Wil Haygood hopes to inspire next generation with new book on Black films

The Columbus native and author of 'The Butler' returns to town for a series of events tied to the forthcoming release of 'Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Author Wil Haygood stands for a portrait in his home office in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday Oct. 5, 2021.

Wil Haygood was born and raised in Columbus, and after a brief stint in New York City following his graduation from Miami University in 1976, Haygood rode the bus from Columbus to Charleston, West Virginia, to begin his journalism career on the copy desk of the Charleston Gazette. It was there, at the age of 26, that Haygood met his first author, Edward Peeks.

“He was the only other Black on the newspaper,” Haygood said in a recent phone call from his home in Washington, D.C. “He had written a book about Martin Luther King, Jr., and he came over to me on my first day at the newspaper and said, ‘Hey, I'd like to invite you to dinner.’”

Haygood took him up on the invitation, and after dinner, Peeks brought the young copy editor into his study. “He said, ‘You might be interested in this. I wrote a book for Scribner’s. As you know, that was Hemingway's publisher,’” said Haygood, who was awestruck. “I remember calling my mother that night after dinner and saying, 'Mom, I met a real live author.’” 

In the coming years, Haygood would follow in Peeks’ footsteps, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, working as a national and foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe for 17 years, then writing for the Washington Post. Along the way, Haygood wrote multiple books, including biographies of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson. But a 2008 Post story about a White House butler led to his most well-known book, The Butler: A Witness to History, and a popular 2013 movie, The Butler.

Haygood’s experience with the movie adaptation provided the spark for his forthcoming book, Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World, which comes out on Tuesday, Oct. 19. In the leadup to the release, Haygood will visit Columbus for a series of film screenings, artist talks and readings tied to the book, including a screening of filmmaker Robert Townsend’s “The Five Heartbeats” at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 16, followed by a conversation with Townsend on Sunday, Oct. 17; a screening of Michael Schultz’s “Cooley High” at the Wexner Center and a virtual conversation with Schultz on Monday, Oct. 18; a screening of 1972 film “The Man” paired with a conversation between Haygood and Hanif Abdurraqib at Gateway Film Center on Wednesday, Oct. 20; and more. (Find the full schedule here.

Just as important to Haygood, though, are the events with Columbus youth, such as an all-day film program for teens at the Columbus Museum of Art and talks for college students at Ohio State and Columbus State.

“I insisted, when I started talking to the powers that be in town, that I have a chance to share this story with junior high students and high school students and students who are in college and young filmmakers, because I think it's important that they see an artist at work. I want them to grow up to become writers and filmmakers if that's what they want to do,” he said. “It would have meant the world to me if I would have had someone to look up to and hear these stories when I was coming of age there in town. That didn't happen, but there is a light inside of me that wants to make it happen for this generation.”

Not only did Haygood miss out on meeting Black artists while growing up in Columbus; he also rarely saw them on the big screen. “When I was a little Black kid, I saw Sidney Poitier in ‘Lilies of the Field,’” Haygood said, recalling Poitier’s Best Actor Oscar in 1964, the first for a Black man. “It was wonderful to see a leading figure onscreen. White America saw leading figures onscreen every day of the week. … White America had ‘American Graffiti’, a [1973] film about high school joys with fun, slapstick humor. When it comes to Black America, we finally got a film like Michael Schultz's ‘Cooley High’ [in 1975]. Before ‘Cooley High,’ there really hadn't been a film on the 60-foot movie screen about Black life in high school. It was so far removed from white America, that the forces in Hollywood thought that there was not even a need to make a movie like that.”

"Film is such a big, epic thing in this nation's culture,” Haygood continued. “We all go to the movies. We all have something in common when we meet strangers. We can talk about a film, and there's a really good chance that this new person you met ... can talk about a movie that you both have recently seen. So for me, when I was a kid, to see somebody Black on a movie screen was huge.” 

Plus, as Haygood writes in Colorization, actors like Poitier, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt and Harry Belafonte were simultaneously fighting for civil rights. “They had two challenges: How do I become a better actor or actress, and how do I try to force America to turn the corner on civil rights while also trying to sustain a career in front of the movie camera? White actors and actresses never had that dual challenge,” Haygood said. “If you were Black, you not only had to be faced with trying to convince a movie director to hire you, but you also had to figure out if this hotel over here is going to allow me to sleep there tonight while I'm reading my lines and trying to learn the script. The success of some of these people that I write about astounds me. It really brought tears to my eyes.” 

Those backstories enabled Haygood to write the history of Black film over a 100-year period in which representation of African Americans in cinema ebbed and flowed — a pendulum swing that often depended on who was in the White House at the time. “In 2008, you have a Black man elected to the White House, and all of a sudden you have a string of Black movies in the succeeding years,” Haygood said. “While Obama was in the White House, you had ‘Fruitvale Station,’ ‘The Butler,’ ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,’ ‘12 Years a Slave.’” 

Haygood has seen a similar resurgence in representation since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ensuing protests and marches, which sometimes featured Hollywood actors and actresses. But Haygood sees the programming on streaming services leading the way. "Hulu, Apple and Netflix are far more diverse in their casting than the big screen movies are. So there is hope,” he said. “Ironically, the small screen may end up showing the big screen how to do it right. Many Black filmmakers have gone over to streaming services because they want to make diverse movies and they can get them made there.” 

While those developments give Haygood hope, he admits Hollywood — and America as a whole — still has a long way to go. "My book starts out with ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ the 1915 Ku Klux Klan movie. That movie was number one at the box office for several years. That's how enthralled white America was with that film. Then you go 370 pages into the book, and you're right back in Charlottesville, [Virginia], with the Nazi march,” Haygood said, referring to the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally. “That span of history shows that, yes, many, many things have changed. And yet we still have people marching and murdering in the streets with Nazi flags. That's the history that this country has to own up to and has to figure out a way to get beyond.”