Warrington Hudlin: The Civil War Never Ended


Filmmaker Warrington Hudlin taks to Rob Johnson about the protests against police brutality, the long history of racial oppression in the U.S., and his adaptation of Les Misérables set in the outskirts of contemporary Paris.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Warrington Hudlin, a good friend. He’s a motion picture, television and online media producer. He’s made some wonderful films, House Party, Boomerang, Cosmic Slip, Unstoppable, Black at Yale, and many others. He’s the Founding President of the Black Filmmaker Foundation. He participated in INET’s 2016 conference on race in Detroit.

I don’t know, every time I run into Warrington, whether it’s at a movie screening or in my kitchen, it’s just things start to fly and I start to learn. So Warrington, thanks for joining me and sharing with our audience here today.

Warrington Hudlin:

I’m delighted to be invited, and can’t wait to chop it up.

Rob Johnson:

So here we go. We are in a … There’s an old musician named Cat Stevens and he sings “Baby, baby, it’s a wild world.” Right now, it feels to me like everything is being unmasked. The covers come off the ball, all kinds of things, all kinds of uprising, all kinds of anxiety and chaos when a system breaks down, but it’s not a system we want to go back to.

So how are you seeing what’s unfolding, with relation to the pandemic, with relation to the social reaction, to the death of George Floyd and others that proceeded him? What’s the light at the end of the tunnel look like, and how are you and I going to help us get to that light?

Warrington Hudlin:

Well, I’m sad to say that my point of view is that the system is not breaking down. The system is doing what it’s meant to be, what it’s meant to do. And the status of people of color from the beginning, forward, is to be subordinate and exploited. It’s almost like the person who is walking down the street and you look in the mirror and say, “Is that me? Do I look like that?” America has been able to deceive itself about what it does and how it treats people. And what’s happened recently, is that the reveal is there. It’s always been going on. What’s the famous quote Will Smith says, “It’s not more recent, simply more recordings, more cameras.” America is very uncomfortable with what it sees in the mirror.

That’s one part of America. Because the bigger frame for me is that the Civil War never ended, it simply took a pause. The Confederates are back in the White House now, and between Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, these are all Confederates. They’re trying to bring back that kind of status for everybody who’s not white. And fortunately that today there’s enough people who don’t agree with that. So the kind of consensus of racial subordination and discrimination and disenfranchisement that America has been practicing for decades, now, when people see it in the mirror, they say, “Oh, no, no, no. That can’t be us.” So everybody is upset because they actually see what’s been going on consistently.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, my friend at Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, john powell, talks about this notion of othering as though, “If they’re different than me, I can categorize it, and I can say, in almost a subconscious way, they’re not even human.”

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah. Oh, it’s true. Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

The Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Well, if that’s true, how come we don’t treat them all like humans?

Warrington Hudlin:

I mean, there’s constant reference to the Declaration of Independence, but in the Constitution, it’s codified, three-fifths of a man. So at the same time, the people who wrote, the men who wrote and signed that, many of them were slave owners.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. That’s right.

Warrington Hudlin:

So I think that I can’t get seduced by the promises of the founding declarations of freedom and equality, because they really did not intend to include anybody who wasn’t white.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. Yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

So people say, “Oh, America has failed.” Yes, it’s failed. It wasn’t intended to work. So we were walking around either surprised or shocked. I think if you’re surprised or shocked, you haven’t been paying attention.

Rob Johnson:

You haven’t been paying attention for hundreds of years.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly right.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. It’s the original sin of the United States.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

And it’s not behind us, it’s upon us.

Warrington Hudlin:

It’s he ongoing sin.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. But what’s going on, what’s ongoing … I’m sorry, I sound like Marvin Gaye. What’s going on?

What’s ongoing is being also fueled by young people coming up and seeing no ladder in the rungs of opportunity. In other words, there’s a whole spectrum of false promises that are supposed to inspire you to want to be American, and yet, the bluff is being called. And the outcome of this pandemic, and who’s dying, and who’s forced into working in dangerous circumstances, is a testament to that unfairness, that inequality, that inhumanity.

Warrington Hudlin:

What makes that awareness greater than before … Right now, if a person is 15 years old, black, Latino and Asians are the majority of Americans under the age 15. Next year, they’ll be the majority under age 16 and so on and so on. So if you’re a young person growing up in America today, you have access and encounters and sharing the space emotionally, physically, et cetera, with people who are from multicultural backgrounds, so that kind of the ignorance of racism is difficult to survive in that sunlight.

When we were off in the Bantustans, segregated across the tracks, you could hold those ridiculous racial viewpoints. But when the person, your classmate or your office-mate or whoever, is different, then the humanity cannot be denied. I think that’s part of the reason why things were changed so much now, is that people know that that was a human being. They couldn’t make the emotional, psychological separation that they have in the past.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I made a podcast recently with a gentlemen that you probably met in our Detroit conference, Henry Ponder, who was in his 90s, and he underscored this a great deal. He talked about living in Oklahoma during the time of the Depression, and he said it wasn’t even that depressing because you didn’t have a vision of anything that was that much different than what you were doing.

Warrington Hudlin:

Sure.

Rob Johnson:

But now you can turn on CNN or seeing what Ellen DeGeneres or whatever in her mansion, and the differences, the class differences, the differences in quality of access to healthcare, nutritions, any form of safety, how you say it, the contrast that is marked is now in plain sight.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly. That’s so true. But at same time, you mentioned he’s from Oklahoma, I mean, that’s where the Tulsa Uprising riot was. I mean, that’s the story of black ambition, self-reliance, enterprise, that was so successful that it disturbed white interests and white sensibilities, and they literally burned down that town. So the relationships, the historical relationship, between the black community and white community is so fraught that it can be triggered not by doing anything, but by even success. I mean, Tulsa was a great success story. Everything people say that they want black Americans to do today, that was accomplished in that period of time. So it’s a very emotionally and psychological complicated relationship that can lead to gunfire and bloodshed.

Rob Johnson:

Yep. Yep. Well, Warrington you, how I say, treated me to be included in the screening of a film that you worked very closely with the team, was the remaking of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, but set in the outskirts of Paris in France. I remember you did a beautiful introduction. Most of the people were producers, actors, directors, in the audience for that screening. About three quarters of the way through the film, a gentleman just jumped up and blurted out, “Why don’t they make films this good in America?” And everybody cheered.

But Les Mis, that was a powerful, powerful film, and that was about the interface between law enforcement and the black population in France. But boy, did it resonate with, which you now call, contradictions that we’re forced to embrace in our country.

Warrington Hudlin:

The movie, in retrospect, is prophetic. I mean, it came out in January of this year, at least in the United States. It was nominated for Academy Award. It actually won in France, the Cesar, which is the equivalent of the Oscar. And as I think you agree, it’s brilliantly executed. So those movies can be made anywhere, but you got to have resources to finance those movies.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Warrington Hudlin:

You and I have talked about projects I would love to do in Detroit, which has similar kind of valence, but raising money for those kinds of movies are very, very difficult. So the thing is, the way America maintains its, as you call it, its racial and class ecology, the way they maintain that is by making sure who gets access to resources to make production. So if you control that access, then you can make sure only certain kinds of stories are get told. But just because we don’t get a chance to tell the stories, does not mean we have no stories to tell.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. Now, I do remember in the aftermath of that screening, you had a reception and I was talking to the gentleman who was one of the lead actors who joined us that night. He was describing to me how … What was so authentic, was that many of the, which you may call a broad range of cast in younger people, were actually people, they were not hired actors after some kind of casting call or what have you. They were actually residents of the region.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

So on film, they were living the truth of how they lived. And that was a very … It just made me tingle to watch that film. I’ve seen it now three times.

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh, good. Good, good, good, good, good. It’s playing now … Any of your listeners who have Amazon Prime-

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Warrington Hudlin:

… they currently play it you can see for yourself. I think you guys who is listening should probably agree that this is … For me, I have been organizing black filmmakers for over 40 years, this is the most amazing film I’ve seen in those 40 years.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I remember you said it at the time, and I don’t think anybody walked out of the theater that night disagreeing with you. But it was something … And even that lead actor, I can’t remember his name right now, who I was talking with, he felt overcome by the magic of what transpired in that film.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because I mean, again, if a filmmaker becomes a medium, becomes a bridge, to bring a frame of reality … Because see, we, all of us, we live, we walk the streets, we see things, but a filmmaker can frame it in a way that’s, “Oh, so this is what’s going on.” So I think that our challenge as artists is to go, “How do I frame what you see every day, in a way to make you see it in a way that gives you insight and meaning?”

And that filmmaker’s name is Ladj Ly, based in Paris. He did just that. He took the day to day reality of blacks and the Arabs in the of outside of Paris, the suburbs, and framed it in a way that, “Oh, we now understand how it goes.” And it wasn’t one dimensional. It was no good guys, bad guys, everybody was complicated. That’s also why it had such power. The human condition is just really so, so complicated and it’s no easy answers.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. I’m going to build a bridge here, but the scene in that film that touched me was when the black member of the police force went home to see his mother.

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

And talk about the role of mama.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

You shared with me some graffiti today about George Floyd. What was the saying on that graffiti that you showed me from Instagram?

Warrington Hudlin:

It says, “When he called for his mama, all mamas were called.”

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Yes. So at that point, the pivot point, at the place in that film, and I don’t want to give too much away, I want everybody to watch it, mama played a role.

Warrington Hudlin:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

Just as mama played a role in the movie we just saw

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah-

Rob Johnson:

Over nine minutes.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

That drove us all crazy.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). When you get it right, you get it right. I know when I saw it, I called up the head of Amazon. I said, “Listen, I’ve been in business for a long time and I don’t know if you know what you got, but I know what you got and I’m willing to volunteer my services free of charge to help you get the word out,” and they were surprised and pleased. They said, “Okay, fine. We’ll book the room. We’ll pay for it.”

Then I called you and I called all the people who are interested in social justice, be that they worked behind the camera or in front of the camera or in finance, music, et cetera. So it was an eclectic room, multicultural eclectic room for like-minded people who I knew-

Rob Johnson:

I sat with Rashad Robinson from Color Change at the film.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right. I love sitting next to Rashad because he’s very expressive.

Rob Johnson:

Oh yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

There was a right moment in the film, I thought he was going to jump up because it was just so powerful.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. He’s got his heart on his sleeve, for sure.

Warrington Hudlin:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

In a beautiful, beautiful way. It’s not self-indulgence, it’s radiance.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

So let’s talk a little bit about where a person like you, a filmmaker. In this case, we’re talking in Les Mis, you’re talking about you seeing something someone else did, running it up the flagpole with your relationships to make sure it got the attention it deserved.

Warrington Hudlin:

Sure.

Rob Johnson:

But what kind of things are you envisioning making now? What’s been in your pipeline for some time? You mentioned the project in Detroit that we discussed.

Warrington Hudlin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

What are you planning to say to the world through your own work in this next period?

Warrington Hudlin:

Well, I mean, it’s pretty much… I mean, my statement, my insight, the thing on this shirt, that hasn’t been unchanged.

I started making film in the seventies. I was in college in the seventies and the milieu… When I was a freshman, Bobby Seal was on trial two blocks from where my dorm was and the Black Panther Party was very strong in New Haven, Connecticut. And so I came to a consciousness at a time of tremendous breaking of the frame of the American lie. And so it was so many active speakers, super articulate, aggressive people who said, “No, no, no, no. This is not how it really works.” So I had the benefit of having those voices, as a young person, hearing those articulate voices saying, “This is how America really works.” So when I became a filmmaker, I said, “Okay, let me bring those artistic skills to advance those points of view in a way that’s dramatic and engaging.”

So that hasn’t changed. But what has changed is that some technology has changed most recently. This, I mean, like a day ago. I realize that the social distancing means even if I get money right now to do my other projects, I couldn’t do them because it’s not safe. There’s no treatment, there’s no vaccine, we’re in a shutdown period. So I’ve been doing investigation because once before, I did a project on what’s called VR, which is Virtual Reality and that you can do with social distancing and computer animation and a whole bunch of new technology. So I’ve turned my attention to that space on an interim basis.

Rob Johnson:

And when you talk about how technology has changed, it’s not everybody going to the theater anymore.

Warrington Hudlin:

In fact, I tell you, yeah. Well, one sobering note is AMC Theater, which is one of the largest theater chains in America, is doing bankruptcy protection.

Rob Johnson:

I saw that. Yeah, they were a big uplift to the theatrical release of Amazing Grace that I worked on in there.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yes, yes. Which by the way, let me do this one more time. Thank you for rescuing that movie, because that movie is so unbelievably powerful. And if you had not intervened and got the resources and into release, we may have never seen that magic. Because it’s nothing… The only way to describe that Amazing Grace, it’s about magic. And from scene to scene to scene, moment to moment, it’s just incredible. Just incredible.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I mean, you watch Aretha for 90 minutes. She doesn’t say three words, but she’s in total command and everybody understands.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yes, yes, yes.

Rob Johnson:

I watched her as I was getting ready for the negotiations with her and her family while she was still alive. I went up to Poughkeepsie, New York, one night. I think it was March 12th of 2017. People had told me her cancer had gone into remission, she was enthusiastic. And my friend Alan Light, who I think you know, that writes for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, was sitting next to me and he says, “I’ve seen her many, many times. I wasn’t prepared for this.” And I looked at him and I said, “Is she a person or an angel?”

Warrington Hudlin:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

I just can’t not feel she was an angel. And that experience in 1972, in that church in Los Angeles with James Cleveland and the choir and the congregation and that wonderful band, she was like an angel.

Warrington Hudlin:

For sure.

Rob Johnson:

She’s just so beyond and beyond and beyond. I mean, everybody doesn’t believe in the Holy Spirit, I’m going to give him that movie. And then we’ll talk about it.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

We’ll talk about it.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right. That’s proof positive, proof positive. And in the theater, in the theater in Queens, we showed it.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Warrington Hudlin:

I mean, people were just touched. It’s just undeniable. You don’t have to believe, just be able to feel.

Rob Johnson:

That’s it, that’s it. And I think the… How we say? The gifts, the craftsmanship, the hard work, the rehearsals and the insight that Aretha had to go back to her roots after she’s already a star in soul and crossover and making big money for Atlantic. But to go into that place and just flow like she did. She did-

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh, that’s good you said, “She really never left.”

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. That’s right. So music today. What are you listening to? What’s coming out? What do you go… Your music, your playlist or your LPs, what are you pulling out? I know Wesley Morris, who I knew from the Aretha project, the New York Times just brought forward the old Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes song. Something by Patti LaBelle, “If you don’t know me by now-“

Warrington Hudlin:

“… never, never known me.” That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

Everybody’s crying that listens to that song, right?

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right, that’s right. I mean, I’m in a bind now because I’m trying to stay open to new sounds. But the music of my generation is so unbelievably rich that I use, I go… I call it “retreat” into this sounds of the sixties and seventies and eighties, because it’s medicinal. And whatever’s going on in your life, there’s a song that some artists has composed had performed and it gives you that exorcism. So music for me is that kind of medicinal, therapeutic experience. Literally, there’s nothing, whether it be a ballad or something uptempo, music is healing, period. No other way to describe it.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. I’ve been listening to a song and I had no idea why, after the lockdown started. And I was not historically a big fan of the band U2, but one of the early songs is called 40, after Psalm 40 from the Bible. And the second verse says, “He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm. Many will see, many will see in here. I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song. How long to sing this song?” And I think, that’s where I’m feeling with the shattering of the defensive, conventional wisdom with the amount of distress that’s been revealed, with the chaos and the yearning for order. What’s the new song? We got to sing a new song.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, yeah. And some clue for the new song, with the lines from some of the old songs. When faced with this kind of tremendous adversity, powerful thing about Jimmy Cliff singing Too Many Rivers to Cross.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

“Only my faith could carry me on.” Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s Alabama, I’ve been listening to Bob Marley, Stand up, Get up.

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Redemption Song.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”

Warrington Hudlin:

Sure.

Rob Johnson:

“Only you can free your mind.”

Warrington Hudlin:

Exodus.

Rob Johnson:

Yep. All of these things resonate with where we are.

Warrington Hudlin:

In many ways, the musicians and the singers as the featured artists have been so far ahead of the other people, the other art forms. With notable exception. Maybe August Wilson as a playwright is in their league and a couple other filmmakers, but overall, the musicians, they’re just at the point. They get it and they sing it and perform it the way that, Oh yeah, everybody connects with it.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, at some level, which you might call they’re tapped into the electricity of emotion.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And at some level the best, both poets and artists, are prescient. They can feel it before we can see it.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes, yes. But in addition to that, if we, I mean from this film, if I could truly understand how and why they do this, how and what they do, then I can translate that into cinema and in many ways, if you listen closely to a musician, it gives you all the clues you need for you as a filmmaker. In fact, when I write my screenplays, I always have some music on in the background and it gives me my cues and my clues.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah. It’s like a catalytic elixir. Yeah. Yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

Or, like you said earlier, it’s the Holy Ghost.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. You know what, it’s very interesting, I have a friend who’s a poet. I think you and I have discussed, Ed Pavlic, who wrote a book about the inspiration of James Baldwin. And Baldwin was this fascinating man who I guess I would have described in his early years as almost like a jujitsu stiletto essay fighter. He was just lucid and sharp. He could win any debate. He was brilliant. But he had a epiphany listening to a song by Aretha Franklin.

Warrington Hudlin:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

From the album Aretha Arrives called I Wonder. And in that, he basically came out and he said, “She, in that song, speaks to the people and the person at the same time.”

Warrington Hudlin:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

Meaning he was speaking to the crowd about the context, but he wasn’t reaching the heart. So he went to his friend whose name was Ray Charles, and they composed something together called the Hallelujah Chorus that was premiered at the opening night of the Newport Jazz Festival, which used to be at Carnegie Hall in New York before they went out to Newport, Rhode Island. And they did something together, which is they had the same story and Baldwin did it as spoken word essay. And Ray Charles did it elliptically and poetically through music and lyrics and symbolism and sound.

Warrington Hudlin:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

And the critics hated Baldwin and they loved Ray Charles. And they both knew they had exactly the same message. And so that transformation into the poetic style was a big part of Baldwin. Now there’s some work that Pavlic has done subsequently where he followed some correspondence over 30 years between Baldwin and his brother, whose name was David. I think James was the oldest and this was the next oldest sibling.

And he used to describe that there were many James Baldwins, the first of which was James Baldwin the essayist we’ve been talking about. The second was Jimmy Baldwin, the black gay man who had, we might say, an undercover social life. The third was what he called Jamie Baldwin, which was this beautiful member of a family who wanted to make everybody proud through whatever he did. But the fourth one was, I don’t remember the phrase, but it was something like the unnamed persona… that goes into seclusion and asks to receive inspiration.

Warrington Hudlin:

Wow.

Rob Johnson:

And that the other three, nourishments from family, from social and love life, and from community engagement and purpose, have to be lifting his spirit to where he can be receptive to those signals.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

And it’s the most beautiful characterization of the creative process I’ve ever been exposed to, but it sounded too… I wasn’t even thinking about that when you and I got on the call here, but you brought it out of me, a recollection from years before and the way you described your process.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, yeah. In fact, something… another point of my entry was, I think August Wilson quoted in how he’ll sit at the desk and a character would walk in the room and start talking to him. And so, the character is his guide, his narrator. And I really believe that that level of art, when you move beyond artists, when you really are channeling the story that must be told, there’s other forces that guide you.

It’s the same way in a Pentecostal church, there’s a moment of religious ecstasy or in the Brazilian Candomblé or… I mean, there are moments in which you are in touch with the unseen forces that tell you why you here and what you need to do. And the artists who can listen will be very, very… create powerful work.

Rob Johnson:

When you talk about channeling, it always takes me back to watching Audra McDonald when she played Billie Holiday in that wonderful play about at the Emerson Grill, Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill. And I just, I watched her and I felt like she was just showing me, Billie. There was no actress, she was a conduit.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly, exactly.

Rob Johnson:

And it was a brilliant, brilliant performance. So the politics of right now, this is what you might call… I mean, you’ve said it very well in the beginning of our conversation. You said that in essence, this has been here.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah. And a difference is that people who look in the mirror and don’t like what they see. But what’s been going on is like if you’ve been overeating for the last few whatever years and who… how does that happen? No, you’ve been doing it. You just haven’t seen yourself. You haven’t had that reflection.

So in fact, you showed me that extraordinary t-shirt and relief was all these incredible faces, but it was like, I would see dozens and dozens of faces. So clearly, I mean, brother George Floyd is a latest and gruesomeness example, but these things unfortunately have been consistent.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I mean, what we can hope is that he’s the straw that broke the camel’s back and leads to change.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah. Yeah, we hope that. We hope that.

Rob Johnson:

But you got to be skeptical, but you can hope that.

Warrington Hudlin:

Well, just that we had to start with, I think that the… Here’s the thing, as long as we think that something’s wrong, then that’s where we’re disadvantaged. We got to say, “Why does this happen? Let’s address why.” If we treat this as something unusual or this… this misconduct is there for a reason. Police departments historically grew out of slave patrols and slave catchers to racially police in black people was always as an oppressive, abusive occupying force. So of course, they act like this. It makes sense. And so, until we acknowledge why this is happening, we’ll be at disadvantage to trying to fix it.

And also, there’s going to be a problem because when you begin to figure out, if the solution requires a loss of white privilege, then it’s going to be a real test. I mean, the woman in Central Park, she said, “How dare this guy speak to her about her dog off the leash?”

Rob Johnson:

Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

And she was genuinely offended that he didn’t know his place. And he spoke to her and he was, you could see on the tape, he was very calm, but she was… I mean, I’m just recognizing that she, I’m sure, thought she was being reasonable. So there’s a set of circumstances and a mindset where she feels comfortable with doing that. And so therefore, she made that phone call and pushed those buttons to have the police come and put him in his place or else, you’ll take his life.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah, and the idea that a person, however uncomfortable or scared or whatever, could resort to that tool tells you about that social system that we are.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yes. And you use the word resort, I wouldn’t say resort; she went there quickly. I mean, it wasn’t like he was approaching her. He was telling her, “Please don’t approach me.” This is something she was… she felt his speaking to her that way was an encroachment on her privilege and she was putting him his…

It’s not unlike, I mean, you go back to the Emmett Till thing. I mean, the woman lied about him whistling at her. It’s always is that white America at their fingertips has a trigger to always put this… take the black people out, and they use it when they having a bad day, “Oh, let’s just kill them.” And so who knows what she may have been having a bad day about, something that’s nothing to do with that man. But him speaking to her, asserting his rights was offensive to her. And that’s the overall issue.

I mean, if you look at the police situations, they’re always talking about, “Cooperate. Obey.” I mean, the violence I see in all these Instagram feeds that collect, is always police saying, “You need to kneel down. Put your hands up. Do this.” And if you don’t immediately submit, then all kind of bodily harm can flow to you. And there’s an entitlement, a white, racist entitlement to make black bodies and brown bodies and yellow bodies submit. And when they don’t, they do harm to them. So it’s come down to something very simple and psychological like that. If you don’t submit, you have consequences.

Rob Johnson:

And then, I guess what I was trying to say was that woman couldn’t have invoked that unless she believed that it was available.

Warrington Hudlin:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

And that’s-

Warrington Hudlin:

And she was right. And you know that her-

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, yeah. That’s right. She codified, she validated what you said.

Warrington Hudlin:

And fortunately, he was smart enough to leave the scene, because when police came, he wasn’t there anymore. I mean, because he could have misplayed his hand too. He was very calm. He recorded everything. He spoke in a modulated tone. I mean, he could have been as angry as her and he may be dead right now.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah. So it’s here. It’s been here.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But I’m thinking of Jimi Hendrix via Bob Dylan. “There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”

Warrington Hudlin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Dead right, but-

Rob Johnson:

“Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth . None were level on the mind, nobody up at his word.” How are we going to change? How are we going to change the contours and how are we going to break out of this system that, you’re right, has had-

Warrington Hudlin:

And without-

Rob Johnson:

… dehumanizing effects on everybody, whether they acknowledge it or not?

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right. That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

Born by the black people, but you are not a human if you’re abiding by that system, as though it were legitimate.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

That’s something ugly about you.

Warrington Hudlin:

So, the only thing I would insert into that, is that how we do it has to be proceeded about why this thing exists. If we don’t first thought why this… This is not something that doesn’t come, it didn’t come… There’s a reason why America operates the way it does. And until we first start with that, I don’t think, I’m not optimistic about progress.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, I’m a doctor’s son, so diagnosis has to-

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right, there you go.

Rob Johnson:

… precede remedy and prescription.

Warrington Hudlin:

There you go. There you go.

Rob Johnson:

And if you don’t diagnose properly, you’re not fighting with disease.

Warrington Hudlin:

Precisely right. Yeah. And again, I mean, the system doesn’t fail people who the system was not built to protect.

Rob Johnson:

Yep. In your reading, in your thinking about the history of… we’ve talked about music, but the people, the Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, old Negro Spirituals, where do you find inspiration?

Warrington Hudlin:

Well when I was 16, Fred Hampton had lead of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. And I was in East St. Louis, Illinois, which is downstate from Chicago. And I was just impressed by this guy. He was just a young, charismatic guy. And I told my parents, “I want to go to Chicago and join the Black Panther Party.” And my father said, “You’re 16 years old. You’re under my roof and you’re not going anyway.” And I kicked and screamed and hollered, but he’s the boss, so I didn’t go.

And the next morning, he walked in my room and threw the paper at the… and the headline was Fred Hampton was murdered. He said, “Now, see, I told you.” And he was right about the danger, but I was right that this young man in his 20s, in Chicago, was so potent that the police felt the need to assassinate him. And so, I have always been struck by the presence of men and women who have such heroic power, who have such tremendous charisma, who are such great articulators, that they can stand up, fight back and inspire others. And some of them are straight up organizers like Fred Hampton, others are artists like Katherine Dunham, Harry Belafonte.

So in my life, I’ve sought out these people. And I’ve been blessed because some of them have accepted me as their mentees, specifically Katherine Dunham and Belafonte has been my mentor, and both of them people has guided me. And so, I just simply try to be a good student and apply the lessons.

Rob Johnson:

Well, you’ve had some beautiful teachers. Harry Belafonte, I just watched that film that Susanne Rostock made, Sing Your Song.

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh, it’s extraordinary. Extraordinary, extraordinary film.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And she was talking to me a couple of years ago about wanting to make another film about his work in the prisons. And through his guidance, my wife Alexis knows Harry Belafonte and his daughter and a couple of their staff, and he and some people at the Open Society Foundation got me set up to go visit Sing Sing for a day or two. And boy, that was a profound experience. Man.

Warrington Hudlin:

Well, I would say my best friend in life, unfortunately, he’s no longer with us, he worked in foster care. And he would often deal with… because foster kids go in and out… unfortunately, often cycle in and out of prisons. So, he’s my friend because we met in the martial arts school. And we were like, they call it dojo brothers, people who train martial arts together.

And he would go speak in the juvenile detention. And he said, he told me this story, he would come in to talk, go out to them into the room and everybody would not pay attention, be loud and just disrespectful. And so he saw he couldn’t get any attention so he told the guard, he said, “Listen, you guys can leave.” And they said, “What?” He said, “No, no, no, go ahead and leave. Go on and leave.”

And the inmates, these again, these are juveniles, not adults, they’re like, “Damn, the guards left nothing in here but yourself.” He said, “Yeah, and I did it because you guys are obviously not paying any attention to me, because you think I’m a punk and I can’t fight. Well, they’re not here now, it’s just me and you. So let’s have a conversation. Now, before we talk, if anybody here thinks they can beat me, let’s do that right now.” And nobody moved…

Rob Johnson:

Is this the gentleman I met that night before the Aretha screening?

Warrington Hudlin:

No, he passed. He passed some years ago. He’s-

Rob Johnson:

Oh, okay.

Warrington Hudlin:

But he was a great-

Rob Johnson:

Because you had another martial arts friend that was there that night, no?

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I walk in two worlds, man. I walk in the activist world and I walk in the martial art world, and sometimes they overlap. But this guy, man… And then everybody pay attention, “Oh, okay.” So, there are certain states of mind to reach a young person who’s in that state of violence, and you have to tell… because everybody is afraid of them. And once you say, “Oh, I’m not afraid of you,” then they would give you their attention. And Belafonte… Belafonte has a similar… Not that Belafonte is going to fight anybody, but Belafonte is fearless. He’s faced all kinds of threat and violence. So having done that, he’s able to command attention.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, yeah. And there’s a regalness, there’s an aura about him, even when I’ve been to fundraisers where he’s speaking. Or one night, he and Cornel West and myself and some people, were affiliated with the Union Theological Seminary. And as everybody was talking this and that, and then when he started to speak, you could hear a pin drop. The focus was complete.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. No, he’s peerless. He’s peerless.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah. My Detroit Franklin family connection tells me that he used to team with Aretha and hold concerts together to support Martin Luther King.

Warrington Hudlin:

I did not know that. Wow.

Rob Johnson:

They actually bailed him out of what would have been a bankruptcy one or two times.

Warrington Hudlin:

Wow, wow. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And Aretha also provided the money to Angela Davis when she needed to get bail to get out of prison before her trial. But Harry Belafonte has been there from the beginning of his life and-

Warrington Hudlin:

Absolutely. And at tremendous expense and risk and jeopardy, you know?

Rob Johnson:

Yes, yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

I had the privilege, he invited me to a party at his house and I may have been the youngest… no, it was, oh, me and Walter Mosley were probably the youngest guys in the room.

Rob Johnson:

Wow, wow.

Warrington Hudlin:

And we were not young. But everybody else was in there in the 70s and 80s. And the Katherine Dunham was there and she was in her 90s. And I sat next to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Belafonte; they were telling stories about their freedom rides. And these were harrowing, terrifying stories, but in the blues tradition, they were funny.

And they told me a story about how Ossie Davis, who’s from the South, knew about the South and knew how to navigate the South, his colleagues was Belafonte and Poitier, who were both Caribbean guys who didn’t know the South. And one day, they overslept and they woke up and the bus had pulled away. So you had these two guys who were New York, Caribbean guys, panicking because the buses left them. And Ossie Davis thought that was the funniest thing ever. And they were just cracking up, no way… it’s like laughing at the terror of that moment.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, the great theologian, the late James Cone, wrote a book called The Spirituals and the Blues.

Warrington Hudlin:

Oh, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And he said, “The Spirituals are a time when you know you’re in chains and you’re singing about the afterlife.” He said, “But the blues, which really are in the Jim Crow era, are people who are allegedly free, who are not free. And what you do is you use code and humor to create defiance in the here and now. You laugh. You laugh at your fear. You speak in code in defiance.”

I made a record with a gentleman named Willie King, who was a fantastic blues artist. And he had a song called The Boss Man and the Baby, and he told me that what he was really singing about was that when you’re in those days in the juke joint and the boss man comes in with his security people to watch, you sing about, “My baby’s hurting me. My baby’s hurting me.” And the boss man, maybe he had some pain in his marital relationship or whatever, and he’d be starting to nod. But everybody in the room knew you were talking about the boss man in code, you weren’t talking about the baby.

Warrington Hudlin:

Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

So that defiance in those dangerous circumstances sometimes involves a lot of humor and a lot of laughter, but it’s deadly serious.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, I agree. But I would also, those things, I also give blues another kind of an elevated status, where it becomes philosophical and spiritual but it’s not… It’s spiritual. It’s almost like an existential statement. And the difference for me between gospel and blues, is that in gospel, there’s a salvation. Jesus is going to intervene. Jesus is going to redeem you. Jesus is going to save you.

And the blues, you just said that. It just, it is what it is. And there’s no way out and you trapped and you caught, but it’s no need to fall apart. You go ahead and turn it into art. And for me, blues is existentialist expression. And for me, that’s even more proper, because there is no resolution, there’s no escape, there’s no redemption. It’s just you as a human being, staring into the abyss.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. You’re talking to a guy named Robert Johnson, so I can’t disagree with you about the blues.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, you’d mentioned earlier, Freddie Hampton. And I had a conversation on this podcast a couple weeks ago with Isiah Thomas, the NBA star legend from the Detroit Pistons who grew up in Chicago. And his mother, Mary, he’s got a charity in her honor called Mary’s Court. She was an activist, but she worked in Chicago with Freddie Hampton and he described that in our session.

I hope people will step back and how you say, retouch with Isiah’s beautiful, beautiful representation of his approach to life and I think… I named that session Strength Through Vulnerability, that he’s got a really quiet warmth about him. But Freddie Hampton was a big symbol, a big… a beacon in his life.

Warrington Hudlin:

And think about what he did. I mean, Chicago, like many cities at the time, was gang ridden. So you had the Blackstone Rangers, you had this group and that group, and they were all basically pathological, destroying each other. And so he, from what I understood, he called a meeting and everybody came to it. All different gangs came to the big meeting, it was all in the same room, all feeling hostile. And Fred had his Panthers like, “Okay, they locked the doors. It’s okay. Nobody is sleeping until we reach a peace agreement.”

And they was shocked, but the Panthers were all armed. So like, “Oh, you in the room now and they got guns and we don’t.” But basically, he wasn’t trying to… he wasn’t using threat to intimidate, he was trying to using threats to get your attention to focus, to hear what he has to say. And he was personally insightful and charismatic, so the guys said, “Yeah, yeah, you making sense. You’re making sense.” So he brought peace to a community that’s at war with itself. And that’s why the police had to assassinate him, because that’s what they fear more than anything else.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, they couldn’t divide and conquer as easily with his cohesive presence. Yeah.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah, man. So you’re seeing a whole lot of turmoil. It’s not surprising.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yep.

Rob Johnson:

What does surprise you right now?

Warrington Hudlin:

I’m surprised that the echo of this has reached the other side of the world. When I see New Zealand respond, that’s literally the other side of the world. And I saw this morning, there was a statue in the UK of a slave trader, and they put a rope around it and put it off of the pedestal and dropped it into the river. I mean, the international echoes, I must say, that does surprise me.

Rob Johnson:

And I do experience a tension in the contrast. While we have activism here and we’re talking about another surprise, restructuring, dismantling and restructuring the Minnesota Police Department. These are actions that are almost unprecedented as a reaction.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yeah, for sure. For sure.

Rob Johnson:

But what I’m seeing those structural things here, I had a call with a friend this morning who said, “Why are people honoring these people like heroes all over the world, but not here? We need a memorial service for all the pictures in that, all the people in that hero’s picture, plus George Floyd.” Where is the memorial for the unnecessary brutal loss, is the question? But it’s beautiful to see it elsewhere, even so. It is a pleasant surprise.

Warrington Hudlin:

Sure, it’s pleasant. But the most beautiful thing for me, is the fact that City Council of Minneapolis voted to replace the Police Department with Public Safety Office. And there’s a Congressman, I’m not sure how he pronounced his name, he’s a California… starts with a K, a South Asian brother.

Anyway, he is introducing language to… there’s some kind of immunity clause in most police contracts that allow them to really not be held accountable. I mean, if we can simply get the police contracts renegotiated or never signed again with that kind of language that allows them to be abusive and get away with it, then you’ll see changes.

I mean, if I knew that I could kill you and the odds are, I can walk away with it, then I wouldn’t hesitate to kill. I mean, people need consequences. And the Police unions protect the police officers from consequences. And it’s really, it helps the individual bad people, but it hurts everybody because now, genuine people who are responsible are looked at as scams because they were basically an organized crime ring.

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, at some level, I think we all agree that law enforcement is a necessary part of a social structure.

Warrington Hudlin:

Sure.

Rob Johnson:

But the nature of how law enforcement is conducted is a human institution and it can take a lot of different forms, between what you might call representing the public good on the positive side of the pendulum, and this vigilante hideousness that’s, how do I say, been quite present, particularly in black communities on the other.

Warrington Hudlin:

And there’s a difference between law enforcement, law and justice. Those are two things that only occasionally overlap.

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). But you’re right when you talk about, what are the green shoots? What’s blossoming? That decision in Minnesota sets a precedent. It makes it reasonable for other communities to consider similar.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

It changes-

Warrington Hudlin:

Because no one wants to first, but everybody’s allowed to be second.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yep. And I do think this is important because after watching the President of the United States discuss… or not watching, listening to the leaked tapes of the President’s discussion with 50 governors, the idea that you got to go crack some heads, etc., and that’s going to mobilize popularity, we… I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, I worked in both parties in the US Senate in my earlier years, you just can’t talk as though being monstrous is okay in any circumstance.

Warrington Hudlin:

Exactly. Exactly. Yep.

Rob Johnson:

And how would I say? The better angels emerged in Minneapolis on that day that you described. And hopefully, we get to follow through. And hopefully, we see that as starting a precedent and a momentum. I have friends who actually have spent time in law enforcement in the UK and they tell me they’d be terrified to be a police officer in the United States, partly because the culture is so weaponized and partly because they don’t want to use the gun on somebody and then have to live with themselves the rest of their life.

Warrington Hudlin:

And also, I mean, I practiced martial arts all my life. And the fact they reach for the gun so quickly, if they had any kind of serious martial art training, you don’t need to do that. I mean, it’s like, I just don’t understand why you can’t control a situation without lethal violence.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, Warrington, it’s always fascinating. Illuminating. You’re like to Reggie Jackson of my podcast, the straw that stirs the drink.

Warrington Hudlin:

Well listen, I’m happy to be. I’m happy to contribute, because what you’ve been doing all your life and particularly in art, politics, economics, and music and science, I mean, I have much respect. So I thank you for allowing me to be part of this.

Rob Johnson:

Well, all I’m going to say is thank you. And let’s wait to watch how the world evolves. People working together on projects related to film and the like.

Warrington Hudlin:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

Talk more about the Detroit possibilities.

Warrington Hudlin:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

Which you know has my heart.

Warrington Hudlin:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And then, let’s come back and do another podcast after we’ve seen the world turn a few times.

Warrington Hudlin:

I am standing by and ready to go.

Rob Johnson:

Great. Thank you again.

Warrington Hudlin:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

Bye-bye.

Warrington Hudlin:

Bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

WARRINGTON HUDLIN is a veteran producer of motion pictures, television, and online media. He is best known as the producer of the landmark African American films, HOUSE PARTY, BOOMERANG, and BEBE KIDS, as well as the television specials, COSMIC SLOP and UNSTOPPABLE.