First Person: Michael and Me

By Cecil Brown
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:14:00 AM
Michael Moore and Cecil Brown with the latter's book.
Michael Moore and Cecil Brown with the latter's book.

In the early ’70s, I lived at 2700 Virginia St. in the Berkeley Hills with a sublime view of the Golden Gate Bridge. My next-door neighbor was Adam, a Jewish guy who took care of his son, David, while his wife taught at UC Berkeley. I, as a black writer, and Adam, a stay-at-home father, had a lot of free time on our hands. While taking care of David, we talked a lot about writing fiction and the books we loved. And, of course, we also talked about how we were going to change the literary world. With the publication of my novel, I was something. I threw parties and invited everybody—English department celebrities like Mark Schorer, Larry Ziff, and Leonard Michaels, and lots of writers, like Richard Brautigan, Claude Brown, Richard Pryor and Ishmael Reed. Adam was always invited. 

Years passed and we left the idyllic abode in the Berkeley Hills. When we crossed paths again, we celebrated our latest successes—I had written a film for Richard Pryor, and he had co-founded a magazine called Mother Jones. 

We were still so fond of each other that we wanted to realize some of our ideas about writing and publishing. The next thing I knew, I had written the cover story about Richard Pryor for Mother Jones. 

Several years passed, and we ran into each other again. What was he up to? He was starting a Writer’s Union. Would I like to lead a panel on the ills of writers? Of course. 

Years passed and I ran into Adam again. He was excited about his new editor at Mother Jones. Did I want to pitch him some ideas? 

I went by the office to meet the new editor, Michael Moore. Even back then he was a big guy—a big white guy with a friendly smile. I remember his great sense of humor, though he did turn down some of my stuff. However, before we could get started, Michael was fired.  

There was a big ruckus at the magazine, and my interest wandered; after all, I was running with Richard Pryor, and Hollywood beckoned. 

I heard through the grapevine that Michael Moore had sued Mother Jones and, with his $87,000 settlement, he made his first film, Roger and Me. 

It always hurts to be fired. But it must especially hurt to be fired by Adam Hochshild! Adam is not a bad guy. He’s a sweet guy. A writer. I read somewhere that after the film turned out so well, Michael wanted to thank Adam for firing him. Otherwise, he would have never found himself and his calling. In the film, he admits that, “It wasn’t that I was upset about getting fired, it was going back to Flint, Michigan.”  

I could relate to that, it was the personal voice. He then uses his persona as the allegory for larger problem—the factory layoffs and the GM culture. 

I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought another thing about Michael Moore if it hadn’t been for a very beautiful woman in Berkeley who asked a favor of me. She had a young son who wanted to be a writer, and since I was a writer, would I talk to him? His problem, she said, was that at 17, he was too smart for Berkeley High; all he wanted to do was “smoke dope and read Michael Moore.” 

Of his two vices, I was unfamiliar with one of them, so in order to talk to him I decided to read a book by Michael Moore. 

I walked into a bookstore on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, and picked up Dude, Where’s My Country? After a few chapters, I was laughing loud and hard. 

I saw immediately what all the fuss was about. Moore has a wonderful technique of picking an outrageous topic and making the reader laugh. While the reader is laughing, he connects the humor to an underlying meaning, or idea. I loved that technique; it seemed so familiar. 

Where had I seen that before? Richard Pryor, of course. This was his method, too. 

Richard and Moore always introduce themselves into their stories because they need a persona.  

Apart from technique, there is this thing Michael has about commitment to ideals. Not long after that, I was driving in my car listening to the radio. There was a commentator saying that, as a filmmaker, he didn’t want to work with whites any more. He wanted to work with black people. I didn’t know who was speaking and assumed he was a black filmmaker left over from the 1960s. But who, could that be? Melvin Van Peebles? He was in New York. Gordon Parks? No, he’s dead. 

When the announcer said that the guest was Michael Moore, I had to pull my car over and give this some thought. Could it be that racism is so bad that black men can no longer speak out for themselves and must now rely on a white man? 

A few days later I saw that he was giving a talk and a screening for his film Sicko and I went to it. During the question-and-answer period, I raised my hand and asked him why he preferred making films with black people. 

He recalled coming out of church with his family when someone announced that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.  

“I was 13 years old, getting out of the car with my parents. Somebody said, ‘They just shot Martin Luther King.’ A cheer went up. I was 13. Uh, this was one of those moments when you go, OK, fuck this. I want out of this place.’” 

He then told the audience of about 2,000 upper-class people in Mill Valley that this was the moment he realized he was born into the wrong community 

He continued with the answer. Once he made a lot of money with Roger and Me, he turned to his wife and said, What good can we do with this money? Since there had never been a film produced by a black woman, he decided to finance a young black woman, “Just Another Girl on the IRT.”  

Michael helped Leslie Harris, director, writer and producer, land the job directing Oprah Winfrey’s adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

It was a moving response and sincerely meant. 

After this encounter, I decided to write a book saluting his technique and humor. I took something that I was personally involved in at UC Berkeley. 

I took an outrageous title and related it to a serious situation. At the time, faculty members of the UC system were scheduled to walk out in protest over student fee hikes. Ironically, many who sat on the sidelines while blacks and other minorities fought for affirmative action were now crying the blues.  

A French commentator once asked James Baldwin what it was like to be a Negro. Baldwin responded to the Frenchman that he need not worry, that one day he would be Negro, too. What Baldwin meant was that the conditions that created the “Negro problem” could and can happen to whites too. This is the underlying theme I wanted to get across (hopefully, through humor,) about what was happening at UC Berkeley. 

I asked my 13-year-old nephew what film he considered to be great film. He said, “I tell you a really great film, Dude, Where’s My Car? I saw the film and realized he was right. It was the film that inspired Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s my Country?, the book that I liked so much. 

So I came up with, Dude, Where’s my Black Studies Department? 

The proof of my success with this technique and this book is that I get e-mails and praise because the title of the book leads the reader to think seriously about an otherwise uninteresting topic: affirmative action and the lack of black in our universities. Here is the latest e-mail from a reader back East: “Dear Professor Brown, You don’t know me from a can of paint …But I just read your book on Black studies…The title of the book is deceiving and would not normally give the impression that it’s the serious work that it is. The book is great.” 

This is precisely what the Michael Moore method teaches. Do you think Bowling for Columbine is about bowling? Is his new movie Capitalism—A Love Story just about capitalism? Is Sicko really just about health care? They are all actually about the lost art of getting your reader to laugh, so that her inhibitions are distracted and you can effectively get a serious idea across. That was Mark Twain’s method, too. 

So my hat is off to Mr. Michael Moore. He has combined the many voices of the black leaders I grew up with. In his analysis of the racial situation, he retrieves the moral tone of James Baldwin. In his political militancy, he brings to my mind the voice of Eldridge Cleaver. In his wit and sagacity, I hear the voice of Dick Gregory. In the outrageous laughter that he provokes, he resuscitates the wry crack of my main man, Richard Pryor.