It's rare to watch a stoner comedy and think that its director will make a great interview. But Newlyweeds, writer-director Shaka King's independent comedy/drama (opening today at New York's Film Forum), is a rare kind of movie, one that depicts lives and relationships you see infrequently (if at all, on film), and there's an urgency to King's voice underneath the weedy, mellow vibe.
Newlyweeds, which played Sundance earlier this year, concerns the seemingly mismatched couple Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), whose primary source of enjoyment is sitting around their Bed Stuy apartment smoking weed. They're neither criminal nor squeaky clean—just an average duo of Black New Yorkers who eventually examine their relationship with each other and weed, and how each affects the other. Earlier this month, I visited King's own Bed Stuy apartment (a railroad with, conveniently, a front and back entrance), and we talked about his film, Blackness in movies, and marijuana for an hour and a half. A bag of weed sat in front of him untouched for the duration of our chat. I was hoping we'd smoke some together, and he eventually explained why we didn't when discussing his own complicated relationship with weed.
Gawker: Newlyweeds does some things I haven’t seen before, or have just seen rarely: It profiles the domesticity of more or less normal Black couple, it examines weed dependency, it celebrates Bed Stuy. Did you aim to be different?
Shaka King: I think part of the reason people connected to Kanye West’s early material and basically every sort of Black artist who’s crossed over to the mainstream and has still maintained a level of, “Oh this dude didn’t sell out, I really believe in this guy’s art,” it’s generally the person who is defying the sort of typical idea of Black masculinity and femininity is. It’s crazy to me that there hasn’t really been a movie like this, that I can think of, where you have a holistic portrayal of contemporary Black life in New York City. You have a guy who is probably a high school graduate in a relationship with a girl who essentially grew up pampered. People talk about Bed Stuy and the gentrification of it, and having lived there my whole life, I realized that my parents were really the first gentrifiers 30 something years ago. They were college-educated public school teachers who were like, “We wanna live here, we’re gonna buy a brownstone and renovate it over the course of 30 years and try to raise a family here.” On my block there was a crack house and a doctor’s office. That’s one of the things I still think is so amazing about Bed Stuy. It’s so diverse. In setting this movie here, I wanted to portray that. For the last decade, I feel like most movies [have presented] a segregated, in a lot of ways whitewashed New York, but in some instances it’s just straight hood. I really wanted to portray the fullness.
Sometimes I feel like that portrayal of segregation is honest. The uproar about all the Whiteness on Girls never made that much sense to me: There are so many White people who only hang out with other White people, even in New York.
[Lena Dunham] is portraying a specific community that does not interact. It’s a very closed community. When she caved and brought Donald Glover on, I was like, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Then you’re getting into tokenism. And that’s the worst.
It’s the worst. It’s insulting to people of color who are watchers. We’re much more savvy than that. I think it’s also insulting to content creators who are people of color. If you want to diversify the network palate, why don’t you bring in a young Black/Latino/Asian director to make a show about a community that they know well?