Skip to main content

Interview: February 3, 2022

Wil Haygood’s COLORIZATION examines 100 years of Black movies --- from Gone with the Wind to Blaxploitation films to Black Panther --- using the struggles and triumphs of the artists, and the films themselves, as a prism to explore Black culture, civil rights and racism in America. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Haygood explains how the idea for this deeply researched book came about, offers his thoughts on the late, great Sidney Poitier, names the one Black actor who he believes deserved an Oscar nomination but was sadly overlooked, and reveals which classic movie from Hollywood’s golden age he would like to see remade with a primarily Black cast.

Question: Was there a book of film criticism you read at some juncture that inspired you to take on the task of writing your deeply researched new book, COLORIZATION?

Wil Haygood: It was in New Orleans while filming The Butler --- a film based on a story I wrote --- that I came up with the idea for COLORIZATION. I looked around the set one day, and there was such a diverse cast rehearsing. There was Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Colman Domingo and Terrence Howard. I said to myself, given the rarity of such diversity in most motion pictures, that someone should write a book about the history and struggles of Blacks in Hollywood. Terrence Howard heard the comment and walked over to me. “You’re the writer man. You ought to write that book,” he said. For several weeks I couldn’t shake his comment. And thus the idea for COLORIZATION.

Q: So many Black film actors had their Hollywood careers either truncated or otherwise muted despite talent that would have warranted so much more. You mention both James Edwards and Dorothy Dandridge as falling into this tragic pitfall, among many others from decades past. Looking at today’s film landscape, who in the 2000s do you feel is a particularly underutilized and undersung film actor based on his or her abilities?

WH: I’d love to see Tika Sumpter, Don Cheadle, Ruth Negga, Delroy Lindo and Aunjanue Ellis get more roles on the big screen. They are huge talents, and Hollywood simply hasn’t utilized their skills enough.

Q: The recent death of Sidney Poitier and the outpouring of tributes that engendered reminded me that he had a year that few film stars ever enjoy during their careers --- 1967, which saw the releases of In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir with Love. But that trio of hit movies made me realize that Poitier never again approached that level of commercial and critical success as his acting career continued. Why would that have been?

WH: The loss of the great Sidney Poitier is so heartbreaking to all of us who love cinema. His passing had many recalling his 1967 performances. Those three films catapulted him into the highest ranks a Black actor had ever stood. He may have had more years like that, except there was always a dearth of both screenwriters and producers coming up with imaginative ideas for Poitier. He was stuck in saintly roles --- “the magical Negro,” they were sometimes referred to --- and thus robbed of the edgier antihero roles that would have offered him another dimension of performance.

Q: One of the book’s many achievements is to provide a running analysis of all the times when a Black actor, director and/or film was gratuitously overlooked in the Academy Awards, often losing out to inferior competition --- if even nominated at all. For me, one of the all-time jaw-droppers was Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece, Malcolm X (and Lee’s Da 5 Bloods being shut out in 2020 was hardly any more encouraging). Which such oversight among the Oscar awards in recent history most rankles you personally?

WH: There is nothing that confounds movie lovers as much as Oscar season, and particular performances that universally are considered to be outstanding but nevertheless are denied an Oscar nomination. In 2014, David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The performance was galvanizing. My mother hailed from Selma, Alabama, and she had recently passed away. I so wish I could have watched the film with her. It shocked many --- especially Black Americans --- when Oyelowo did not receive an Oscar nomination. It wouldn’t be long thereafter, of course, that the #OscarsSoWhite drumbeat began, a protest against the Academy and its lack of diversity.

Q: You recount the amazing story of how in 1971 Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song grew from being a largely improvised ultra-low-budget movie that literally had to be hand-peddled from city to city across the U.S. by creator and star Melvin van Peebles, eventually grossing $15 million and launching the Blaxploitation genre. It’s very interesting how that pioneering fever dream later gave birth to the movie Baadasssss! starring his son, Mario van Peebles, which dramatized the making of Sweet Sweetback. And then that film seems to be linked to the great job Eddie Murphy did in Dolemite Is My Name, his 2019 behind-the-scenes dramatization of visionary outsider filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Are there more great untold stories waiting to be revealed about other iconic figures and/or films from the Blaxploitation era?

WH: One of the fascinating features of the Blaxploitation era --- which Murphy’s Dolemite immortalized --- was that it catapulted many Black character actors and actresses into some degree of modest acclaim. It would have been wonderful in the book (space permitting!) to have honed in on the 1960s to ’70s-era careers of Godfrey Cambridge, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Carol Speed, Glynn Turman and Thalmus Rasulala. These were Black actors who had navigated their way through Hollywood and accumulated some nice screen credits by becoming dependable character actors. They were so good in Blaxploitation films that they often were able to get work in mainstream films, thus becoming the rare Black presence in many white movies of the times.

Q: One of the most uplifting stories you relay is how Quentin Tarantino helped resuscitate Pam Grier’s film career with his 1997 gem, Jackie Brown. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few tales in the book that has such a happy ending. Of all the actors who cut their teeth in the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s, would you say that Pam Grier has proven to be the most significant?

WH: The “Blaxploitation” era in American film is always ripe for debate and study. The time period --- late 1960s to mid-1970s --- introduced America to an assortment of performers and filmmakers. In an industry always known for its whiteness, this was a welcome moment in the film industry, especially for Black Americans who rarely saw themselves on the big screen. The actress who personified that period for me was Pam Grier. She was not only an action hero but a feminist icon, appearing on the cover of Ms. magazine during her Hollywood popularity. I thought she should have been nominated for an Oscar in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

Q: Which classic movie from Hollywood’s golden age would you most like to see remade now with a primarily Black cast, and why?

WH: In 1944, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson starred in Double Indemnity, about a scheming wife and the insurance salesman she pulls into her murderous scheme. If I were to imagine a remake of that film with Black actors in the lead roles, it would be mighty delicious to see Zoë Kravitz playing the wicked wife, Colman Domingo the insurance agent, and Forest Whitaker the investigating agent who realizes evil is afoot. Choosing a director, I’d give the reins to Lee Daniels.