the likely lead to play Brown. He and Lee together would have been an inspired pairing. While Lee has had his share of duds, he’s still the man who brought us Malcolm X (which, in an interesting reversal, he wrestled away from Norman Jewison, the white director of a very good Hollywood movie about racism, In the Heat of the Night).
Lee is known to be difficult to work with at times; the reasons for his firing could be entirely valid. But surely there must have been other directors more qualified than Taylor to take on this film? Bill Condon, who directed Murphy in the underwhelming Dreamgirls, managed to bring out one of the most dynamic performances from the comedian—in a role inspired by James Brown, no less. Taylor Hackford directed Ray—a fairly standard Hollywood biopic, but still an enjoyable and mostly plausible portrayal of the late Ray Charles. And there are black directors out there besides Spike Lee: Antoine Fuqua, Lee Daniels—if the producers are willing to go there—and the severely underappreciated Charles Burnett (to name just a few) could each provide the experience and attention to detail sorely needed to portray one of the titanic figures in American culture over the last half century. Grazer’s choice of Taylor—who has just one other feature to his name as a director, apart from The Help—suggests a sore lack of concern for such things. Grazer, like Hollywood as a whole, needs to do better.