Today, December 5th, the Maysles Cinema of Harlem begins its four-day retrospective of filmmaker Marc Levin. Beginning tonight with the celebration of the 15-year anniversary of his 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning film “SLAM,” a film known to have “catalyzed the global spoken word movement.” Tonight’s event includes performances from notables of the New York Spoken Word scene Darian Dauchan, Samantha Thornhill and Jon Sands, followed by a screening of “SLAM.” The night then closes with a Q&A featuring Levin himself along with stars of the film Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone and more. The remainder of the four day Masterclass with Marc Levin includes screenings of his filmography throughout the weekend . Click here for the Maysles calender for more info on the date and times of the screenings.
Back in Issue 49 of Mass Appeal Dante Ross sat down with Levin to discuss his life, inspirations, and the purpose behind his work. You can check out our O.G. STATUS piece on the filmmaker below.
Words by Dante Ross Photos by Reynard Li
Marc Levin is one of the most important documentarians of our time. Like a cinematic Jacob Riis, Marc has tackled issues such as the impending spread of gang violence in the heartland, anti-Semitism, prison violence, capitol punishment, the influence of hip hop culture on America’s youth and the so-called war on drugs. In his many films, including Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock, The Execution Machine: Texas Death Row, Slam, Gladiator Days: Anatomy of a Prison Murder and Protocols of Zion, Marc tackles issues with a thorough and thought provoking hand. Never one to be afraid of asking questions and seeking out the real answers that lay beneath the surface, Marc has put his neck on the line artistically numerous times and continues to be a prolific filmmaker. I don’t see that stopping any time soon, thank god. His latest film, Mr. Untouchable, profiles former drug lord turned stoolie Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, one of the most irreprehensible figures in the history of the drug game. Ever since I saw Bangin’ in Little Rock over 15 years ago and observed what I instinctively knew was happening, articulated via Marc’s film, he has been a hero of mine. I recently sat down with Marc and discussed his motivations for creating this amazing body of work. It was truly an honor to interview the man and his straightforwardness and insight were nothing short of brilliant
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in NYC, in Hell’s Kitchen, and at the age of two, my parents moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey to an Italian-American neighborhood where we were the only Jewish family. At either 11 or 12 my parents, fearing I might become a juvenile delinquent moved to the ’burbs of Maplewood, New Jersey, though I often cruised into the city to see what was going on.
You mentioned being Jewish, how much does this have to do with your work in regards to being a liberal and an activist?
I think a lot. I consider my self much more left than a liberal. My parents were involved in the labor movement and my parents were radicals, which I consider myself to be. I went with my parents to the historic march on Washington and saw Martin Luther King speak as a 10-year-old. I believe this is part of being a Jewish child born to activists growing up in the ’60s.
It feels as though there’s a sense of activism in everything you’ve done. Is this the case?
Yeah, I would have to agree for the most part. It’s nice to hear that. The trick is, how do I create something thought provoking that isn’t didactic and necessarily politically correct, much like Mr. Untouchable. I remember when I made the Prisoners of the War on Drugs [TKTK] with Ritchie Stratton [TK], we screened it for the drug reform board. We thought these reformers would be inspired to become allies of our movement. Instead the film outraged them. They felt some of the people we profiled in our film were not the examples of the cases of reform that they wanted to see. We had some wacky characters in the film, like the guy Snowball, the toss-your-salad character from Rahway State [Prison] or like the “crankster gangster” from Oklahoma [State prison] who showed people how to become a bathtub chemist and make crystal meth. I felt it was my duty to show all sides of the coin. It’s akin to Mr. Untouchable, I try to show all the angles. Life doesn’t exist in just black and white and the [grey] areas are often the most interesting to me. I want to force people to think. When making Mr. Untouchable, part of me wanted to kill Nicky Barnes. He was irreprehensible, he sold genocide to people and profited with no remorse and is one of the biggest rats in the history of the criminal justice system, yet here he was, charismatic, compelling, dangerous, exciting and in my eyes very interesting.
You seem to have recurring themes in your work, one of which is the impending future of the youth of America.
That’s probably because I got stuck in some form of adolescent mind set. It’s a Peter Pan syndrome. It’s not just a conceit, it’s just how I feel. I need to express myself. I am comfortable with people who want to question what’s going on around them, people who aren’t settled and that is often young people, though not necessarily only the youth. My old man kept his youthfulness his whole life and continued to question authority till the very end. He was my inspiration for my film Protocols of Zion which he also was featured in. I am very similar to him in this regard.
Another recurring theme is the connection between Jewish people and black people, something that directly relates to my own personal experience? Care to elaborate?
I often wonder about this. When I made Slam I went to several speaking engagements and people were often surprised I was white because of my subject matter. I felt honored by this that my story telling didn’t have a specific race or color attached to it. It’s nothing I ever sought out, but that said, Whiteboyz in a sense was a feeble attempt at showing this connection between white and black, so was Brooklyn Babylon and Slam in a sense as well as Protocols of Zion. It’s just happened unconsciously with my work.
Did you get flak from the African-American community for Protocols of Zion?
There was a famous screening I did of the film for the leaders of the Nation of Islam and members of the New Black Panther party up at HBO. I got a ton of flak from both the Jewish community, as well as threats from several JDL [Jewish Defense League] affiliates, as well as complaints and threats from many black leaders within the Nation of Islam for showing the lunatic fringe of black militants. I was just stunned when I kept hearing from various Muslims that Jews were responsible for 9/11. I thought it was important to show this because the so-called Protocols of Zion was a street corner ideology/theory that was circulating all over the world. It was my most personal film, I [starred] in it with my father and it was a serious bonding experience beyond just a thought provoking film. It explored the space that had developed between the black and Jewish communities.
Good stuff, man, thanks for making that film, it needed to be made. I’m curious what attracted you to poetry and made you want to make Slam? You championed the world of the spoken word way before the masses why?
I was hanging out going to the Nuyorican Cafe checking out the scene. I was friends with Bob Holman, who ran the place. It felt important, vital and the strength of the word is so bonafide. The thought of the word as a weapon/tool was important and needed to be documented somehow. I saw people like Saul Williams and I was blown away by his message and power.
Why documentaries as opposed to conventional filmmaking?
As a teenager, the first real break I got was being an assistant editor on the film Gimme Shelter, working for the Maysles brothers. They didn’t know that they had the murder on film and I was there when they realized. As an 18-year-old kid seeing this discovery got me hooked for life. The Hellz Angels were trying to break in to get the footage, the whole scene was amazing. There’s no hierarchy [in documentary filmmaking], you have a small crew, and you have to stick and move and be adaptable. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me the realness the danger and the fact I could stay in New York and tell the stories that were and are important to me got me hooked for life.
Is war on drugs another recurring theme in your work?
Definitely. I think it’s an important topic. It’s total bullshit. The war on drugs is connected to the war on terrorism. They are using these battlefields to repeal our civil rights, in terms of safety and bettering our society. Drugs are an easy target to blame societal ill’s on. I am fighting against the war on drugs. I don’t believe the so-called war on drugs has lessoned the spread of addiction one bit. It has just jailed thousands and thousands of people and we all know Jail doesn’t rehabilitate anyone. Jail is a school for criminals.
I believe that the Freeway Ricky Ross story shows the US Government’s involvement in profiting from the war on drugs. People like Gary Webb ended up being vilified for discovering this story. Gary Webb was a heroic reporter who ended up dead because he found this story and wasn’t scared to report the truth. I covered this area in The War on Drugs, Thug Life in D.C. and Mr. Untouchable. My friend and partner Ritchie Stratton served 10 years for crime that didn’t warrant that time one bit. The real criminals are people like Dewey Claridge, Oliver North and Milt Bearder, not the Freeway Ricky’s of the world. He’s just a pawn, a fall guy, so to speak.
Is your phone tapped, Marc?
If it isn’t it should be. I remember thinking this a few years back. In the span of 24 hours, I spoke to Freeway Ricky Ross, Sammy the Bull Gravano, Nicky Barnes, and this guy who ran Elohim village in Oklahoma where Timothy McVeigh stayed at right before the Oklahoma City bombings. I thought to myself, If they don’t have me tapped or if they’re not monitoring my actions, then there more asleep at the wheel than already think they are.