Monday, January 15, 2007

Interview with Danny Hoch

White Boys is a powerful new comedy from Slam director, Marc Levin and writer/actor, Danny Hoch. Set in the cornfields of Iowa, White Boys is a hilarious and provocative look at the white hip hop culture trying to “keep it real” in the farm communities of the Midwest.

Hoch also portrays the lead character, Flip, based on a character he first developed in his one-man show, Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop (also shot as a feature). I rolled with Danny while he was pimpin’ White Boys for Fox Searchlight.

As a white boy, what does hip hop mean to you?

Hip Hop was the defining culture of my generation. No matter where you came from or what generation immigrant you are, if you grew up in the late-‘70s, early-‘80s in NYC, you were hip hopped out.

Did you ever toy with becoming a rapper?

Hell yeah. When I was ten, twelve I used to do everything from MC to b-boy to tag on the train. The only thing I couldn’t do was DJ, because I didn’t have any turntables. I had a turntable that you couldn’t even scratch on, and I broke it. But back then everyone aspired to it. You wanted to be the best writer of your neighborhood. You wanted to be an MC, have a record, and drive around in limousines, talk to women. And a lot of people still want to do that today, if I’m not mistaken.

What was your impression when you first heard rhymes laid over a beat?

Boim! I think 1978 or ’77 was the first time I ever heard hip hop. It was the Treacherous 3 or Grandmaster Flash. You gotta remember that in the outer boroughs of NYC, disco was the predominate music, not rock-n-roll. So rapping over the disco beat was something that was revolutionary. But it was also a natural progression. So everybody flipped out. Everybody was like, “Oh, this is it. You gotta do this.” But I’m actually talking about rap music. You know, hip hop culture I really think transformed a lot of peoples’ lives, you know, from way back then. And now my hip hop generation has come of age. A lot of us are activists and lawyers and teachers and some of us are running for office. The initial cultural resistance has now turned into put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is. Put your actions where your mouth is, or where your mouth was.

Whether it’s rap, heavy metal or punk, white males tend to gravitate toward angrier music? What do you see as the fascination?

I know that when I was ten years old, I stood in front of the mirror and was like “Wait a second. I’m not like Dan Rather on TV. I’m not like these people on the soap operas.” In the Midwest, I met these kids who were as blonde as blonde can be who had their hair braided and, you know, who were thugged out.

I did a workshop on the media and hip hop and the sort of commodification of hip hop and this one kid told me, “Man, so what? I drink 40’s. I smoke Blunts, you know. So what? I’m thugged out, you know. Whatta you want? Like, I’ll kill you, man. I’m black.” I was like “Holy shit. You are the antithesis of black.” So I thought, “Well here is truly a cultural phenomenon.” Because we’re supposed to believe from TV that white folks all over the country act a certain way. The truth is that the history of white folks and black culture has been an embracing in intent consumption. That’s why we set it in Iowa. So it would be more transmutable.

So, do you see yourself somewhat as a voice of the white hip hop culture?

People see me as a voice, because I am one of the few voices Hollywood lets you see. But am I the voice of the oppressed? No. Ever since I was young, I wanted to act out. And I was acting out in some other ways, whether it was graffiti or drugs, etc. etc… But when I was 13 or 14, my mother made me audition for the high school of the performing arts, the Fame school. I can’t knock it because if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you now, for sure. I would’ve wound up in jail or dead or like a lot of people in my neighborhood.

When I focused my studies in acting, it occurred to me that a lot of the people that we were studying had nothing to do with this generation or with my community and that was bothersome to me. I wanted to see my generation, and I wanted to see my community reflected, whether it was in TV or films. So that’s why I started to create all these characters as a solo actor. And ultimately, Hollywood came knocking at the door and I submitted screenplays and TV shows and everything was rejected because there were too many non-white people. Everybody, you name it. Fox, Paramount, ABC, NBC, New Line, Fine Line, f*cking everybody.

I never intended to be a writer. I did it because Hollywood came to me and said “Wow, you’re doing some really hip sh*t, write something for us.” Then I realized they didn’t really want me to write something for them, they just wanted to co-opt some really hip sh*t.

How much of your own background and experiences did you bring to Flip?

I originally had a character (in Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop) who was a lot like myself--a young Jewish kid who got arrested for graffiti and drug possession two weeks after his bar mitzvah. The problem with that was that it was culturally specific to New York in terms of who the character was. I had been submitting screenplays and television pilots to Hollywood for years and I kept getting the response, “There’s too many black people in this film” or “This is too New York. -- You need a white central character because America’s mostly white Americans, and they don’t respond to that.” So aside from the sort of blatant racism connected to that, I thought, “You know what? You want a white central character, I got a white central character!” I went to Iowa and I met him. I met a lot of these kids when I was on tour around the Midwest. You know these kids like in White Boys.

Is Flip just rebelling because he is a teenager or is it something more than that?

Part of him is just being a teenager. I think all teenagers want to rebel. No matter who they are. No matter where they come from. I think something key about what drove him is all these factories closed down in the Midwest in the ‘80s and left all these white people on welfare. And if you look at television, white people are not supposed to be on welfare--although we know that the majority of people on welfare are white.

He’s sitting there at home looking at these images of gold-chain clad young black men with fancy cars and women in bikinis and flashing cash, saying to himself, “Now wait a second, aren’t I supposed to be that? What are they doing like that, and I’m sitting here in a cornfield?” He’s trying to reconcile himself with that, but at the same time, I don’t think he has it in him to be an overt racist. He wants to do the right thing. He feels like, “Yeah, man, me and the bruthas, we’re all one.” But what’s his understanding of what that means? His ability to articulate that is skewed. That’s something that hip hop suffers from. Not across the board, but when we went out there to shoot the movie, we went to malls to look for CDs, there was no Roots, there was no Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill had just come out, but it wasn’t there! It was all Master P. It was the inarticulateness of rebellion.

On one level, it’s good because it rebels and it is a resistant communicative tool, but on a negative level, it’s inarticulate in its resistance. And that’s what Flip gets. He’s watching BET and MTV. We know what they show on there.

With the hubbub over the absence of people of color in the new fall season in mind, how do you think the lack of exposure affects white boys in Iowa?

The absence of people of color on television, or the one-dimensionalization of people of color on television, perpetuates racism. It perpetuates classism. It distorts our understanding of each other. You know, Flip is a perfect example. He gets all of his knowledge of African-Americans on television.

Those two white kids in Wyoming who beat to death that young gay white kid, where did they get their images of homosexuals from? I just did Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop in Australia. This guy came up to me after the show and he was upset with me, like, “Why are you criticizing your government so much. You’ve got the greatest TV shows, etc. etc. What’s the problem? We know all about the Blacks and Puerto Ricans over there.” And I said, “Really? How do you know?” And he said, “Because of the shows.”

So, if they’re making decisions about who we are as a country in Australia, how are we making decisions in Iowa, and how are we making decisions in Maine… and how are we making decision in Congress about the people who live in this country if they’re not there? Or if they are there, they are one-dimensional?

What do white boys think of this movie?

I don’t think all white people think the same. I’ve heard the whole spectrum, from “this movie sucks” to “this movie is the greatest thing since sliced bread.” “I know people just like this” and “That’s just like Littleton, Colorado.” I’ve heard the spectrum.

And I’ve also heard the same spectrum from black folk. We had a test screening in Los Angeles of a bunch of under-30s. Throughout the movie, the black kids in the audiences were looking at the white kids to see if they were being made fun of, and vice versa, the white kids were looking at the black kids to see if they were being made fun of. And the Latino kids and the Asian kids were kind of looking at both of them like, “Oh sh*t, what’s gonna pop up?”

And I think that was success, in a sense, because the onus was put on the entire audience in terms of their responsibility to themselves and their identity. We didn’t attempt to make a comedy where people were just jumping around quoting Master P. songs. We intended to make people uncomfortable so they could think about themselves and about how they see other people.

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