"Is There Such a Thing as Black Pop Culture?": Director Shaka King
It's rare to watch a stoner comedy and think that its director will make a great interview. But Newlyweeds, writer-director Shaka King's independent comedy/drama (opening today at New York's Film Forum), is a rare kind of movie, one that depicts lives and relationships you see infrequently (if at all, on film), and there's an urgency to King's voice underneath the weedy, mellow vibe.
Newlyweeds, which played Sundance earlier this year, concerns the seemingly mismatched couple Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), whose primary source of enjoyment is sitting around their Bed Stuy aparment smoking weed. They're neither criminal nor squeaky clean—just an average duo of black New Yorkers who eventually examine their relationship with each other and weed, and how each affects the other.
Earlier this month, I visited King's own Bed Stuy apartment (a railroad with, conveniently, a front and back entrance), and we talked about his film, blackness in movies, and marijuana for an hour and a half. A bag of weed sat in front of him untouched for the duration of our chat. I was hoping we'd smoke some together, and he eventually explained why we didn't when discussing his own complicated relationship with weed.
Gawker: Newlyweeds does some things I haven’t seen before, or have just seen rarely: It profiles the domesticity of more or less normal black couple, it examines weed dependency, it celebrates Bed Stuy. Did you aim to be different?
Shaka King: I think part of the reason people connected to Kanye West’s early material and basically every sort of black artist who’s crossed over to the mainstream and has still maintained a level of, “Oh this dude didn’t sell out, I really believe in this guy’s art,” it’s generally the person who is defying the sort of typical idea of black masculinity and femininity is. It’s crazy to me that there hasn’t really been a movie like this, that I can think of, where you have a holistic portrayal of contemporary black life in New York City. You have a guy who is probably a high school graduate in a relationship with a girl who essentially grew up pampered.
People talk about Bed Stuy and the gentrification of it, and having lived there my whole life, I realized that my parents were really the first gentrifiers 30 something years ago. They were college-educated public school teachers who were like, “We wanna live here, we’re gonna buy a brownstone and renovate it over the course of 30 years and try to raise a family here.” On my block there was a crack house and a doctor’s office. That’s one of the things I still think is so amazing about Bed Stuy. It’s so diverse. In setting this movie here, I wanted to portray that. For the last decade, I feel like most movies [have presented] a segregated, in a lot of ways whitewashed New York, but in some instances it’s just straight hood. I really wanted to portray the fullness.
Sometimes I feel like that portrayal of segregation is honest. The uproar about all the whiteness on Girls never made that much sense to me: There are so many white people who only hang out with other white people, even in New York.
[Lena Dunham] is portraying a specific community that does not interact. It’s a very closed community. When she caved and brought Donald Glover on, I was like, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Then you’re getting into tokenism. And that’s the worst.
It’s the worst. It’s insulting to people of color who are watchers. We’re much more savvy than that. I think it’s also insulting to content creators who are people of color. If you want to diversify the network palate, why don’t you bring in a young black/Latino/Asian director to make a show about a community that they know well?
Is there a political component to the portrayals of black people in Newlyweeds?
It wasn’t political, but it was intentional in terms of wanting to give a fuller portrayal of blackness. One of the things I’m happy about is when I look at independent films that have come out this season, this year, from black directors, everyone’s stuff is so different. Fruitvale Station is so different from Mother of George, which is so different from Newlyweeds, which is so different from God Loves Uganda, which is so different from Gideon’s Army, and so different from An Oversimplification of her Beauty. I think we need more of that. If people’s idea of blackness was as diverse as people’s idea of whiteness was, then no one would say that Miley Cyrus is stealing black culture by twerking. No one would think of twerking as black culture.
We have such a limited concept. There almost is no such thing as black culture anymore. There probably was in the ‘60s when there was an actual black community because there was an adversary—KKK, FBI, just a conglomerate of people attacking black people. From that community there came a culture. As black people have more integrated themselves, and that integration hasn’t been fully realized, we’ve culturally integrated ourselves into American society.
I think the term “black culture” is often misused these days. I think it does exist in small pockets, I think there are communities of black people and black artists who are making culture that comes from a very internal, organic place. Is there such thing as black pop culture? Can black culture and pop culture coexist on that massive scale? I don’t know that they can. I feel like as soon as it’s pop culture, it’s no longer black culture. I think that black culture in itself is generally something raw, something unrefined. We could really be talking about any subculture, though.
Speaking of black movies, the two (potentially) biggest ones of the year, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, portray black people in servitude. What do you think about that?
I haven’t seen either. 12 Years a Slave, I’m dying to see. Steve McQueen is one of the best directors in the world. He never shies away from the truth. You’ve never seen a movie about a man born free and sold into slavery. I think it’ll be radically different from any slave movie you’ve ever seen. The Butler I didn’t know enough about. I’m not the biggest fan of Lee Daniels’ work. I don’t connect to it much. I’ve been skeptical because I saw the cast, and it has every actor ever. It does really fuckin’ piss me off, quite frankly, that the big, massive movies that tend to attract award recognition and that attend to attract stars, black and white alike, is material that has black people in servitude. The Help is another example. All of these epic pictures of black history tend to be tales of servitude.
We’re talking about black culture, and cinema hasn’t even scratched the surface. There are so many stories just from that era of history that are fascinating. From Jim Crow history. The fact that Miles Davis doesn’t have a biopic yet? Totally insane. John Coltrane? We could list black people that are probably on a fucking stamp that don’t have a biopic. Joe Lewis doesn’t have a biopic yet. It’s just like what the fuck? Why are we still making these movies about blacks in servitude when famous black giants, trendsetters don’t have movies about themselves made yet. Cinema is so far behind in terms of its portrayal of black people on screen. We didn’t get here without committing incredible acts of heroism. If there were to be a superhero, it would probably be a person of color. So why aren’t there any?
Are you angry about racism?
There was a time when the anger was misplaced in the sense that I allowed it to give me high blood pressure. I went to pretty white prep school from fifth to twelfth grade. I was living in Bed Stuy, but I used to go to school in Bay Ridge. There was a time in there, somewhere between ninth and eleventh grade. I wasn’t doing well in school. I wasn’t really hooking up with girls like that – I wasn’t open to hooking up with white girls back then just because of my upbringing. I had some awful interactions with police officers. I had cops make monkey sounds with me when I was in fifth grade. I had cops kidnap me and my best friend from a basketball game when I was in eleventh grade. I had a ton of anger during those years and I directed it inward. I was very outspoken. A basketball player called the table where the black kids sat the “nigger table.” I had a problem with that. I approached the kid, and the coach took his side.
But as racism has gotten refined, the way I deal with racism has gotten refined. Especially now that I have a platform as an artist. This movie wasn’t about that, but I have some [movie ideas] where that is a much more focal point and I intend to put my perspective out there. I think it’s totally original and not like anything that has been seen before. It’s not quite anger as much as I recognize the truth that exists, and it’s not necessarily the truth that is revealed. I’d like to do my part to make sure it is, as much as it can be. I think I’m in a great place with it now.
Do you have a love/hate relationship with weed?
No hate. I still have a concern with how much I dig it because I can’t afford to dig it as much as I do.
If you could afford it you wouldn’t have any reservations?
I think I’m still in a place now, and this is a relatively recent development in my smoking career if you want to call it that, where I, for example, didn’t get high before having a conversation with you because I wanted to be able to express myself articulately and when I get stoned I don’t know where it’s gonna take me. Sometimes when I get stoned, I’m sharper than I am when I’m not, but I’d rather know where I’m going. I lose train of thought constantly. My short-term memory is gone. I get very self-conscious and paranoid about what I’m saying. I worry that I sound like an idiot, and then that worrying affects everything I’m saying afterwards. That’s unless I’m getting high with my actual friends.
I'm not really into sex on weed.
It’s the worst. I don’t understand people who do, but that’s the thing about weed – it affects people differently. For example, I’ve written mostly everything high, including this screenplay. I use weed as a tool to get in a creative space. Sometimes I get into a space where I realize it’s not working, and I stop writing high for a bit. I know folks who can’t write a word high.
I can’t. That’s my main struggle. If it were helping my creative process, it would be one thing, but I think it’s actually impairing it, and the only thing I have, really, is my brain. I related to that in the movie.
Because weed is illegal and so many people feel like they have to be staunch defenders of the legalization of marijuana, they sort of aren’t really truthful about the fact that in the hands of a drug addict, weed is still a drug. That was one of the things I wanted to do with this movie. I wanted to put it all out there. It is a wonderful thing. I fucking love it. I love smoking weed. However, I at different points have questioned how much I love it. I think anyone who’s really honest with themselves, at different points in their life, even if they’re not feeling like that currently, has at some point said, “I don’t know, maybe I do this too much.” There are people who aren’t like that, who smoke once every 10 years and they’re fine. But for people like me, who smoke more days than not, and have at times done it everyday, multiple times a day, this is something that I wrestle with. Every once in a while, people ask me if this is an anti-weed movie. If you look at it, clearly it’s not. It’s just an honest movie about weed addiction.
We have talked so much about race. Do you feel objectified in that respect?
No. I wish people did it more often. I think that it would be a vastly different world if people were more honest about shit and talked about shit. There were a lot of strides made from ’60 to ’70, that historical moment. It was due, in large part, to people fighting and people taking to the streets, but it was also due in large part to people communicating more. There was more interaction. In the beginning of integration, there was more truthful interaction between whites and non-whites than there is now.
It’s crazy to me how little people think about why shit is the way it is. I don’t think that’s gonna change. There’s more shit out there to distract us than ever. It always pisses me off when there’s an interview with a person of color, and they shy away from it. It’s like, “You’re being a bitch.” But then at the same time, I really, really, really wish white people in the public eye were asked about race. That’s one of the ways in which racism manifests: White people are never involved in the conversation. They’re never asked about their whiteness. I would love for someone to say, “What’s it like being a white director?” to Christopher Nolan.