Konch Magazine - Fences: An Interview with Armand White by Ishmael Reed
Ishmael Reed: I want to get your opinion on “Fences.”  You saw it?
Armand White: Yeah, I did.
Ishmael Reed: What was your opinion on it?
Armand White: Let me start by saying…I guess, you know, I like August Wilson, and I don’t think this is the top of his plays. I think he has written better plays than “Fences.” But it seems to be the one play of his that is very popular. I don’t think it’s a very good play.
Ishmael Reed: I see.
Armand White: Unfortunately, it was directed by Denzel Washington, and so, he is not a good film director. I don’t think he brought anything to the filming of the play’s story that was special or even very interesting. It was a very talky movie and Denzel doing his fake intensity thing again.
Ishmael Reed: What about the other performers like Viola Davis?
Armand White: She was all right. She was okay. I had a problem with the other actors. I kind of had the same feeling I had when I saw Denzel on Broadway in “Raisin in the Sun.” He may be the ranking middle age Black actor in Hollywood. That doesn’t mean he stands in for all middle age Black men or all middle age men period. I think the kind of badass he’s playing doesn’t sit through the role that August Wilson wrote, and to me that’s the problem. There’s a problem with his performance.
Ishmael Reed: Why do you think there’s a mainstream exaltation or praise for this, the whole supplements?
Armand White: Well, unfortunately, we are still in the Obama era, and what I mean by that is the White folks, who are in control of the mainstream media and this leads to the picture of the Black experience that they prefer.
Ishmael Reed: Yeah, well you know, August sort of preaches…he’s a friend of mine, in fact he started writing plays because he read a poem of mine. But he sends out a conservative message. It’s sort of like a Republican message of personal responsibility and I was looking at the trailer and that seemed to be the thing they emphasized. Also the gender warfare between the man and the woman.
Armand White: Yeah, well, that’s cool to me. I got no problem with that. That’s fine by me, but I think August Wilson gives us more interesting and more complex things in other plays, and perhaps that’s why “Fences” was the one that made it to the big screen. It’s just less interesting. It’s unconventional rather than more conservative. There are a lot of Black conservatives in the general strain. They don’t get a lot of attention because mainstream White folks don’t want to deal with that.
Ishmael Reed: Well, it seems like it’s signifying on the absent Black father, which is not just an ethnic problem, it’s a widespread problem among all ethnic groups, so that seems to be the line. You know, August, when he mentioned Elijah Muhammad in that debate with Robert Brustein he was toast in New York. He never a play performed again on Broadway after that.
Armand White: I was not aware of that.
Ishmael Reed: I followed that debate. He got a little out of hand and was leaning towards Black Nationalism and participated in a conference at Dartmouth to try to get money for a Black theater and Henry Louis Gates picked up the contract to go after him in The New Yorker.
Armand White: Oh, there you go.
Ishmael Reed: He said he was trying to be Black because he was light skinned, you know, that old colored argument. You know he took Robert Brustein’s side. Next thing I know Gates and Robert Brustein are sharing a Ford Foundation grant to do “Evening’s with Theater” at Harvard with members of the Talented Tenth. It’s ironic. One more thing, Armand, what do you know about Stephen Henderson?
Armand White: Stephen Henderson?
Ishmael Reed: Yeah, in the movie.
Armand White: Which actor was Stephen Henderson?
Ishmael Reed: He played the buddy.
Armand White: Oh, Stephen Henderson. Ishmael, don’t ask me that. He’s a good actor. I’ve seen him be good in many things and his acting’s not bad here, but I don’t like the role. Wilson’s theater is far from perfect and I have some issues with it where as I love Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and that is a great, great play, and it really expresses genuine Black American language. I am not crazy about the role Stephen Henderson plays. He’s a good actor, I don’t take that way from him, but I don’t like the role. It’s a sidekick in an awful kind of way, like a male mammy, like a “yes ma’am” character. That’s so shame on Henderson and I don’t like the character that’s written.
Ishmael Reed: What is this other movie they’re raving about, “Moonlight” is that the name of it?
Armand White: Ishmael, that’s a whole other long conversation. That’s a whole other thing. I don’t’ think we can cover that in a few minutes. Once again, I say we are still in the Obama era, God help us…
Ishmael Reed: And what do you mean by that?
Armand White: Well, once again, here is a movie that depicts Black experience the way White people like to see it. It depicts Black people as pathetic, as victims, and I don’t want it, thank you.
Ishmael Reed: I’ll come back to you when we get closer to the nominations about that other movie.
Armand White: Good, because you know, let me know, because there’s a movie called “Next Day Air” that came out five maybe six years ago. It’s a brilliant film. It’s about a young man that works with his mother on a UPS type delivery service and he’s kind of a slacker and he gets involve with drug dealers. It’s a brilliant film, Ishmael, I would love for you to see it, and I would love to hear your response of it, but when I saw it, and one thing I wrote about it was it struck me as the play that August Wilson didn’t write and so it got very little play and very little notice from the mainstream, I think because the genuineness and the authenticity of it that the White mainstream culture brokers and scheme makers don’t recognize and so ignore. I would say to anybody thinking about going to see “Fences” that they should see “Next Day Air” instead.
Ishmael Reed: Well, it seems that aesthetically across the board that theater and literature and film they want to keep Black people in the fifties before they started raising hell.
Armand White: When, unfortunately I’ve got to say it this way, when White women were so glorified because they had sympathy for Black people, they want to stay in that position and that’s what I mean by we’re in the Obama era, you know Obama allowed them to have that fantasy about themselves.
Ishmael Reed: You don’t bite your tongue, I’ll tell you that.
Armand White: Hey, he’s almost gone. Hurry up, please.
Ishmael Reed: Okay, take care, Armand. Thank you for this.