Listen MPR 50th: An interview with Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson
Listen MPR News Midday: A conversation with August Wilson
Sep 18, 1989
Throughout 2017, Minnesota Public Radio will celebrate 50 years on the air by sharing highlights from our archives, connecting Minnesota's past to its present. | This conversation and call-in show with playwright August Wilson originally aired on Sept. 18, 1989, on MPR News' Midday program, hosted by Stephen Smith.
Among the nominees for Best Picture at next Sunday's 89th Academy Awards is "Fences," a drama set in Pittsburgh and based on a play by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner — and former St. Paulite — August Wilson.
The film has been nominated for four Oscars: Best Picture; Best Actor, for Denzel Washington's role as Troy Maxson; Best Supporting Actress, for Viola Davis' role as Rose, Troy's wife; and Best Writing for an Adapted Screenplay, for Wilson.
Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005, wrote plays that explored the impact of African-Americans' migration from the rural South to northern cities in the early 1900s — and the inequities they faced once they got there.
"I think that it was with great energy and great hope that blacks first came north in early 1916, 1920, 1930, searching for a better life than they had in the South," Wilson told MPR News host Stephen Smith in a 1989 conversation. "Given the historical perspective, we can look back now, in 1989 — we can look back 50, 60 years — and these cities have not been hospitable."
During a speech at the University of Minnesota Alumni Association two years later, Wilson told the audience that, throughout his career, he experienced the effects of those inhospitable cities: People asked again and again when he would be done writing about the black experience — as if it were exhaustible. At the same time, he said, countless plays, books and movies continued to be released about the experience of white Americans.
The short list of African-American Academy Award winners over the years underscores his point.
The Oscars will be presented, once again, under the cloud of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that surfaced at last year's ceremony. While the number of black honorees has grown significantly — 11 nominees for the 2016 awards, as compared to 2015's two — historically, black performers and artists have been largely overlooked at the annual award show.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
• 1963: Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith in "Lilies of the Field." Poitier was the first African-American man to win an Oscar.
• 2001: Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in "Training Day"
• 2004: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in "Ray"
• 2006: Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"
Best Actress in a Leading Role
• 2001: Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in "Monster's Ball." This was also the first time that two African-American performers won Oscars for leading roles in the same year — Denzel Washington won best actor.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
• 1982: Louis Gossett Jr. as Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley in "An Officer and a Gentleman"
• 1989: Denzel Washington as Pvt. Trip in "Glory"
• 1996: Cuba Gooding Jr. as Rod Tidwell in "Jerry Maguire"
• 2004: Morgan Freeman as Eddie 'Scrap-Iron' Dupris in "Million Dollar Baby"
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
• 1939: Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind." McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar, ever.
• 1990: Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in "Ghost"
• 2006: Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in "Dreamgirls." Hudson is the youngest African-American actor to win an Oscar: She was 25.
• 2009: Mo'Nique as Mary Lee Johnston in "Precious"
• 2011: Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson in "The Help"
• 2013: Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey in "12 Years a Slave." Nyong'o is the first black African to win in any category; she was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya.
Academy Award for Documentary Feature
• 2012: T.J. Martin, who directed the documentary "Undefeated"
Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject
• 2009: Roger Ross Williams, who directed the documentary "Music by Prudence"
Academy Award for Original Music Score
• 1984: Prince, for his work on "Purple Rain"
• 1986: Herbie Hancock for his work on "Round Midnight"
Academy Award for Best Original Song
• 1971: Issac Hayes, for the song "Theme from Shaft" in the film "Shaft"
• 1983: Irene Cara, for the song "Flashdance... What a Feeling" in the film "Flashdance"
• 1984: Stevie Wonder, for the song "I just Called to Say I Love you" in the film "The Woman in Red"
• 1986: Lionel Richie for the song "Say You, Say Me" in "White Nights"
• 2005: Frayser Boy, Jucy J and DJ Paul, for their song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" in the film "Hustle & Flow"
• 2014: Common and John Legend, for their song "Glory" in the film "Selma"
• 2013: Steve McQueen, who directed "12 Years a Slave"
Academy Award for Sound
• 1988: Willie D. Burton, for his work on "Bird"
• 1989: Russell Williams, for his work on "Glory"
• 1990: Russell Williams won again for his work on "Dances with Wolves"
• 2006: Willie D. Burton won again for his work on "Dreamgirls"
Academy Award for Writing, Adapted Screenplay
• 2009: Geoffrey Fletcher, for his work on the film "Precious," which was adapted from the novel "Push" by Sapphire
• 2013: John Ridley, for his work on the film "12 Years a Slave," adapted from the memoir "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup
No black artist has ever won an Oscar for best cinematography, best costume design or best director. But this year, that could change: Bradford Young has been nominated for best cinematography for his work on "Arrival," and Barry Jenkins has been nominated for best director for the film "Moonlight."