Saturday, June 21, 2008

I Encounter Spike Lee And It Doesn’t Go Well

For whatever reason, I have always had negative charisma when it comes to dealing with celebrities. Perhaps because I have never believed them to be as central to the cosmos and they apparently believe they are. Whatever reason, I leave most people who have acquired at least the minimum 15 minutes of fame the distinct impression that I have insulted them.

In a previous post I mentioned my encounter with Karen Hughes, charter member of the Bush “brain trust” (which I believe is now in receivership.) Her sneering contempt for a young, would-be anti-war revolutionary was actually more congenial than most of my dustups with fame. A former vice president of the United States once got an aide to call my boss and ask for my scalp.

By the time of the 1984 Texas primary the only remaining candidates in the Democratic primary were Jesse Jackson, the quick-zippered Colorado Senator Gary Hart (who took his JFK impersonation far too seriously), and Walter Mondale who, in his most lively moments, reminded me of an extra in a George Romero film. I was a lowly reporter for the now-extinct “Irving Daily News” and the Democrats were staging a debate in the Dallas suburb near the airport. I was given the assignment of getting a few quotes from the somnambulant Mondale as he arrived at his hotel the night before the big event.

I never liked Mondale. He was the colorless party hack who was selected to refuse seating to the black and white “Mississippi Freedom Party Democrats” in favor of the segregationist official delegation during the 1964 Democratic Convention. Lyndon Johnson, who won the White House the year before after an unusually aggressive write-campaign from Lee Harvey Oswald, didn’t want controversy to spoil his coronation, since that function was supposed to be filled by Bobby Kennedy.

Mondale headed the committee that dealt with the integrated protest delegation by bravely promising to deal with the issue at the next party convention four years later in Chicago. The Democratic Party accepted the segregated Ol’ Miss delegation which showed its appreciation by walking out and returning home to hunt down someone who might be reading somewhere.

Mondale, of course, became the Democratic V.P. candidate in 1976, balancing Jimmy Carter’s incompetence with his complete absence of personality. The wise old men running the Democratic Party in 1984 decided the way to counter the popularity of the incumbent Ronald Reagan was by nominating the coma-inducing sidekick to a widely disliked former chief executive who had not yet achieved sainthood.

Mondale arrived at the hotel just around 10 p.m. He looked harried and impatient and had no time for us lowlifes. The local TV stations were there, of course, and for them it was about three minutes until air time so they did what any enterprising broadcast journalist wanting a sound bite would do. They lied. As Mondale brushed past us, too busy to offer a few crumbs of eloquence, the cameramen shouted, “Live feed!” Mondale, not knowing that the 10 o’clock news had yet to start, gracefully spun on his heels and flashed a grin that would have done his former peanut farmer boss proud. Mondale approached the cameras, smiled, then looked presidential and muttered excruciating campaign blather, something along the lines of, “Well, the eyes of Texas are upon us . . .”

As the representative of the hometown newspaper, I had a very important question to ask Mr. Mondale, something about a stand on a domestic issue that he had flip-flopped on. I started asking the question as Mondale turned towards the hotel entrance and headed to his suite. Not accepting the brush-off, I continued to shout my question as he began to walk away and I am quite certain I heard him snarl. Since I had not yet received an answer, I followed him. Then all the other print reporters and the TV cameramen followed him too and we chased him down a hallway until a harried campaign aide stepped in front of us and told us there would be no more questions that night as Mr. Mondale was tired and needed rest before the debate.

Not too tired, apparently, to complain to his staff about me. Mondale wanted to know the name of the little pissant who tried to track him down and perhaps gather a pelt. Very early the next morning, a member of the Mondale for President team called my boss, the editor of the breathtakingly insignificant “Irving Daily News,” and asked who did I think I was. “Mr. Mondale was very offended,” she was told. Great, I thought. Mondale wants to stare down the president of the Soviet Union and he can’t handle a skinny diabetic reporter with bad skin.

At least he didn’t almost throw me off a bus. That honor was reserved for the late, great James Brown. I was reviewing a performance of his on New Year’s Eve, 1986, at the Hard Rock Café in Dallas. As 1987 was starting, all I wanted to know was the name of his drummer in Brown’s band before I filed my account with the “Fort Worth Star-Telegram.” I wanted to commend the drummer for an excellent performance but I couldn’t find anyone in the Hard Rock who identify the anonymous artist. Dallas nightclub impresario Shannon Wynne overheard me. Mr. Wynne at that time owned a nightclub called “Tango” that was decorated with frogs playing musical instruments on the roof. I think I saw Weird Al Yankovich play there once. Anyway, Wynne asked me to follow him and he led me onto the James Brown tour bus.

“Hey, what’s the name of the drummer?” I naively asked to the apparent great irritation of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business who was busy at the back of the bus having a post-performance cocaine pick-me-up. I heard him unpleasantly imprecating my pale white ass and he was heading up the aisle when Mr. Wynne quickly escorted me off the bus, thoughtfully got back on board and retrieved the drummer’s name for me. I will give James Brown credit. He did not call my editor the next day and complain.

After a tense start, I actually had a pleasant chat with retired Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who was making a speaking engagement at the University of Texas at Arlington. We were almost two decades after Brown startled the NFL to announce he was leaving the Cleveland Browns to pursue a movie career. In the 1980s, Brown did a lot of work mediating peace between L.A. gangs and he had just made the headlines when he challenged Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who was about to smash Brown’s rushing records, to a decathlon. I was working for another now-extinct newspaper, “The Arlington Citizen-Journal.” (I was the ebola virus of the press. Newspapers folded before I had the chance to pack my Radio Shack “Trash 80s” as we called our primitive laptops then.)

I was sitting with the frustrated jocks from the other suburban sports sections when James Brown began the press conference by saying,” I don’t want to talk about sports.” The other writers were a bit dumbfounded. The only reason I wasn’t was because Jim Brown was one of my three sports heroes as a kid (along with Mohammad Ali and Johnny Unitas) and I had read about his good deeds with the gangs. He ended up telling me a great story about playing the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1960s when the hotels were still segregated and he had to spend the night before a game at a different hotel than his white teammates. Brown said that he woke up the next morning thoroughly pissed and proceeded to shred the Cowboys’ defensive line for more than 200 yards that day.

Over the years I’ve encountered almost as much hardship with fundamentalists as with celebrities, and especially with celebrity fundamentalists. In one of my first gigs as a college reporter, I covered an evangelical extravaganza at Dallas’ Reunion Arena, the “Religious Roundtable” in August 1980. Present in one building at the same time were Dallas First Baptist Minister W.A. Criswell, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye (later responsible for those very badly-written “Left Behind” books), Bill Clements (the first Republican elected Texas governor since Reconstruction) and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (who had to cancel a cross burning to attend.) If a plane had struck Reunion Arena that day, the next 20 years of American history would have been dramatically different, particularly on the evening when Ronald Reagan, then just the GOP candidate for president, arrived to make the keynote speech.

Earlier in the day, I got to ask Reagan a question at a press conference. I’m surprised they let me in. I was in a delayed “hippie” phase, sporting very long hair, wearing a hat festooned with feathered roach clips and proudly cloaked in a freshly-pressed dashiki. I made quite a sight standing next to Bob Schieffer of CBS News. After noticing the future president’s prematurely orange hair, I asked him a question about the National Council of Churches, which had condemned the fundy lovefest we had been sentenced to cover. Reagan said something about not approving of the National Council of Churches, which he thought was too liberal. At the same press conference, Reagan later said that he had “personal doubts about evolution,” which in his case I understood.

During the Roundtable I ended up following Phyllis Schlaffly, then a famous anti-feminist credited with spiking the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. I stalked her right up to the door of the lady’s room. I stayed perched right outside the john and the second she emerged I peppered her with questions. I wanted to catch her before she slipped away to speak with the TV mutants. She told me that women like her shouldn’t have to suit up for the military because women served their country by giving birth to sons. She apparently did not know at the time that her son was gay and wouldn’t be allowed in the military if he wanted to because of people like her.

I also attended a press conference with Pastor James Robison, an imposing man handsome in an Elmer Gantry sort of way. Robison had a religious show on WFAA-TV in Dallas and became a celebrity in his own right when he began to accuse gay men of seeking to recruit underage boys into, I’m not sure, the gay club, I guess, where they would learn secret gay handshakes and watch Judy Garland musicals.

At the press conference, Robison, like Reagan, expressed his disbelief in evolution and said that the Book of Genesis should be taught side-by-side with Darwin. I asked him how he would prevent another Scopes Trial. Mr. Robison told me he had no idea what I was talking about. His female assistant then said as Robison answered a question from another man, “Are you listening to him? He speaks for God.” She then tried to introduce me to my Lord and Savior. I told her that I was familiar with him, but that I was not on speaking terms.

I was pretty sure my Godless cred had been firmly established but I would be put in place by what was undoubtedly the rudest well-known person I ever encountered: the not-surprisingly-murdered-later-but-still-alive-and-obnoxious atheist performance artist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. In the early 1960s, O’Hair filed a successful lawsuit against the Chicago school district. The case resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that public school-directed payer violated the Constitution. O’Hair belonged in a circu. For a while in the 1970s she actually had a road show with the Dallas pastor W.A. Criswell (whose church represented the largest Southern Baptist Congregation in the country.) As I recall they would “debate” in front of an audience and Criswell would call O’Hair a deceived spawn of Satan and O’Hair would call Criswell an under-read simian.

My brother-in-law Jerome Weeks, late of the “Dallas Morning News,” recalled interviewing her and later discovering that she lied about degrees she had supposedly received and fudged on other details of her biography. When I encountered her, O’Hair was an invited speaker at UTA. Before the speech she was seated in an interview room with her lisping son Garth (who would later be murdered at the same time as his mother.) O’Hair at some point bemoaned the damage wrecked upon children by parents feeding them supernatural fairy tales from the Bible and said how much more sane children would be if raised in a rational atheist home.

I asked her about her other son, Bill Murray (not that Bill Murray), who had publicly converted to Christianity, repented of his role in the school prayer lawsuit, and expressed his wish to save his mother from hellfire. “Your son Bill was raised by an atheist and he is now what you would call ‘irrational,’” I said in the naïve hope of starting a dialogue. “I don’t talk about him,” she scowled. “You’re a Christian. I can tell.” I had never been accused of that before. “I actually consider myself agnostic,” I stammered. “Oh, another gutless wonder,” she said, throwing her hands in the air and ending the interview.

Even with this track record I was extremely hopeful as I returned to the scene of many of my ill-starred collisions with the rich and arrogant. The brilliant director Spike Lee, who has made some of the best films in American cinema the past thirty years, such as “Do The Right Thing” and the searing Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” was speaking at my alma mater UTA this past February 9.

I knew there would be a Q&A and I had a question I was dying to ask. Lee made another heartbreaking and under-appreciated documentary, “4 Little Girls,” which chronicles the death of four children who died when white supremacists bombed their Birmingham church. There is one particularly chilling scene in the movie when the segregationist governor of Alabama at the time of the murder, George Wallace, is interviewed. At this time, Wallace was near death, in a wheelchair from a failed assassination attempt in 1972, and his words were so slurred that Lee had to provide subtitles. The interviewer probes Wallace to see, because of his role as a divisive, incendiary racist at the time of the bombings, if he accepted any responsibility for the murder of the Birmingham girls.

In what has to be one of the most excruciatingly uncomfortable scenes in movie history, Wallace motions to a man off screen. An African American, obviously serving as Wallace’s personal assistant, stands next to him as Wallace mumbles, “This man, a black man, is my best friend. All these years he’s my best friend and he’s black.” Wallace’s sidekick stands there silent and it’s easy to imagine he’s squirming.

I really wanted to know what the atmosphere was when that scene was filmed. When the Q&A started I stood patiently in line and finally got to approach the mike. After telling Spike what a great film I thought “4 Little Girls” was, I opened with what I thought was a perfectly legitimate question. “Were you there in the room when Wallace was being interviewed?”

Big mistake. I should explain to those who haven’t wasted a majority of their life staring at a movie screen that all films have what they call 2nd Unit directors. Those are the underlings who film individual parts of a movie because the director is responsible for the whole picture and often has to act like a manager as much as like an artist. Also, I had a very hard time imaging that Spike Lee could have been within an arm’s length of George Wallace without wringing his shiny red neck. In fact, had I been there, I would have gladly driven a spike through his lilly-white heart and surrounded his corpse with garlic.

Well, Spike didn’t take the question particularly well. “C’mon, give me a break, brother, of course I was there,” he said rolling his eyes. “I filmed it, I asked the questions. Yeah, I was there.” He took it as an affront to his hard work and dedication to his art that I would imply he would leave the George Wallace interview to anyone else.

The audience laughed, I think, not with me but at me. I lamely tried to explain why I wasn’t sure he would have conducted the interview himself and I finally got to ask him if the atmosphere during the filming was tense. I think his answer was “yes” followed by silence. So much for my eagerly anticipated film school moment. When I read about the recent contretemps with Spike and Clint Eastwood, I knew what the High Plains Drifter felt like.

I’m no longer a journalist, so I know no one’s going to phone my editor. I’m a little worried about calls to my college president.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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