Empathy Is Cheap: A Conversation with Brandon Harris
As a Jewish chick who identifies as genderqueer, has never lived in Bed-Stuy, and is a generation older than African-American millennial Brandon Harris, I am most certainly not the target audience for his remarkable debut Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City. And yet I’ve long been in awe of Brandon’s writing. Back when we were colleagues at a now-defunct film site years ago, I considered him some sort of cinephile prodigy. (And now that we’re both contributing editors at Filmmaker magazine I remain steadfast in that belief.)
So for me, many aspects of the starving artist’s struggle Brandon painstakingly documents in his remarkable debut—including flying to film festivals in far-flung locales only to return to a NYC life of debt and food stamps—hit surreally close to home. And even when I couldn’t relate (I’ve never broken up with a male childhood friend or an upper-class white woman) Making Rent in Bed-Stuy kept me riveted. It’s everything its catchy Amazon synopsis (“coming-of-age story… at the dawn of an era in which urban class warfare is politely referred to as gentrification”) promises—and a great deal more if you’re the type of bibliophile who loves having all preconceived notions upended.
The Rumpus: I agree one hundred percent with your thesis that gentrification is tearing apart longstanding communities like that of Bed-Stuy—but New York City has always had gentrification. I really think we’re dealing with something quite different now (which started under the Giuliani regime and went on steroids under Bloomberg)—namely the corporatization of New York City. Have any thoughts on this?
Brandon Harris: Well yes, the problem of the corporation is a significant problem. Norman Mailer was underestimating the size of the struggle, I suspect, when he suggested it would take fifty years to solve. And yes, gentrification is a process that comes and goes, and it’s certainly not anything particularly new; I talk, a bit, about the “gentrification” of Weeksville as far back at the 1860s and 1870s in the book. But its current breadth and virulence, not to mention its widespread costs for urban working people of all colors, but often mostly black, are rarely discussed in the mainstream media. These problems intertwine to a degree, the influence corporations have over our lives and the ever expanding plague of urban housing, in American cities large and small, that is increasing affordable only for the very few. But by and large I see them as separate issues.
Rumpus: I moved to the city in ’89—and spent over a decade apartment-hopping in poverty in the Village (which included a rent-controlled, seven-floor walkup on Bleecker Street, where I slept in what was pretty much a ceiling storage space), followed by another decade-plus in Greenpoint. I fled a small-town, middle-class upbringing not to “make it” in New York City, but because I’d long been in love with New York City. So with the risk of sounding like a cranky old-timer, I just feel like a lot of recent transplants could be in any metropolis anywhere, especially since most social interactions take place online anyway now. Though your book doesn’t tackle this directly, perhaps the newcomers you document aren’t interested in preserving New York City’s historic neighborhoods because they aren’t truly invested in being New Yorkers in the first place?
Harris: This is an interesting point, one I didn’t really try to get to the bottom of in my research. Not because it’s uninteresting, but because the answer seems rather obvious to me; increasingly the vision that urban white millennials, from the middle to the lower rungs of the upper class, have for every city is more or less the same. The homogenization of city centers has as much to do with the unending tide of staid corporate retail, banking, pharmacies, food service as it does this phenomenon of hipster-BoBo homogenization. Realizing this at the beginning of the Obama era has been very kind to Christian Lander’s media profile, but the greater awareness of this trend hasn’t really led to any meaningful action to counter it.
Rumpus: One of my favorite chapters of the book deals with Cincinnati’s Mini Microcinema—particularly how the experimental film venue, run by a white woman, views itself as bringing culture to the Over-The-Rhine district even as it refuses to really serve, or even engage with, the black residents that are quickly being priced out of the neighborhood. This is one of my main complaints about cinema culture—and film festivals in general, which too often serve as a gathering place for upper middle class and rich white liberals. Cosmopolitan northern cities may like to pat themselves on the back for being inclusive—but the truth is film culture is often even more segregated in places like New York City or Cincinnati than in the south. (I remember being surprised when I first visited the Little Rock Film Festival, where screenings were often filled equally with black and white faces—and the same for the makeup of the young volunteers.) As someone who has also programmed for Indie Memphis, do you think this is a regional problem, maybe a blind spot in Yankee cities that were never forced to desegregate?
Harris: I’m not sure if it’s a regional problem or not. Certainly our festival in Memphis, a city that is nearly two thirds black, has no choice but to make black folks feel welcome in our cinemas, to cater to their own sensibilities, to shed light on their untold stories. It would be suicidal not to and I think our mostly white board realizes that. There are organizations that are similarly focused on cultivating viewership and participation among African-Americans in the north, but I share your sense that film festivals in the south, though not all, have generally felt more inclusive to me.
I have no doubt that Jacqueline Wood, who runs the Mini Microcinema, is trying to do something good for, at least for now, the mostly African-American community that her cinema inhabits. I don’t doubt her intentions. Since the initial publication of one of the pieces I weaved together to formulate the Rhode Island Avenue chapter late in the book, the Mini has hosted its fair share of black programming. The disrespect for audiences and filmmakers and little black kids I wrote about at the Mini in 2015 was something I hope everyone working on the project learned from and ultimately transcends. So far it’s not looking good, though; they kicked me out of their cinema last Christmas, one of only two black people there, in my first visit since the publication of “Microcinema Blues,” for no other reason that I have written critically about them. So it’s amateur hour over there currently, and there aren’t any black people consulting with them or in leadership positions, but they are a small organization and I am rooting for them despite my cynicism. Every town deserves an outlet for experimental cinema, even formerly black neighborhoods in Midwestern cities where only big corporations have the money to write the future on behalf of the city fathers.
Rumpus: On this “whiteness of film culture” note, I remember once taking one of my closest friends—who happens to be a plump black guy—to a Lincoln Center press screening of Hunger (still my fave McQueen film). Craig looks nothing like the director, and yet a white guy also attending actually mistook him for McQueen! People rightly complain about the Oscars being so white—but isn’t this glaring lack of diversity in criticism a major root of the problem?
Harris: Yeah, I suppose. But there are plenty of us around. It’s just that, with the exception of Lisa Kennedy, Armond White, Wesley Morris, or in theater someone like Hilton Als, and perhaps a few others I’m forgetting, the best black critics I know can’t make a living doing it. People as talented as Ashley Clark, Odie Henderson, Miriam Bale, Steven Boone, and Kartina Richardson don’t write nearly as much as they ought to about the movies because there is so little money in it. And, generally speaking, American negroes entering the milieu of the New York magazine, film, and literary criticism worlds have less resources and connections, both financial and personal, in which to keep chasing ever dwindling high-profile staff criticism gigs, than many of their peers.
Rumpus: You’re also equally tough on hip-hop culture. The book contains a wonderful essay on Biggie Smalls—and the notion that rappers like Jay Z and Sean Combs, flashing wealth in their music videos as opposed to showing the realities of the streets they grew up on, obfuscate as much as any real estate broker. Isn’t the romanticizing of poverty, though, often a necessary means of survival as well?
Harris: For rappers specifically, or black cultural creators in general? I’m not sure. I do know that unfettered capitalism, in its most base and unsavory forms, have better spokesman than the men, and women, who gave us so much of the most vital hip-hop of the 1990s. If not for the barely concealed racist agenda upon which much of modern Conservatism is built, many of the era’s greatest rappers would make wonderful Republicans with the pro-capitalist, anti-gay undercurrent of so much of the era’s most enduring music. Have you listened to the Marshall Mathers LP recently? It would not pass muster in our more sensitive era.
Rumpus: In your piece on Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus you basically stage a takedown of Lee (who I always suspected of being a bit of a social-climbing film snob) for anointing himself the face of black cinema—and all the while crowding out more talented black filmmakers. But doesn’t Lee’s stance also, ironically, make him guilty of being the black filmmaker that white Hollywood can hold up as an example of their “inclusiveness”?
Harris: Spike succumbed to the same thing Richard Pryor and later Eddie Murphy did, Hollywood’s desire to anoint a Head Negro in Charge, a spokesman for the race. He seems to relish the role even as he stresses in interviews, including to me personally when I chatted with him, that blacks are no monolith. Look, I have tremendous respect and reverence for Spike Lee. As I say in the book, I doubt I would have ever taken the idea of being a filmmaker seriously without his example. He is a significant American artist, a legend, and deservedly so. My concern about his recent work stands, however, and we tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses perhaps. As my friend Nick Pinkerton pointed out recently, “even in Lee’s early, hungry years, his style—expressionistic camerawork, caricaturist characterization, Brechtian breakthroughs—was always flirting with catastrophe.”
As for your other point, I don’t think Spike has intentionally crowded out other black filmmakers, although discussions I’ve had with various black filmmakers from the 1990s who came up after him and black students of his at NYU suggest ambivalence on his part, if not outright antipathy. Other friends of mine, black filmmakers who have been taught by him and have had their works produced by him, are grateful for his support, when it comes, but have told me privately they agree with much of my critique. Regardless, he is a very talented fellow and I want nothing more, every time out, to love the new Spike Lee film; Rodney King, albeit mostly Roger G. Smith’s achievement, was outstanding and in general his documentary work remains top notch.
Rumpus: As a genderqueer chick who spent many a summer at the Fire Island Pines—where only a handful of guys, all dudes of color, ever said hello to me, or even acknowledged my presence, on my morning walks—I find it thrilling that you address the idea that just because you believe you belong in a particular space does not mean you’ll be accepted by others in that space. Have you discovered any best practices for dealing with this wearying reality?
Harris: I haven’t. I would say that empathy, a popular bleeding heart liberal buzzword, is cheap. Engagement is harder perhaps, achieving a real sense of belonging and solidarity perhaps hardest. I am not from Bed-Stuy and never will be. A sense of belonging there is something I still struggle with; I will again live there pretty soon, but I doubt I am long for the space. But in my awareness of the complexities of the place, and of its history, and of the seeming shape of its future, I’ve found some solace. Being candid, and open, about what one’s presence represents is perhaps a first step and a big reason, besides narcissism, money, revenge and making peace with who I am and who I’ve been, that I wrote the book in the first place. Working actively against the forces which might try to violently upend an old, imperfect but humane, order of housing prices and community is tough though when you’re very presence is representative of the upheaval to come.
Rumpus: When I published my erotic memoir a decade ago my editor really had to push me to focus on myself. It’s not that I’m shy—it’s just that I find others a million times more interesting. Was it difficult for you to write about yourself as a character?
Harris: Oh yeah. Depicting my often sordid circumstances with extreme honesty was, other than writing, as imperfectly as I did, about people I love, certainly the hardest part of this process.
Author photograph © Kaleem Aftab.