A talk with author Darius James
Darius James. Dr. Snakeskin. The artist and author embraces both titles, but neither expresses the frenetic genius of the man himself. Born in Connecticut but raised at the intersection of Hoodoo culture and New York City’s downtown literary scene, Darius James cut his teeth writing for various literary zines, as well as Penthouse magazine’s “Ask Dr. Snakeskin” column. His first book, Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (1993), is the story of sixteen-year-old White teenager Bubbles Brazil and her frightening vision of African American culture. James’s electrifying mix of screenplay, performance art, and poetry makes for a tasty gumbo that’s sure to titillate your satirical palate. For his second book, the semi-autobiographical tome That’s Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (1995), James mined the hazy days of his ’70s youth. Through interviews with key figures in the blaxploitation genre and hilarious, pointed reviews of many blaxploitation films, James welcomes new-jack and seasoned fans alike.
Living in Berlin for the past ten years, James recently presented his new sound piece at a performance space in Brooklyn, New York, where I caught up with him. Over a few plastic cups of wine in between sets, I spoke with Mr. James about cinema and culture.
Tell me about the early years of Darius James.
I was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, which is between Asbury Park and Red Bank. It’s a beach town. Asbury Park is Bruce Springsteen and Red Bank is Count Basie.
You were trapped between two worlds.
You could say that. My grandfather knew Count Basie and my father grew up down the street from Norman Mailer’s father on Potter Avenue. Norman Mailer’s father was a junk dealer and my father used to sell bottles for him.
Did you start writing when you got to New York?
No, it was way before that. When I was thirteen, I had written some plays, and one of the plays I had written was called Panther. At that time, the Black Panther Party had just started out. The play was modeled after the Black Panthers and Amiri Baraka. I was also hanging out at the Yale Drama School in New Haven. What happened was that the Living Theater came back from Amsterdam and performed at the Yale Drama School. I babysat for them, and I got to watch them rehearse for all their plays and shit like that. It blew my mind! That shit was crazy! People were running around naked, hanging themselves. Crazy!
What year was this?
Around ’67 or ’68. I wanted to run away and join the Living Theater, but they wouldn’t have me because I was thirteen years old. [laughs] That made a major impression.
They were known for some wild performances.
After that experience, I wrote a play called Pimp. Later, I met this directing drama student at Yale named Walter Dallas, who last I heard was out in the Midwest teaching. He had done a theatrical production of Cooley High. It was fucking brilliant, you know what I’m sayin’?
What was your first published piece?
It was for Between C & D. It was a radical literary publication that came out of the Lower East Side of New York City. Gary, Indiana, had a great quote about it: “a magazine so hip, it comes in a plastic baggie.” It was printed on a dot matrix printer with fucking perforated edges and sealed in a storage bag.
Was it an essay? A poem?
It was actually a chapter from Negrophobia. This was around ’89.
What inspired you to write Negrophobia?
Well, there were two things. I was trying to write this satire of Disneyland, which didn’t work. Then I started thinking about riding the bus in the morning to high school. The bus would first come to our neighborhood, and then they’d go to the White section and pick up all the White kids. We were just fuckin’ out the box, man, and all the White kids on the bus would be completely terrified. We were just fuckin’ around, you know? But I suppose it didn’t help that we were sitting at the bus stop smoking dope the entire time.
I’m sure they were in shock the entire time. These crazy Negroes going ape-shit!
Yeah, yeah. We smoked dope all the time and listened to Funkadelic. So I was partially thinking about that experience in writing Negrophobia. In fact, Bubbles is based on a friend of mine who had this Black maid. I used to call her up and ask, “Is Sally home?” And the maid would say, “Sally ain’t heah!” And I would say to Sally, “Oh, you have a Black maid!” And she would say, “No, she’s just a woman who lives here!” But she just happens to be cleaning up? Yeah. Sally’s one of my oldest friends to this day.
Negrophobia had a lot of Black activists accusing you of being racist.
I felt for those people, and I mean that sincerely. The fact that I have to clarify that I mean that sincerely pisses me off. I only met one woman who hated the book. It was an older women who worked at the publishing company when I was about to publish Negrophobia. Obviously, she had come up in the ’40s and ’50s when there was no serious Black representation on television or radio or anywhere—before the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. I felt for her. Then she started talking about how a bunch of Jews ran the company and all this other shit, but you can’t fight racism with another form of racism. I stay outta that bullshit. I can’t support you. Fuck that. The thing is, that company also published a book about Black entertainment, the history of Black entertainment and how it affected the civil rights movement. People talk about how all these Black entertainers were being exploited by these Jewish managers and agents and shit, but it was the same entertainers who got to that point because of the same exploitive Jew. Entertainment has changed the people’s perspective on racism. You read any good history on rock and roll and it’ll tell you those White boys that had nothing to do start hanging out with the guy who was mowing their lawn or fixing shit in their houses. Then they come to find out that these same Black motherfuckers, who were gardeners, had hits in the ’30s that they didn’t make any money off of! And they said, “Teach me how to play guitar!” That’s how it happened.
I read somewhere that Negrophobia was to be made into a stage play in L.A. What happened with that?
That was the John Cusack connection. He was into his recreations too much to care too seriously and carry it through. We were riding in the back of some limousine, and he said, “Yeah, I’m gonna commit $35,000 to this!” and I said, “Okay, fine. Whatever.” It never really went beyond the backseat of that limo.
That would’ve been mind-blowing!
Yeah, yeah. Something similar happened to me before, actually. There was this Hollywood dude that produced a lot of Black movies in the ’90s, and he was president of Motown for a minute, and then he died. George Jackson was his name. He was gonna do a remake of The Mack (1973), and he wanted me to come in and write the book about the making of it.
Did he have a cast in mind?
The dude from Undercover Brother [Eddie Griffin] was gonna play the Richard Pryor character and Snoop Dogg was gonna play the Mack, and all this other shit he was talkin’ about. It sounded like it would happen but never did.
Speaking of The Mack, you explored blaxploitation films in your second book, That’s Blaxploitation!
You know, I never meant the book to be a definitive guide to 1970s Black film culture. If I did, I would’ve explored more topics, such as music and fashion. It’s a celebration and a memoir of a warped Afro-American adolescent who was a child of blaxploitation films. I thought the book was funny and that I could pay my rent with the advance.
I’d like to get your thoughts on some seminal films of the genre. Let’s start off with The Cool World (1964) by Warren Miller.
I loved the book, and I loved the follow-up book that he did about the Black Revolution told through a series of radical, Uncle Remus tales. The book was called The Siege of Harlem. Apparently, [Miller] and his wife used to own a head shop on the Upper West Side. It was a very influential film by Shirley Clarke and I’m sure Spike [Lee] and Melvin Van Peebles would agree. Shirley Clarke was this White woman who was a dancer who became interested in Black popular culture. She was involved with Carl Lee, who was her boyfriend.
Carl Lee starred in that film, but he’s best known as Eddie in Superfly (1972).
Yeah, his father was Canada Lee, who starred in many of the early race films. Anyway, Carl Lee was supposedly hippin’ her to Harlem and all the shit that was going on up there.
You mentioned that you thought Melvin Van Peebles was influenced by The Cool World. What’s your opinion of his film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)?
I love that film. There are gestures in the film that were clearly influenced by The Cool World, but I think the film itself is a remarkable piece of street poetry. That’s what it is. He’s trying to translate the rhythms of Black speech into film. That’s really the secret to the blaxploitation film genre that no one really addresses. When I wrote That’s Blaxploitation!, I was trying to write it to young people. At the time, I was disturbed that the hip-hop generation embraced the principles of the Nation of Islam as opposed to the Black Panther Party. To be fair, the Nation of Islam was there for them when the Black Panther Party was not, because it had been destroyed. There’s a lot to say about that period, and there’s a documentary called Bastards of the Party, which was shown on HBO, which talked about L.A. street gangs. It talked about the history of L.A. street gangs, COINTELPRO, and the FBI involvement in the destruction of the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam. I think that’s necessary viewing for everyone.
It seems a lot of your sensibilities and your writing is informed by that era.
Yeah, I suppose. That was the era that I came up in. I’m a TV baby, and I watched a lot of bullshit on TV. The most disturbing images on television in the early ’60s were watching Black people get the shit beat out of them in Mississippi. I grew up in New England, which is a whole other different kind of racism. Racism is such an interesting phenomenon.
What’s your opinion of Coonskin (1975), the Ralph Bakshi picture?
I love Coonskin. It’s a brilliant film. I would have loved to have seen Ralph Bakshi make Negrophobia. We were talking and bullshit like that. He had a television show on HBO called Spicy City. It was an animated series with all this sex and shit. He offered me an episode of Spicy City to write and direct. It didn’t happen for bullshit I’d rather not get into. I’d like to clear the air on a Bakshi-related issue though.
Let’s get it out there.
There was a Black animator that worked for him on Cool World (1992). He’s pissed at me because I said some really stupid things about him. At the time, Bakshi was a person my so-called management was to approach to do Negrophobia if Cool World had done well. Cool World died. I pointed to one particular animator who was doing completely stupid shit in the middle of this movie. In fact, he did what he was told. At the time, I was unfamiliar with press and how to deal with press and all of that. I tried to apologize to this guy numerous times, tried to get certain statements withdrawn, but it didn’t happen because the person that was to withdraw the statements behaved like an old woman. Anyway, I withdraw those comments about your abilities as an artist and an animator.
You mentioned your admiration of Jamaa Fanaka’s work. What impresses you?
He produced an extraordinary cycle of films. Charles Burnett was his cinematographer on Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975). I didn’t really cover them in my book, That’s Blaxploitation!, because I don’t consider their films blaxploitation. Fanaka doesn’t consider his films blaxploitation.
Fanaka’s films came after the genre’s heyday, and I think were a conscious reaction to the public’s perception of the genre.
It’s funny. You know who killed that period? He had one of the most popular films of that genre. Rudy Ray Moore. But I love those movies! They’re fucking hilarious!
His films definitely have a cult following among schlock and B-movie fans.
The thing is that some films are good even if they aren’t technically good and even if the director doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. There are reasons why they endure and they last. Like, I can’t say grindhouse cinema is bad. There is some great grindhouse cinema. There are some really well-executed films, and the director really told the story and made his fucking point. I think they just weren’t tasteful. The whole thing is that a lot of exploitation directors used what they had to say, what they needed to say. They worked within those confines. Many blaxploitation films fit right in there.
Is there a key film you think should’ve been seen by a wider audience?
Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama  without a doubt. I’ve never seen anything like it, ever. It’s like Black theater. It has the immediacy of live theater. It’s extraordinary. It’s so much more alive than anything on film. They talk about film being a dead medium, Hollywood films anyway. That it sucks out your soul. This will renew your faith in the possibilities of cinema.
What’s going on with Black cinema today?
I haven’t really followed what’s happening, but I could sit here and say terrible shit about Tyler Perry, but he really thought about his shit. He started out doing plays, and he turned them into movies. Do I like it? Yeah, I like it ’cause that shit is funny! Do I think they are technically good? No. But I think he’s really cynical. It may lack structure, but the main thing is, Black people relate to it. You have to hit your mark, you know what I mean? That’s how you make a good fucking movie!
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