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Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Malcolm Lee in May, 1997.
One of the first things I want to ask you about is the reason why you made Morningside Prep, and how it relates to your own history or your own background.
Well, it originally had started out as a feature-length script, and one that was not quite . . . it was a lot more angry, and it wasn't as well-formed as I think the story is now. I would say that it grew out of my own experiences going to predominantly white prep schools since I was in fourth grade. I think when I was in junior high school, around fifth or
sixth grade, I always thought in my mind that the life I was leading was an interesting one. Because from the fifth grade until the twelfth grade I
was the only black male in my class, and that was eight years. You're pretty much living in two worlds going to those type of schools. I
mean, I come from a two-parent home in a black neighborhood, middle-class black neighborhood and then I'm going up to the Upper East Side and to
Brooklyn Heights to go to school, and it's a totally different environment. The people are different, values are different. I mean, the way
they talk, the way they walk, the way they dress. So it's kind of like you're leading a dual life, and I think that's what I wanted to have come
across especially with the main character, Terrance. When I got to film school I was ready . . . Actually I had written that script, the feature-length script, when I got into the Disney program -- the Disney Screenwriting program. But throughout developing, it didn't really develop. And it's
centered around an assembly -- a controversial assembly -- and it was too wordy at that time. So what I decided to do was pare it down, take the two
characters that were the most interesting -- what I thought was most interesting -- and put them in a situation. Actually D-Train in the feature
was a student in the school already, but I decided to make him a transfer student in the short. I decided to do it in my second year at NYU, and I
was very determined to get it done and get some quality actors to play the parts. So that's what I did.
Well, let's see. Mr. Whitehead was the original name of the Principal
also in the feature. I don't know. I thought like the name just fit. When I was writing, I was very influenced by Spike Lee's
naming of characters, especially in DO THE RIGHT THING -- you've got
Radio Raheem, Buggin' Out, you know, and those kind of names fit the
characters. And I thought Mr. Whitehead just fit. The same with D-Train,
I thought D-Train fit. It was kind of a hip name, and it also had to
do with like urban environment in New York, and he's the speed boy or
whatever, but he is extremely smart. He is coming at you. The same
thing with Terrance Liberty. I mean, he was kind of like this guy who's
caged up and he wants to be free -- liberty. I didn't want to be overt
with it, although it seems that with Mr. Whitehead it's really overt. I mean,
that's what a lot of people think. Especially the first line, where he says, "Sure, Mr. Whitehead," people just die at
that, but I honestly wasn't expecting a laugh out of it.
Well, It came out of the feature, to tell you the truth. Before I had written that scene, a friend of mine said, "You know you need to have . . ." -- because there was another character in there who was like one step from being a Ku Klux Klan member who was in the school -- and my friend was saying, "You know this script is so angry. Why don't you put him and D-Train in an elevator together?" And to set that scene up I put Mr. Whitehead and D-Train in the elevator together and I had them get stuck. And then that became a funnier scene, but I said, "Well, let me see what I can do without getting it stuck, just to see what kind of reaction I can get with these two characters in this closed environment. They're almost completely opposite, you know, and it's going to play itself out." So I put it into the short. I thought that it would be a great scene to put in there even though there's a lot of emphasis placed on D-Train, and the story is really about Terrance. But in any event, I put it in there. When we shot it, Wood Harris -- the guy that played D-Train -- most of what he said was scripted, until he said, "I'm cool like that." Then he goes off from there, and it's improvised. Each take was different, and each take was funny, and it got funnier. I know it's probably the longest elevator ride in history -- in cinema history -- but I couldn't cut it. It was too funny.
Well, I wasn't even going to put that scene in, but one of my professors said, "Right here you need some kind of transition. You need some kind of break." So I said, "OK, I'll do that." I was having them walking down the hall, and I thought that that particular shot . . . I hadn't really liked the way Spike had used it. It's a dolly shot where the characters seem like they're walking but they're actually gliding down the hall. And D-Train is laughing hysterically and Terrance is just like, "I can't believe this guy is going crazy like this. He's got to tone it down, but I don't know how to say this to him without offending him because I like him," and all that type of stuff. But, I thought that it fit there, and that it was a good use of that shot, because it is kind of like a transitional surreal moment, a little slow motion and . . .
That was something that wasn't planned in shooting. We shot those portraits just to get a flavor of the school, but they seemed to fit right there because it works very well. Here is this black kid from the hood coming in to this staid environment, where the founders of the school are just staring at him like, "Wow, what is he doing here? I cannot believe I'm so offended by this boy." They have that haughty kind of presumptuous look about them. This pompous look . . . almost like, "My goodness. What an odd character."
Yeah, they're former principals. That was the stuff that we shot in the school. Actually I don't even know who those people are.
Yeah, definitely. That was the intention in that scene.
Sure, sure. Terrance is walking a very tight
rope. He wants to be accepted by both his worlds. In the opening scene of the film Terrance is in his neighborhood,
in his neighborhood gear, walking like the brothers and the sisters in the
neighborhood and, you know, he's got his hat on backwards; he's got his
knapsack; he's got his big Walkman on and he's like, "You all, what's going
on," blah blah blah. And he is comfortable in that world, but kind of
wearing a mask, you know, he's not really like them in the neighborhood and
he is not like the kids at school. So he is wearing a mask in the
neighborhood and when he comes out of the subway to go in his school's
neighborhood he's like, "Hey guy, how are you doing? I read the
Shakespeare play." And he is in his cardigan and, you know, loafers. And
it's the two worlds that he inhabits and he does not . . . He wants to be
accepted by both. He really desires inclusion, and if it means that he has
to tone down or at least not react to people's insensitive remarks, then
he'll do that. He's not the type of person that would blow up at anybody
for what they say. He might, if he deems it necessary, say, "Well, hey,
that's not a nice thing to say." But he would never go off on anybody.
Yeah. He doesn't get it. I mean, D-Train is such a playful guy. He knows that from the minute that Mr. Whitehead sees him that he's uncomfortable and he's like, "Alright this is going to be fun. I'm going to mess with this guy a little bit."
I think at that point also the whole comparison of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's NATIVE SON to a rat by the teacher offends him, but he is taking it in stride. It's kind of like, "Oh my God. I can't believe these people. They're crazy." But then when Berkeley takes it to another level, and she's just exasperated . . . impatient with learning about some part of his world, something that he relates to, he really gets offended. Like, "I'm learning all this stuff about what contributions that white folks have made to American society and the world, all my life, and you can't listen to one thing. I'm going to let you know about this. I can't believe that you have the audacity to say something like that." And he's going to let her know about it. I mean, he doesn't pull any punches. He's not the type of person that's going to do that. So he just said, "Well, hey, I'm going to let her know." Berkeley honestly doesn't think that she's saying anything wrong, and D-Train doesn't think he's saying anything wrong. I know that he knows that he silenced the classroom, but he's like, "F--- it, man. I got to speak my piece, and let's get on with the book." They are two different characters. I mean D-Train, and it's not to say that Terrance is right all the time or that D-Train is wrong or vice versa, because they're just two different characters. I mean, black America is not homogenous and it's just different ways of dealing with it. Terrance chooses to be accepted and not alienate himself from everybody and be known as this militant. And D-Train is like, "I don't care, you know, let the chips fall where they may."
Oh, the very end.
The story is about Terrance, and he is caught in between two worlds, and he's seen that one world has rejected his other world -- or is not able to peacefully coexist with his other world. So he really does have to make a choice there. Of course, people have been asking where is he going at the end and what is he doing. I have shown it to a bunch of high school kids, too, and they were like, "If that was me, my mother would kill me," and I say, "Yeah, well." It's definitely more a symbolic thing. It's pretty ambiguous -- what happens at the end -- but we do see that, however subtle, Terrance feels some solidarity towards D-Train, and he has to acknowledge that. So I think what I wanted to do there was just show that. I mean, it wasn't a tough choice to make to have him do that, because if he had stayed or I made no decision there wouldn't be any drama there; there wouldn't be any arc to his character. And what I wanted to show was that gradually Terrance is becoming more comfortable in his blackness as the story progresses. I mean, that's why he . . . in the . . .
The basketball scene?
Sure. The basketball scene is one of those that comes about, and also in the student center. He really speaks his mind then, and lets D-Train have it, and at the end of the scene, where everybody is looking at him, he says, "What the f---- are you looking at?" He's feeling it at that point, like, you know, "I'm going to speak my mind also." I mean, he hasn't gone as full circle as D-Train, but he's definitely having some issues there. And I think that in doing that, making him leave, it makes people think. It does give the character an arc. That's what I wanted to accomplish with that. What I wanted to say is there is a solidarity between them, and Terrance did change, or his attitude changed as a result of D-Train being there.
I think that's evident. I think it really comes across well.
And you know, I mean, it's tough . . . It's not like we know that he is quitting school and he's going to be in the hood like D-Train, but I figured his action just tells us that he has changed. His attitude has changed towards the school, and how it is going to run his life from this point on. It's because of D-Train, D-Train's influence, which is a good thing, I think.
It was a story I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell it. I love working with actors, number one. I thought of a documentary, but I'm not into documentaries that much, at least not serious documentaries. I like "mockumentaries" more than anything else. The thought to do it as a documentary or an experimental piece was never in my mind. I had always had this story in my head and it was just how to tell the right story. How to take all those incidents from my youth and adolescence, and somehow conglomerate them and make a coherent story. It had to be tight, because NYU tries to give these restrictions on a second-year film; the film can only be 12 minutes, but I was just like, "Forget the rules. I got to make the movie I want to make. I'm paying the tuition here." I still want to do a feature of this. I have rewritten the feature in the vein of the short and I think that it works now. I think it works very well and I think that it's something that a lot of people will be able to relate to more than just black people. I think that it's a story that involves a lot of characters both white and black and it gets deeper into the issues than the short. I think the short kind of scratches the surface, although some people feel like I've told the entire story in that 26 minutes, but I think there's a lot more to explore. And I don't know, with a documentary I don't think that it has the same dramatic impact that an actor can really bring to it. Maybe I don't believe that strongly in my documentary skills -- or my interviewing skills -- to really get a sense of it. I think you really need those private moments with actors that you won't necessarily get with a documentary.
It also reaches a very different audience.
Yes, as far as an audience is concerned, I thought that
people would relate to this film, but I wasn't really concentrating
on who the audience would be and how they would react to this,
and what not. I just wanted to make the movie I wanted to make. I
thought that people would relate to it, and they do. I have
screened the film in a number of venues, and a lot of them have been not
just film festivals, but for multicultural conferences -- educator
conferences. As a matter of fact, I showed it two weeks ago at an educator
conference with Cornel West, where I was the keynote speaker. It was
very well received there. It makes people think; it moves people. I got a
very interesting comment after one of those screenings where a woman said
to me, "I was very moved by your piece." I said, "I'm glad you enjoyed
it." She said, "Oh, I didn't enjoy it, but I was moved."
That's what I wanted to make -- an entertaining and thought-provoking film. I think I did that. I was blessed to have very
good actors, and a good cinematographer as well.
It looks really beautiful, and the actors are great. Did you have any sort of funny production stories that occured during the making of this, or any other stories around the whole project that you wanted to add?
Well, something I remember during the shoot, was that we were on a
pretty tight budget, and we were doing this shot of D-Train in the
gymnasium. It's the shot where D-Train dunks the ball and he has a
conversation with the coach and then we pan over to Terrance. That shot
took us so long to get right and after about the sixth take I pulled down
my pants, and I pulled my pockets out of my pants, and I pulled the pockets
out of my shorts that I had on, and I said, "Look! Do you see this? I
have no money! We have to get this shot right, and we have to get it right
now! So let's just do it!" We got a big kick out of that.
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