As a fellow Southerner, it was my pleasure to interview Barry Alexander Brown. Although this interview was originally set to be a single feature, after a two-hour conversation it was obvious that there was more than one story to be told. Certainly, there was the story of Barry Alexander Brown as a director/producer/editor and his work with Spike Lee as well as the story of Barry’s next feature film, Son of The South. But, what I didn’t expect was that in our dialogue concerning the deep south and our own experiences of, as Barry describes, the “beautiful, ugly, disturbing and inspiring” parts of the south, another story would emerge. It was a story about our stories. Can we see our lives through the only lens we have – our own – and yet open the aperture to allow more light? Can we change from selfie view to portrait view to landscape? Can we tell our stories from a place of respect for ourselves as well as others? I realized that I needed help separating the beautiful and inspiring from the ugly and disturbing in my own story of the south. Does shame have to color every aspect or can the parts be separate? I wasn’t sure. So, we called in some help. In the third part of this feature we will interview an expert in race relations and ask the hard questions concerning perspective and language and how we can do a better job of getting them right.
– Robin Jowers Keyser, Editor in Chief
This is Part I of our feature: Barry Alexander Brown: A Son of the South.
Barry Alexander Brown grew up in the deep south. Montgomery, Alabama was his home and his family resides there still. His first full-length documentary, The War at Home earned him an Oscar nomination. However, it would be his work with an NYC Film School student that would change his trajectory for good. As 2nd Unit Director and Editor of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour and most recently, Black Klansman – Barry has made his mark.
After working with Indian Director Mira Nair for whom he cut Salaam Bombay, Madonna would then make the call for her film, Truth or Dare.
His latest film, Son of The South, is based on Bob Zellner’s book, “The Wrong Side Of Murder Creek”. Bob, grandson of a Klansman, was a junior heavyweight boxing champion in College. But Bob learned directly from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that the way to make a difference was not with his fists but with non-violent resistance.
Interview edited for clarity and space.
Q + A with Barry Alexander Brown
RJK: Hi Barry, please tell us how you came to be a film editor and director and how did a boy from the deep south come to work with Spike Lee?
BARRY: Absolutely. Somewhere along the line, growing up, when I was a teenager, I fell in love with entertainment. If there was some kind of traveling broadway musical, I went to see it and I was in the Montgomery Little Theater and decided somewhere around the time, I was 16 or 17, that this is what I was going to do. Everybody – everybody in my family, a lot of my friends, everybody, everybody just thought, “You’re crazy. How you’re going to do that?” I loved movies. I loved theater, I loved musical theater. But I really loved movies. And I said, “Well, I’m going to go off and I’m going to work in movies. That’s what I’m going to do.” My father would say to me, “Have you ever met anybody who ever worked in a movie?” I said to him, “I think they’re just real people and they come from everywhere.”
So, I went to NYC and I could not get arrested. I mean nothing. I tried for any job in the industry – sweeping, getting coffee – anything. I met someone named Glenn who was interested in doing a film in Madison, Wisconsin about the Anti-Vietnam War movement. There was an incredible resource of footage at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I said I would go and I did. I went through all of the footage and could see that there was a film to be made. I became the co-producer and co-director of the movie. I was more a director than I was a producer. My partner was the person who raised the money, his name was Glenn Silber. We were making this film completely in a vacuum in Madison, Wisconsin and barely getting it made and barely making a living. Many people were trying to be very kind in terms of telling me personally, “Just stop, just don’t, don’t keep doing this. You know, you can’t, you can’t. Have, you just seen a lot of movies and you read a lot of books now you think you can make a movie?” I guess deep down I probably thought, “Well ,maybe not. Maybe I cannot make a movie, but I don’t see what choice I have. I can’t get hired and this is what I want to do. For better or worse, I’m going to. I’m going to finish this thing even if it’s terrible, I’m going to finish this. At least I can be proud of myself that I finished it.” I didn’t know anybody else who was making a movie anyway. “Well, at least I’m doing it.”
The film got booked into an art house cinema in Madison. It was October of 1979. And I thought, “Well, we’re showing this feature-length documentary about the Anti-Vietnam War movement in Madison to the people who were in the movement and made all this happen. If anyone is going to tar and feather us, it’s going to be these people.” We kind of expected it, because nobody had seen the movie.
The film took off like a rocket and people loved it and six months later we were nominated for an Oscar and all of a sudden, I went from pretty much being so completely on the outside of everything in terms of movies, to being drawn in to somewhere. I wouldn’t say in the middle, but I was inside the big circle and I was a filmmaker. At first it was really overwhelming. It was way, way too overwhelming and I was way, way, way too young and I hadn’t expected any of it. That kind of freaked me out, quite frankly. I was feeling like I was a complete and utter fraud. And so I kind of backed off from doing anything for awhile. I helped found a film distribution company at the time called First Run Features because there wasn’t any kind of distribution for American independent movies and our film was doing so well that we could actually form a distribution company around it. We used a certain model that was sort of like grassroots organizing where you go out from city to city and you really deal with groups in those towns. The cities that would be interested in your movie would do an opening night and there would be a benefit. We created a certain model that did very well for a while. For a couple of years I buried myself in that distribution company because deep down, I was just completely freaked out by the success of the first film.
“All of a sudden, I went from pretty much being so completely on the outside of everything in terms of movies, to being drawn in to somewhere. I wouldn’t say in the middle, but I was inside the big circle and I was a filmmaker.”
Then I met this young film student who was a graduate student at NYU. Our offices for the distribution were in Greenwich Village, only two blocks away from NYU. This was Spike Lee. We had a need for a part-time person to come in and clean the prints and get the prints ready to get shipped back out again. And I thought, “Well, it’s a pretty good job for a film student.” And I asked him if he wanted to do it and he said “Yes, yes I do.” He took the job and then over the course of the next few years, that was 1981, he and I became good friends. In many ways we shared very common points of view about movies and about entertainment in that, we both respected entertainment and that wasn’t so common among independent filmmakers in New York at that moment – for them it was much more about “What’s your message?” rather than “How are you delivering that message?” For both of us, it was certainly that the message is important, but what we both fell in love with in terms of movies is how you delivered it. That’s what we loved and so we were drawn together. He grew up with his mother taking him to Broadway, seeing musicals. He loved musicals and I loved musicals. So, whenever Spike was working on something at NYU, I helped out. I was doing documentaries, and I was cutting my own stuff because I couldn’t afford an editor.
“Then I met this young film student who was a graduate student at NYU. Our offices for the distribution were in Greenwich Village, only two blocks away from NYU. This was Spike Lee.”
When Spike did, She’s Gotta Have It, his very first film, he asked me to help him, and I said, “Yes.” I didn’t question my friend, I just said, “Yes.”
Funny enough, when the film opened in NYC the MPAA had not given the film an R rating. The film came out. We were ready to screen it and the MPAA said that I had to cut out half of this one sex scene. I went and cut the film on the floor of the projection room. It worked. Spike invited me to edit his films after that. I kept expecting someone to say, “He’s not an editor, what is he doing here?”
Another good friend of mine, somebody I met around that time, Mira Nair, who made Monsoon Wedding and recently Queen of Katwe, and many other really terrific films, was making her own first feature in India called Salaam Bombay. When she heard that I was cutting this film for Spike, School Days, she said, “Well, you’ve got to cut my movie.” That’s how I became a film editor.
Salaam Bombay, She’s Gotta Have It and my own first film, The War at Home were made under such duress. With all three of those films we were asked by people, “What are you doing? Who do you think you are?” With The War at Home, it was, “You’re nobody and nobody cares about the Vietnam War anymore. The movement is over.” And then with She’s Gotta Have It, it was, “There is not an audience out there for just a black film – a film about regular black people. There’s not, there’s not an audience for this.” Spike was saying, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong. You’re blind and you’re wrong.” Salaam Bombay was shot in Hindi and shot in Bombay and the wisdom was, “Well maybe that’ll play in India, but it’s never going to play anywhere else. What Hindi film ever has ever been popular in other parts of the world, especially in America?” That film won the Camera D’or and Prix du Public in 1988 and it got nominated for an Oscar. It went gangbusters everywhere.
I think somebody somewhere along the line said in the movie business, nobody really knows anything and that was so true for these films.
RJK: When did the Imposter Syndrome finally go away for you?
BARRY: Malcolm X. By then my phone was ringing off the hook and I was afraid that I would never do anything but editing. So, I quit for awhile. I wrote screenplays and then eventually found my way back to editing. I was afraid to lose myself as a film editor, but found that I could lose myself as I am editing. I free fall through editing.
I am not thinking a great deal about it. I was once on a panel with two great editors, one of which cuts for Martin Scorsese and they were talking about their process of editing. They did all this thinking about the pace of the film about to cutting as an intellectual process. And for me, and even on the stage I said, “Wow, I’ve never done that once, not once, not once, not once.” It’s almost a mindless process for me.
RJK: When I look at your body of work, in what you have done up until now and especially when looking at Son of The South, I assumed that our conversation would revolve around activism and justice and social issues. Those issues are a common thread in the work that you do, however your story is even more about following a dream – following through with the things that destiny has thrown on your path – someone who has made art for the sake of art. As you have followed your path, you have changed the lens we look through – your work on such culturally significant films has changed us.
Speaking of culturally significant films, let’s talk about Son of The South.
Barry: Let’s do.
End of Part I.
To be continued.
Help support the re-release of The War at Home to theaters and campuses across the country.