Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Q&A: Elvis Mitchell (pt. 2)

Elvis Mitchell resigned from the New York Times in the spring of 2004, soon after the Times elevated another of the paper’s film writers, A.O. Scott, to “chief critic” status. Elvis says he left simply because “it was time to go.”

Instantaneously, New York magazine ran a gossipy piece taking shots at him. “Mitchell is known for his opportunism as much as his talent,” wrote Carl Swanson. “[H]e never seemed to make time for the job…. He always seemed to be looking for something better.” And supposedly Elvis ran up “gigantic” expenses.

Before bringing up the subject of his Times departure, I had to ask Elvis about something else…
DAVID MILLS: Tell me the story of how you almost became a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”

ELVIS MITCHELL: Oh God. I had written a piece about “Saturday Night Live” and met Lorne Michaels. And the thing about Lorne Michaels is, everybody who meets him does a Lorne Michaels impression. “You know, Elvis” – ’cause I had been offered a job as an executive at NBC – “you’re not an executive. You’re a writer. Let’s see what I can do about getting you on as a writer on this show. Let’s see what kind of bucks I can get you.”

So I would go and hang out there. I saw Jim Carrey audition for “Saturday Night Live.” I know people say he never did; I saw him audition. It was an amazing thing to see, because I had only seen him in a couple of bad movies and bad TV shows, so you had no sense of what he could do at that point. This was before “In Living Color.”

And he was amazing. He was double-jointed, he would throw his arm behind his back at a 45-degree angle. “Do an impression of Jay Leno.” “I’ll do Jay Leno’s manager.” It was just kind of effortless. And he didn’t get hired.

MILLS: So what happened with the writing gig?

MITCHELL: It was a show that Harry Shearer had a great line about. He said that it’s an intensely hierarchical organization masquerading as a college dorm. And I’m no good at politics. Any job that sort of had anything to do with politics, I’ve always been incredibly bad at.

So even having been offered this job – I had a standing offer there for a while – I just knew that I wouldn’t survive in that kind of world.

MILLS: What year was that?

MITCHELL: ’Eighty-eight.

MILLS: By that time, they hadn’t yet had a black full-time writer on “Saturday Night Live.” Warren Hutcherson was the first. And that wasn’t until ’91 or ’92.

MITCHELL: Actually I met Warren on the show. Warren and Vanessa Middleton were writers on the show.

It was interesting to go up there in those days. About 12:30, all the black people would be sitting in Lorne Michaels’ office, ’cause they would’ve done their sketch already. So it would be me and Chris Rock and Warren Hutcherson just sitting around talking. “Whadda you wanna do?” “I don’t know. Whadda you wanna do?”

MILLS: You were still hanging around there at that point?

MITCHELL: It was fun to hang around there.

MILLS: I bet it was.

MITCHELL: To have that kind of access, to be able to go up there and sit in Lorne Michaels’ office and watch the stage, it was really interesting to see the workings of the show.

There were two shows that all the black cast members got to do something on. The show Michael Jordan hosted, which was like being in the center of the sun that week. There were more people hanging around the show who just wanted to breathe in the same air that Michael Jordan was breathing.

And there was one show that was shockingly great that everybody thought was going to be awful. It was a great episode that Sinbad hosted, which had amazing stuff on it. It was the year that Superman had been killed, so they had a funeral for Superman, all these super heroes, and Sinbad played Black Lightning. They wouldn’t let him in because nobody’d ever heard of him. …

MILLS: You say there’s nobody more pretentious than college actors. You want to revise that after having worked at the New York Times?

MITCHELL: I don’t think anybody at the New York Times is pretentious. … Everybody who’s there probably wanted to be there since he was a kid. And I was probably the one person who never thought I’d ever end up at the New York Times. I really didn’t.

And when I got there, the thing I learned is that there are so many layers that your copy has to go through. It was sort of a struggle to try to get stuff in. Not because they didn’t like what I was writing, but just because anything that’s kind of contemporaneous just got lost, because a lot of editors there just weren’t in touch with the ongoing popular culture in the way that I was. Because I feel that movies and television and music all intersect.

The exciting thing for me was bringing that kind of expansiveness to the paper. I got to write about Dave Chappelle’s show there in its first season, before it caught on, and mention the troubles he’d had with ABC that eventually predicted his walkout at Comedy Central.

MILLS: The piece you wrote that sticks in my mind as having great foresight was your New York Film Festival review of “Amores Perros.” That was the first indication I ever had that something was happening cinematically out of Mexico. And now it’s all happening. “Children of Men” was amazing, “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Just being at the New York Times you have the power – not necessarily to set a trend but to point America at something that’s happening in the culture. Did you feel that when you were working there?

MITCHELL: You know how I became aware of that? I was working on a CNN show, “Entertainment Weekly,” and there were things I wanted to try to do. Like I wanted to do a piece on how there were no black dramatic hour-long shows. And I remember getting into an argument with the producer of the show. “What about ‘Homicide’?” “[That’s] a couple of guys amongst a mostly white cast.” “What about ‘NYPD Blue’? What about ‘ER’?” “It’s the same thing.”

But when you say something like that in the New York Times, the entire journalistic world pays attention to it. Nothing ever goes away once you write it. It becomes sort of a constant part of that cultural conversation. So I was aware of that as an African American at the New York Times – there’s an impact that I could have.

That “Amores Perros” review – One of the things I’ve always wanted to do in any review I write is try to convey my feelings, especially when there’s a real excitement about a new talent. That was a great year, 2000. That was the year of “Amores Perros,” that was the year of “In the Mood for Love,” that was the year of “George Washington.” That was a great year to have as my first year as a film critic at the Times. I just happened to be there when the wheel went ’round, really. I was so thrilled to get to write about that movie.

MILLS: Can we talk about how that job came to an end? Because that became a media story itself. I re-read the New York magazine piece –

MITCHELL: You would think I killed somebody, based on that New York magazine piece. My God. It’s so weird to be a member of the press and be slandered like that. I felt like I had died and I was reading something about me after I had died. “I didn’t slap those kids! I didn’t blow up that building! They never convicted me of any of that stuff!”

It was so strange. I remember, I was teaching at Harvard and going to get my ticket every week at the US Air shuttle to go to Boston. And because New York magazine is one of those magazines they give out free at the shuttle, everybody that day at the shuttle was [saying], “Elvis, you seem like such a nice guy. What is all this stuff that you did?” That actually happened to me.

MILLS: Yeah, it’s weird to read it even now.

MITCHELL: I never knew where that stuff came from. But I think that’s a job that can develop a lot of jealousy in people. And I guess I’m not a hermit, I go out a lot. And because I’m impossible to miss, as the black film critic with dreadlocks, at any film festival they could always spot me. Whereas other critics can sort of hide and meld into the background. “You’re that guy from the Times, right?”

In fact, I had a guy once come up to me with dreadlocks and say, “Somebody asked me if I was a film critic from the Times.” So I was very easy to spot.

I think being public and being in that job just created some kind of resentment towards me that really manifested itself in all those attacks on me right after I left.

I just left because I felt like it was time to go.

MILLS: Okay.

MITCHELL: I was at some film festival and some movie star said to me, “Who’s your publicist? You got so much press for that.” I don’t have a publicist. You would’ve thought I did, but I don’t.

I was even told, when I started there at the Times, “You’re about to step into a – You’re going to become a really big fish.” One of the editors said that to me.

But one of the great things about having that job was, when I was at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001, and the Toronto police pulled guns on me, I got to write that in the Times, and got to hear from a lot of African Canadians – a term I’ll never make fun of again – who wrote to me and said that kind of thing happens up there in Canada all the time. But there’s no black press up there, so there’s nobody really invested in writing about that kind of stuff. You always think of Canada as being this kind of place where everybody’s loved and everybody’s free and everybody’s happy.

I’ve been stopped by police almost in every state I’ve ever been in. A California highway patrolman pulled me over and asked me to recite the alphabet backwards from R. But I’d never had a cop pull a gun on me before.

This was two cops. I was with six white people, two of whom were co-founders of the festival, and they were all horrified by this. So getting a chance to get that out made me really happy about being at the New York Times, because it made a huge difference.

MILLS: You were a friend of Gerald Boyd’s? [A former managing editor – and the highest-ranking black editor in New York Times history – Boyd died last November.]

MITCHELL: Gerald is one of the people who told me I had to take the job.

I was so off the radar for this job that the day I was going in for the interview, there was a piece in the New York Observer talking about the top ten candidates for the job, and I was nowhere on the list. Nobody had any idea I was ever gonna get this job.

And Gerald said to me, “You’ve gotta take this job. It’s too important, for what you’re going to represent, for you not to take this job.” Because I didn’t say yes right away. I was with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time. I said, “I’ve got to go back to these people and tell them, because they’ve been very good to me. … If they had some good-faith offer they wanted to make in response to this, I owe them that.”

Gerald took me aside and said, “I understand that. You can’t not do this. This is too important for what you’re going to represent. And if you’re here in five years, you can write your own ticket. You can go teach, you can go write a book. You don’t have to stay here forever. But it’s too big a deal for you not to do this.”

MILLS: As a matter fact, Henry Louis Gates – probably the preeminent black intellectual in America – said it was “a great day for the race” when you got that job. Damn, no pressure, Elvis! But that was the trip Gerald Boyd was laying on you?

MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah. But I understood that, because Gerald was a “first” in a lot of ways there too. And he understood what that represents, you know. I used to go these NABJ [National Association of Black Journalists] things. And the New York Times was always the thing that people hoped one day they would get.

And I never imagined – I just never thought I was a Times kind of writer. And I think my being there, I hope it opened doors and changed some people’s perceptions. Because I know after I got there, whenever I got asked to do a speaking engagement, especially at a high school or something, I always went because I thought kids should see my example and see that if I can do this, they can do it too.


justjudith said...

great interview. reciting the alphabet backwards from r?? dayum!

S.O.L. said...

Wonderful interview, David. I've been following Mitchell's career for years -- I just really love the way he writes, his words, his style but this is the first interview that got me inside his head a little which to me is pretty special. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

From the NY article: but his appointment to teach two classes as a visiting lecturer this semester nonetheless took the Times by surprise. (“He took another full-time job while he was working here as a film critic?” is a typical expression of culture-section disbelief.)

Teaching two classes is full-time? I once taught three classes as an Adjunct Lecturer and was not considered full-time. Huh.

Anyway, I echo justjudith and s.o.l.'s sentiments. Great interview, David!