An Interview with Noland Walker

Features, FILM, Interviews
Talking Obama’s victory, Chicago, and music documentaries with the director/producer of Citizen King, Jonestown, and Boogie Man.

In korero with The Lumière Reader the day after Barack Obama won a dynamic progressive mandate, Noland Walker is smiling. “I’m more hopeful than 2008. This country is trying to figure out who it is in the twenty-first century. Our election direction chosen is very encouraging. Barack Obama has strengthened his progressive coalition. It’s not surprising, but it is affirming. I couldn’t be more excited, relieved, happier. I couldn’t be more impressed with Barack Obama as a human being, and I’m very excited about his next four years as president.”

Lyndon Barrois celebrating Obama’s re-election in Los Angeles

Lyndon Barrois, The Tree of Life/Matrix Reloaded animation supervisor and director of short film The Lift, is also happy about the result: “Euphoria and pride man, because compassion, truth and logic prevailed over money, superiority, and suppression.”

As when I interviewed him about Jonestown and Citizen King (“Barack Obama is the real deal”), the black director is charismatic and involved, as adept at articulating complex arguments and stories as he is snappy quips. On Politics: “There are things you have to do to stay in the game. Life is long, and it’s complicated.” On Joe Lieberman: “He’s awful”. Is American puritanism re politicians’ personal lives declining? “Not really. Bill Clinton is his own special case.”

Speaking via Skype from his Philadelphia home, he is pleased to hear I had a great Augustan time in Harlem, where Clinton’s Foundation on 125th has been part of the Renaissance. “Harlem is alive and jumpin’, though it’s got its areas that aren’t doing too well. My wife’s mother is from Harlem, she’s still got an apartment there. My joke about Harlem the last few years is ‘the Dutch are taking it back’.”

One of many American improvements since 2008 is better centrestream prominence for compelling, nuanced blacks intellectuals, such as Walker; Jamelle Bouie (“This Senate majority will be far more liberal than its predecessor”); Ta Nehisi Coates (“After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified”); Melissa Harris-Perry (“Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years”); and Jelani Cobb (“Nothing better defined the precise nature of his circumstances than that triumphal moment of birtherism, in which a sitting President was forced to prove his own citizenship…racially profiled.”)

Although “in that first debate he looked like he was gonna give the election away,” Walker agrees Obama ran a strong campaign, holding Romney to account for his record. “He took the fight to the Republicans.” One of the makers of Boogie Man, a fascinating documentary about Lee Atwater, the Republican pioneer of dodgy tactics who mentored Karl Rove, he knows what Obama was up against. Were it not for outrageous Republican gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Democrats could have retaken Congress. “It is what it is. There’s that baseball saying, ‘If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. My son says there were reports on the radio Republicans were ringing black neighbourhoods here in Philadelphia and saying the election had been postponed a day because of Hurricane Sandy.” People power overcame. “Variations on other tried and true discouragement methods. A line is not going to keep us from voting. We’re using to waiting.”

Walker moved to Los Angeles a couple of months before Rodney King got the LAPD treatment. “Had that guy with that video camera not been there, nobody would have believed it. There was a history of justified complaints about LAPD police brutality being ignored due to supposed lack of evidence. Black people were like ‘now we have the video evidence; what we have to do to get justice?’”

We discuss recent music documentaries, such as Still Bill. “I really enjoyed the film. How true to himself he is. Bill Withers still talks like he talked in West Virginia. I really like his values, ideas, morals (not moralism). He wasn’t a showbusiness person, he wasn’t interested in being a celebrity. He was a music maker who did great gigs. I liked Marley even more, it’s pretty great. Not conventional in a lot of ways. It’s about the impact on his kids. It’s about the cost he paid.

“Something you said about Mavis Staples made me think of The Johnny Cash Project, maybe sacred music is the connection. If you haven’t seen it, watch the documentary first, then watch the video itself. Both of the creators were at the Sundance Lab last year and blew my mind.” Speaking of Sundance, he unexpectedly participated in a writers’ panel with Bret McKenzie at Sundance New Frontiers Lab a couple of weeks ago, talking about story, storytelling, and transmedia. “I turned up, and there he was in the next seat. He was great. North-easterners love Flight of the Conchords,” Walker chuckles genially.

“Of all the music I came up with, being a parent— and having lost one of my parents— has deepened my appreciation and understanding of what Stevie Wonder’s about. Not blindly positive, it’s an affirmation of life. I watched this documentary about The Spinners recently. There’s beautiful footage of Stevie Wonder at the front of a Spinners gig rockin’ out with ecstasy.”

The Memphis-born father of three says Wonder is also a positive influence on hip-hop. “Hip-hop’s coming back in a certain way, really. As you say, it was becoming repetitive and reductive. All the songs were sounding the same. All the videos were looking the same.”

Walker is happy people are now after more from hip-hop; and that there are new, cross-form opportunities for community media. “Some people would say public media’s under siege.” Well, Mitt Romney did say that he’d crack down on Sesame St; that Big Bird had to go. “That’s been on the table for a long time. We’re finding new ways to tell stories. Everybody knows change is coming. You don’t just sit and wait. There’s real power in the specificity of place. Technology’s only technology. One of my inspirations is Canadian Film Board website, which employs sound, image, sequencing; it’s immersive. Welcome to Pine Point, about an industrial town that doesn’t exist anymore. Almost like a yearbook. It unfolds, very interestingly. You feel like that you’ve been there, and you’ve lost.”

Speaking of the power of place, I raise my enthusiasm for Chicago, with its vivid atmosphere, delicious food, outstanding attractions (Chicago Art Institute, Aquarium, and— on the South Side— massive Museum of Science and Industry), grand architecture, and pastel-blue Lake Michigan. It turns out Walker’s father’s family is from Obama’s hometown; he lived there from the age of three to nine, and went back in the summers to visit grandmothers and cousins. “I may not be the man to give you a driving tour all over Chicago, but I can get you around the South Side. It’s a great town. Sometimes I ask my wife ‘How come we don’t live there?’ The winters. Practical considerations. The time it takes to break in a new city.”

Alexander Bisley recently interviewed Chicago band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and, back in the day, The New Yorker’s Chief Political Writer Rick Hertzberg.
Filed under: Features, FILM, Interviews


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.