Oscar Watch 2008 Interview #8: Producer Damon Dash
Media Mogul and clothing impresario Damon Dash has a new documentary out about the life and times of Nicky Barnes entitled Mr. Untouchable. Barnes was a heroine dealer in Harlem, a junkie that became a multimillionaire drug-lord. After being sent to prison, Barnes snitched on his friends and family. Now, twenty-three-years later, Nicky is breaking both the street code and his silence. He's provided insightful commentary into his harrowed existence for this new documentary via an exclusive interview. It is a moving look at the life of a villain. Definitely an Oscar worthy expose that explores black crime and the effects on its community. "Mr. Untouchable" is both beautifully and brilliantly detailed in its narrative and purpose.
I recently met up with Dash to discuss the part he played in the production of this particular project. But he didn't really want to talk about that. Instead, he seemed more interested in promoting Haitian boxer Andre Berto. The pair came into my suite at the Four Season, and Dash broke into his pitch right away. Note to the folks at home: He is definitely looking to be the next Don King...
Damon Dash: This is Andre Berto, man. I am getting into boxing promotion, and he is my first fighter. I am doing it with Lou DiBella who has a history of being a boxing promoter. I didn't want to go into this business blind. And it's pretty rare that you come across a fighter that is going to make history. I'm pretty sure that Andre is going to do that. Most promoters will tell you that it takes at least twenty fighters to get one good one. And that's a lot of caring. I got lucky. I had three or four fighters, and he is the one that came up. He has done a lot of good things in boxing so far, because he is exciting. He can win any fight just by playing it safe. But he pushes the fight forward, and he takes chances. He is so vicious, he's kept knocking people out. I didn't know if he could survive a war. But this last fight he had, he made it a war. He fought, and he fought heavy. He administered a lot of punishment. I believe that for boxing, the sport, he is definitely going to make it healthy. With his rank right now, his next bought will be a title fight. I don't know whom he will go up against, but he is in the most prestigious weight class in boxing right now. There is Floyd Mayweather, there's Koto, there is Oscar De La Hoya, there's Shane Mosely. There's that kid from London, Ricky Hatton. You can't have a wack fight in that division. If he gets on top of that? I'm going to make history again!
Being a fan of boxing, it was extremely exciting to get to meet Andre Berto in person. Still, I actually wanted to know more about Dash's involvement in the Nicky Barnes documentary. So I pressed him about the matter. While a beautiful woman snapped photos of both Berto and Dash, the following conversation took place:
The first thing I want to bring up is State Property. I love that movie, but I remember seeing it in Long Beach. I didn't now what it was, I just saw it on the marquee. I asked the black kid behind the ticket counter what it was about, And he just glared at me. He says, "You don't need to know!" (Damon laughs manically) He didn't want me to see it. Why do you think kids, of any culture really, are so protective of what they consider "their" movies? Or "their music"?
Damon Dash: Its because they don't think those people outside of their culture, or demographic, can really understand it. Do you know what I'm saying? It's the subject matter. You have to be conditioned in a certain way to justify doing certain things. It looks like you are glorifying certain things when it's really about survival. They grew up on the streets, so they feel its theirs.
That theme really plays into this movie. At first, Nicky Barnes is really protective of his people. Then, he turns his back on them. What is your personal take on that?
Damon Dash: Where I am from, there is no excuse for that. You know what I am saying? At all. That's just not the way I've been conditioned. The fact that he was the conditioner, he was the main person that put that perspective out there. He set in motion this idea that if you were a snitch, you might lose your life. Just because you've been betrayed doesn't mean you have the right to do something that heinous. You don't tell on other people you love just because they betray you. I've been betrayed. But there are still certain things that I wouldn't do to my friends. I just feel that they are younger. That they are not as involved. On some level, I have to forgive sometimes. Because they are younger and weaker. You know what I mean?
What do you hope the kids who see these take out of it at the end of the day?
Damon Dash: Well, I remember being a kid. And he was my hero on a lot of levels. He had the best cars, the best jewelry, the best dress, the best swagger. Despite the fact that he was destroying my community. I didn't see all that. I remember how I felt, I just couldn't understand why he would turn on all his friends. Even as a youngster. The people around me, who I respected, really should have known more about him. I was really curious why he did it. When I found out why, it just didn't add up. My point is, as a child, he was really influential to me. If there is another guy that comes up like that, I want that kid to know a guy like this isn't necessarily the hero that you think he is. And that because of, maybe, any reason, he will break the rules just because it suits him. That's not right. I think Nicky Barnes is very articulate. I think he is a genius. I can see how he'd be able to lead. I respected his independence, despite of what he was being independent for. But at the end of the day, regardless of everything else, when you tell on your friends it wipes all of that out. I do understand the anger he had, and the betrayal. I do understand that it was the only way he could touch it. But I don't know if he understands what that did to generations of people. If a guy like Nicky Barnes could tell, then that meant that anybody could tell. If I was a young kid, and I didn't know any better, I might say, "Yo, Nicky Barnes told. So why not?" I think it created a domino effect. That's what I think about it.
You seem to have a lot of passion for this subject matter. I know a lot of people coming out of the screening had very passionate views towards this guy being a snitch. Nicky Barnes has a million dollar price on his head. And you guys did an interview with him. How do you keep people associated with this movie from divulging any information as to his whereabouts?
Damon Dash: I don't think they know enough. The whole way this thing was set up was very movie like. The crew people don't know where he's at now. They know where he was. He was just there for that period of time. If someone could have got to him before they made the movie, they could have asked one of the crewmembers, "Do you know where Nicky Barnes is going to be?" But no one knew that they were going to do this. And that time period is over. I don't really believe that anyone is going to fault the moviemakers for not divulging that information, and I don't think anyone is going to press the moviemakers. At the end of the day, this is a different time. These moviemakers are civilians. If someone came to me, and pressed me...Well, not me, but any other filmmaker? He just might call a cop. And that person would go to jail. The more cameras you have on you, the more likely you are to go to jail.
How was this situation set up, anyhow? How did you guys get Nicky Barnes to do the interview?
Damon Dash: I don't know. I came in at the end of it. I couldn't sit in a room with Nicky Barnes. I wouldn't do it. My family wouldn't allow it. I couldn't do it. I wouldn't allow myself to do it because of the rules. As curious as I am about him. As much as I want to ask him, "Why did you do that?" But from where I'm from, once you do that, the most you are going to get is a distant glance. And you shouldn't even get that much. What the fuck can you do?
You picked this movie up after it was made?
Damon Dash: The thing is, I've been trying to make this movie for about ten years. Again, it affected me. When I found myself in a place to make movies, this was one of the movies that I wanted to make. I was like, "Yo, the Italians have their gangster flicks, the Irish have their gangster flicks. Even people from Brazil had their chance. Why can't we have our The Godfather, our Goodfellas, our Casino?" But I wanted to be truthful about it. I wanted that to be that.
Why did you decide to do a documentary as opposed to a biopic? I know that American Gangster is coming out, and that Cuba Gooding Jr. is playing Nicky Barnes in that film, but he is not a central character.
Damon Dash: I think American Gangster is coming out because there was an article in Vanity Fair. Brian Grazer picked it up. But that's Brian Grazer. There was no article in Vanity Fair about Nicky Barnes. You know what I mean? To be honest, gangster films don't do well at the box. And black gangster films don't do shit, and there is no audience for them in Europe. To go to a studio and ask them to spend fifty or sixty million dollars on a period piece that might not perform, and definitely won't perform in Europe, it's very hard to get the movie made. They don't understand the importance of it. I thought a documentary would show the texture and the importance of it, so that they could understand it. So that they could understand the characters a little better. And they have. Most of the movies I have made on a studio level have been happening because of documentaries. Give me anything tangible, and this brings it life. It's got to be hard to understand the texture of that time through the pages of a script.
When you come onto a project, is it just a given that you will be doing the soundtrack also?
Damon Dash: No, I didn't do the soundtrack for this.
But you produced it, right?
Damon Dash: There is no soundtrack for this. I'm just giving out mix-tapes. I'm using the mix-tape as a platform to promote the movie. Because the music was such a serious part of that time period. It looks like a soundtrack, though.
I'm sorry. I misunderstood. I was talking to someone else, and they said you had original songs that you produced for the soundtrack. And that you'd be pushing them come Oscar time.
Damon Dash: No, I'm talking on the mix-tape. To some people that might be an original song, because when I start talking, it begins to sound like I'm spitting. But that ain't it.
Well, are you going to be pushing the film for a Best Documentary Award at this year's Academy Awards?
Damon Dash: Yeah, definitely. If Magnolia has the money to campaign, then I'm with it. I think it should get acknowledged. Actually, you might not have to campaign so hard with a documentary. It might not be so expensive. But then, again, that's a game we got to play.
What is it that draws you to a certain film project?
Damon Dash: I look at my brand overall. I don't want to be known for making just one kind of movie. I want to do all kinds of movies that are good. I want to be known for making good movies. So I might do The Woodsman, because it's a good movie. It felt right. And I'll do Mr. Untouchable because its right. And it's a good movie. If I have the ability to take something that will appeal to urban audiences, yet at the same time I know that pop culture will identify with it, then I'm going to do it. I feel that pop culture can identify with this movie, because this guy is everywhere in pop culture. He's in every neighborhood. This is the real deal. And I'm about making real things. You are getting this from the horse's mouth. Nobody has heard from Nicky Barnes in thirty years. People are so curious to hear, "What is going on with Nicky Barnes?" For years, I've always wanted to know what happened to Nicky Barnes. Why he did what he did. I wanted to take a tally of this person, because I wasn't really around to see him party. And to talk to him. I wasn't around to hear his philosophy. All I know is that in Harlem, he is the person that everyone has talked about for the last thirty years.
You don't know how they got everyone else involved? Like Jazz, and the rest of Nicky's crew?
Damon Dash: What's funny is that I had Jazz's rights when he first came home for jail. Because he is close friends with my family. And we made a script about it. I think everyone that is alive really believes that everyone needs to know this story. Jazz has really good views about it. He wants to show that he can do his time in jail, and then come home and do something positive. There are admiral qualities about him. There are redeeming qualities about Jazz. So all of these people, I think they are eager to tell their story. Learning more about these individuals will maybe make you not want to hustle. If you are happy being on top of the world one day, your whole life might be down the drain the next day. Maybe you had a good five-year run. But for the remainder of your years, you are going to be in prison. Is it worth it? Those five or ten years of fun they had? Was it worth going to jail for the rest of your life? Not getting to see your kids or grandkids. Never being free. Going from the free-est, and having private cars, and, jets, and all the clothes to being locked away. Is it worth the stretch? When you look at this movie, you see that it's not worth it. That's what made me change my ways. Seeing the situation that was around me. I made movies about it. Look at Paid In Full. I was in the street every day. Once I saw Ritchie Porter get touched, I was like, "Damn, anyone could get touched." It's either death and death for the people around you, or its jail. There are a lot of people that have made it out. Out of every three million, maybe one makes it. What makes me feel I could be the one? Instead of selling drugs I sell music. And anything else I can sell. I'm good at selling.
You say you have Jazz's rights. They turned Dogtown & Z-Boys into a biopic called Lords of Dogtown. Are you planning on doing something similar with his story?
Damon Dash: I had Jazz's right. Not anymore. But anything I do will be with Jazz. Of course I've seen Dogtown. Tony Alva taught me how to surf. He's my homeboy. But, absolutely. Those are our intentions with this. To turn it into a biopic. I have talked with James Rosenthal, and we are trying to make that happen. We'll see where it goes.
Are you going to make it more from Jazz's point of view?
Damon Dash: I don't know. I think it's more from Harlem's point of view. This movie is not about Nicky. It's about Harlem, and how he became a product of it.
You still have a clothing line...
Damon Dash: Of course.
Nicky Barnes sunglasses are so trademarked. Is there any plan for you to issue replicas? I know a ton of people that want a pair just like them.
Damon Dash: I might make the sunglasses, but I can't call them Nicky Barnes sunglasses. He was a very stylish cat. He was in the fashion game. I'm sure he still is. But will I capitalize off it? If I can do it without making him a hero, yeah. The bottom line is, I can never make him a hero. Even as articulate and independent as he was.
Like, you can't have Nicky Barnes beach towels hanging all over Venice Beach for sale.
Damon Dash: I can't sell anything that says Nicky Barnes on it. I would go to Hell for that. Just because that's the way I was taught.
Mr. Untouchable opens this Friday, October 26th, 2007 in Los Angeles and New York.