Brandon Harris and Rodney Blu talk at the bar during a screening of Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing' at Texas Theatre Sunday. David Redmon (still)

Arts & Entertainment

Two Brews With Rodney Blu: Brandon Harris On Spike Lee And ‘Making Rent’

And some insight into the trajectory and eccentric home decor of director Melvin Van Peebles.

[Editor’s note: This is the first in a Q&A series conceived and named by Rodney Blu, creator of AlreadyDTX. He’ll sit down with a visiting artist of note long enough for them to drink two beers. We have David Redmon and Ashley Sabin of Carnivalesque Films to thank for this pilot, as David happened to be following Harris around for a forthcoming documentary on Sunday and offered us the footage.]

New York City writer and filmmaker Brandon Harris removes the political correctness, the new artisanal cupcake shop, and the glitz and glamour from the g-word — gentrification — in his new memoir “Making Rent In Bed-Stuy: A Memoir Of Trying To Make It In New York City.” Of course, images from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing move right alongside Harris’ story, and he introduced a screening at the Texas Theatre on Sunday. The landmark building’s in the center of a “reimagining” by developers that’s sent home prices soaring.

I noticed Harris walk out of the theatre soon after the film started and followed him to the bar.

“[Do The Right Thing] is, I think, more meaningful today than it was when it was made,” Harris said. “We’re coming to a crisis point concerning the ways in which the police treat African-American men, the way in which African-American communities can or cannot grow depending on the desires of others who are from outside of those communities to control them economically, socially, and politically.”

“Your book tour has landed in the gentrification capitol of Dallas, pretty much,” I offered.

“That’s intentional, brother. That was intentional, man, and trust me, I adore this cinema, I adore the men that run it. I think they have nothing but good intentions,” Harris said. “Obviously it’s restoration and the type of individuals that normally come here are a harbinger of, in our current climate, in our current societal groundwork or framework, the harbinger of a change that will push people out of this neighborhood, that have called it home or made it their home.

“Where is each of our culpability, and how do we change that? I think a lot of people are looking for answers to those questions. Certainly we can say that from the state, help has not been coming. One in four Americans that qualify for housing assistance get it. The majority of housing subsidies in this country go to people who make over $100,000 a year, through tax incentives and tax purposes and the benefits of home ownership in general.”

Our hourlong conversation grew from that question Buggin’ Out asks Sal about the Wall of Fame in his pizza shop: “Why are there no brothers on the wall?” You can watch an excerpt of our talk in the video below. 

Later, we looked on the Texas Theatre’s own Wall of Fame, and Harris had a lot to say about the different ways Black filmmakers make their mark.

Blu: As a culture, you know, we are concerned with creating things that hopefully open the eyes of those who are either intentionally or unintentionally a part of the system of oppression, we create things that hopefully have meaning and move someone to change — as opposed to creating capital we want to inspire change in the hearts and minds of people …”

Harris: Have you read any Ishmael Reed? Do you know who he is?

Blu: No.

Harris: I think he’s like the greatest black avant-garde novelist of his generation. “Mumbo Jumbo” is his most well known book, nominated for a National Book Award. He’s a guy who always fought against the cultural nationalists, who felt like they had to make art that was like, woke, or somehow important, somehow meaningful. I’ve sympathized with that. I don’t, as an artist who identifies as African-American, feel like I have to indulge in any sort of work that’s like, trying to change anybody. I just want to make stuff that’s meaningful to me, and to people who both identify as black and not, and naturally that work will speak to my experience —

Blu: And our shared experience —

Harris: I mean, look at Lemon over there. Motions to movie poster. I don’t know if you know about that sister [Janicza Bravo], or her work. But it’s just a remarkable film, that’s about, you know, that dude, that Jewish dude who’s a bad guy — that’s not a film that if you looked at Janicza you’d think, oh, she’d make that movie. Looking at this wall over here. Motions to Wall of Fame, scans the photographs. I’d want to make movies like Melvin [Van Peebles]. That’s a great picture of Melvin.

I once interviewed him and he was wearing white jeans and pink suspenders with no shirt smoking a cigar in his home. He has this paper mache hot dog in his living room, which is like massive, that Mario, his son, made when he was in high school. He’s got, like, the ass-end of a VW van and it opens and inside is a bed. It, like, juts into the wall.

He’s 80 years old, too, and he’s got this massive apartment near Lincoln Center that’s all paid for by Wall Street speculation money. People don’t know this but he was one of the first black traders in the early ‘80s on the New York Stock Exchange while he was a film director … he has this fascinating career, you know. He made movies in France because he couldn’t make movies in the United states, no one would finance the movies in the United States, right.

So he made these shorts, and Amos Vogel, who [co-]founded the New York Film Festival, took Melvin to a festival in France, and then Melvin just stayed there. He just moved to France and stayed there for five years. These are, like, the prime years of the Civil Rights movement, mid-sixties, Melvin was in France. And he realized he could get financing from the state for movies if he just wrote French novels. So he wrote for like these French comedic magazines. He taught himself French, became a writer, published five novels in France, and if you published a certain amount of novels, you could get a card.

You had to get a card in the French system. The New Wave people were often working against that, they thought, like, the whole system of French filmmaking was too credentialist. And so Melvin got the card that also enabled him to get state financing for his movies by writing books. And then he made his first feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, which is the story of this black GI and his affairs with this white woman over a weekend, and how the U.S. military looks down on this, and what have you. It’s a good movie, it might actually be his best movie.

By the time he got back to the states, there was this expectation that he should make black movies — why should you feel obliged to make [blaxploitation precursor] Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and not The Story of a Three-Day Pass? I would hope to have the freedom as a filmmaker and would hope filmmakers of my generation would feel the freedom to engage in any number of stories.

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