On today’s podcast, we present part one of a two-part interview with filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson, who — over the last three decades — have made some of the most in depth and insightful documentaries about the overlapping American crises of crime, incarceration, societal disruption and the struggles of governments to cope with these seemingly intractable issues. I have known Marc and Daphne since 1992 when they were making films in HBO’s documentary department, where I worked for the legendary television executive, Sheila Nevins. At the time, Marc and Daphne were working with Marc’s dad, Al Levin, who was a thoughtful, kind and passionate man, and a real mentor to all of us until his passing in 2006.
Part one of this interview covers Marc’s and Daphne’s journeys into the world of storytelling, as well as their film work in the 90s and early 2000s.
Marc Levin, Daphne Pinkerson. Thank you for being with me today.
Thank you for having us, Kary.
What I want to do first is offer you both an opportunity to tell us about the people, ideas, and events that shaped you from a young age, both as citizens and as storytellers. And in going into that, perhaps you could give us a bit of your trajectory into the filmmaking business.
I would say just the abbreviated form for me is that I came of age in the ’60s. So that plus my father, Al Levin, and my mother, Hannah Levin, they were labor organizers, they were civil rights activists and eventually became professionals. My father, a journalist and then a filmmaker and my mom, a social psychologist. And so, I think they had a profound effect. And then I think movie-making at that time was where the action was, where when I was a teenager, that’s what we talked about. The movies that shaped our lives, whether it was Dr. Strangelove, or 2001, or A Clockwork Orange, or the European films, the Neo realist films. And the documentary world that really shaped my career was that I dropped out of Wesleyan and got a job in New York city with the Maysles on Gimme Shelter. Their film on the Rolling Stones tour in 1969 that ended with a tragic concert at Altamont, where a young African-American was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel.
So that story I’ll just share with you, because it sounds apocryphal, but it was true and it ended up having a profound influence on my life and career. I had heard at that point in the beginning of 1970, the winter of 1970, the Maysles were starting their work on Gimme Shelter right above the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Stephen Colbert does his show now. They had a studio. So I heard about that and I went over to the Maysles headquarters to see if maybe I could get a job. I was a teenager, a long haired kid. I walked in and I swear, somebody literally handed me five cans of 16 millimeter film and sound and said, “Take these to Duart , around the block,” and I did.
And for the next few days, I was just literally running errands like an intern or an apprentice would until one afternoon, David Maysles came up to me and he said, “Who the hell are you?” And I introduced myself and I ended up becoming an apprentice on Gimme Shelter. And I say that had such an effect because all the themes I became good friends with Albert Maysles in the ensuing years. And I always told him that, that film, all the themes of the ’60s in sex, drugs, rock and roll in politics and violence and race, and all of these came to play in that film. And I saw also one of my mantras that’s become a mantra, I call it follow the footage, meaning I saw… here was Maysles were hired to do a brief promo film for the Stones.
And then they realized they had the footage of the murder, which they didn’t know they had about 10 or 12 crews at Altima at that day. And until they got this stuff back from the lab and screened the dailies, they didn’t realize they had the murder. And so then they built this film out. So this was an example, and from my young eyes, it was like, “Wow. They were doing a promo film, oh, now they’re doing a feature documentary.” And Charlotte Zwerin, who was the chief editor, and the whole team to see how that film was created, that had quite a deep impact on me. I went from being an intern or apprentice to being an assistant, to becoming an editor, and that led me to directing, producing et cetera.
But as I say, so many of the themes that have been in the work that Daphne and I have done were present in that film. So anyway, that’s how I started. Daphne.
Well, so I’ll start at college. I focused on South African politics, US policy towards South Africa and the frontline States. And then went to the School of International Affairs, at Columbia to get a master’s degree in international politics, and I did a combined degree with the journalism school. And I just thought that I would get a job working for the state department or the UN or something like that. And I went through this book of internships and there was an internship listed at Inside Story, which was a… it was a series on PBS hosted by Hodding Jimmy Carter’s spokesperson. It was on the press and covered issues like the press in Nicaragua, Jesse Jackson in the Frontline States in Southern Africa. And I was just, “Well, I’m just going to volunteer.”
And I never thought I could be a filmmaker, because I thought that you had to do what Marc did, is whatever 12 years old in your basement, cutting film, and… but I just got plugged into this very small group of independent filmmakers. And at the time there were only the three networks and HBO was just running reruns of old movies. And so I did some research for them on a documentary they were doing on Southern Africa. And then I went to the executive producer’s 50th birthday party, 60th birthday party, and met Marc there. And then when that job was done, I guess I had told you I specialized in US policy towards South Africa or something. And he said, “I’m doing a documentary with Hart Perry on Jesse Jackson’s trip to the frontline States,” and I was like, “Oh my God, this is like a dream come true for me.”
And that’s how I met Marc and his father and just started working with them, and worked with them for a number of years. Then worked with Danny Schechter on South Africa Now, he started this weekly news program during the press restrictions in South Africa because nobody was covering what was going on because they were afraid they’d get kicked out. So we had relationships with camera people in South Africa and they would just shoot stories for us and put it in FedEx and we would edit it and put it on this little cable network. And then, I guess Al called me to work on the Secret Government. During the Iran Contra affair, Bill Moyers did a big feature presentation on the Iran Contra scandal. And that is how I started working with Marc and Al.
What is the one piece of storytelling that you can remember having an enormous impact on you as a kid?
Perry Mason. I mean, it really was Perry Mason. And I mean, after that, maybe Brother’s Keeper, it was a really fascinating film for me. Do you know that film?
Yes, Berlinger and Sinofsky, yeah.
Right. I mean that they could tell that story in such an amazingly compelling way with characters who could barely even speak, that just blew me away. And it showed what cinema really can do and having a character on camera and just seeing visually how you can tell a story, and how impactful it was. That’s probably the first thing for me.
I would say certainly the first film that shaped my worldview, what they took… Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Strangelove when I was just a kid, but that started to shape my worldview. But the Godfather obviously, was the film that brought the world of crime and the world of the American experience and politics in a political point of view together for me. That was the breakthrough. But I would say that there were two other events in terms of storytelling and that have been part of everything I’ve done, the JFK assassination, you just can’t overlook the impact that had and seeing Jack Ruby killed live on television, and that whole four days, just… and sensing that we weren’t being told the story, the real story. So, that one’s deep. This sense that there are other stories behind such a crime like that crime of the century.
And then in my own personal life, I had a very good friend of mine, who, again, when I was a teenager, who was found hung in a jail cell in Miami-Dade jail and it was listed as suicide, but I don’t know that I’ve ever accepted that, and certainly I’ve heard stories since and have often wondered if that was part of my interest in the whole criminal justice, world war on drugs, all the prison films we’ve done is… this young man Gordon Hunt is me questioning, and still trying to make peace with the fact that he was found hung in a jail cell. So I would say those were some of the things that shaped my storytelling.
You both mentioned Al Levin. Marc, why don’t you tell us a bit about your dad and his impact on you and then Daphne, chime in with your experiences with Al as well?
Well, my father was one of a kind. He called himself a Hope-a-holic. He was one of the most creative and open and youthful and imaginative people I’ve ever known. And I know through most of my life, many people said to me, “I wish I had a father like yours.” And I remember Bill Moyers at one point coming up to me and saying, “Marc, it’s amazing how you and Al work together. I wish that I had that kind of rapport with my kids.” So he was my best friend in many ways, and he was incredibly empathetic. He was incredibly open to listening and to empathizing and sympathizing with almost anybody. And he had a child’s curiosity, he was curious about everything and was read and learned about so many different things.
And my mother had to keep him grounded, I guess, in a way because she was like, “No, Al don’t bring that person home, don’t bring that person home.” My father had been with my mother, they were radicals of the ’50s, of the post war, I mean, he was in the army. At the end of the war, he was sent to Yale to learn Japanese and made it over to the Philippines in Japan at the end of the war. And he and my mom were involved in the ’50s, in the fight for civil rights, in the fight for labor rights. The FBI came to our house. So my parents became somewhat disillusioned in the ’60s with just their work.
My father literally, believe it or not worked on the railroad. He worked on the New Jersey Central Railroad because he was, wanting to organize working people. And my mother worked in the Westinghouse factory, a radio factory, because she wanted to organize working people. So that was my youth, but then when my parents moved from Elizabeth to Maplewood, a more suburban community, they both pursued professional careers. My father had always wanted to be a writer. He became a writer, a journalist, he worked at the New York Post, he worked at CBS and then he worked at PBS and that’s where we started working together. So he inspired so many people including me, obviously, but he was just a joy. The first big project we did was Mob Stories, and the connection there was crazy because my father’s cousin was Judge Leo Glasser. Leo Glasser is the judge in the Gotti trial. Leo Glasser is the judge who’s sitting there when Sammy Gravano comes on the stand and testifies. My father and I spent that morning in Judge Leo Glasser’s chambers before the famous showdown between Sammy and Gotti.
So that was why my father and Leo who obviously had known each other since they were kids. Most of the discussion, even though we were about to witness this epic confrontation between Sammy who had turned state’s evidence and Gotti was political because my father in the family was known as the radical and Leo, I think, had been appointed by Ronald Reagan as a federal judge. So that was wild that morning, just having breakfast there, and my father and Leo going back and forth on, “Allie, have you moderated your views and all and you’re still out there championing the people.” So I never planned, and my father never in any way, pushed me to join forces with him, to start a company with him, to work with him but it just happened. It was just organic and I’m feeling incredibly lucky, and amazingly enough my son and I are now somehow continuing that tradition.
Amazing. Daphne, when was the first time you worked with Al?
The first time I worked with Al was on the Secret Government with Bill Moyers. I consider myself an Al Levin protege. I mean, I really learned from him how to communicate with all different kinds of characters. And he really did find the humanity in everybody from just murderers, juvenile delinquents to grieving housewives, people surviving horrible crimes. And everybody felt like… I mean, I can’t tell you how many times people would say to me, “He’s like the father I never had, the brother I never had, the husband I wish I had.” I mean, he really listened and even in the office, he knew the hopes, dreams, ambitions of every single intern. He knew their names, he was just such an unusual guy in an industry where people are just so hyped up and moving as fast as they can and sort of, “What can you do for me?”
I mean, it didn’t matter to Al. I mean, as long as you were a human being, that was enough for him. So I really watched him carefully, saw how he operated and it’s served me well, and not in manipulating people, but really in finding the humanity in everyone, no matter who they are, what they’ve done and connecting with that.
I remember Al’s presence so vividly. He was, as you guys have described, so compassionate and so interested in whoever he was talking to. Marc, tell me a bit about what working with Bill Moyers was like? What did you learn from him? What was his impact on you both as a citizen and as a storyteller?
I think Bill Moyers had a profound impact on me. The first book Bill Moyers wrote was called, Listening to America, and he was a listener. And he was somebody that was so open to hearing ideas. And as Daphne said earlier, so many people in our business are racing to the next project to get ahead, to be bigger, to be more famous, to be more celebrated. Moyers, probably has a career that is unparalleled in broadcasting, and yet he really… had a certain humility, a certain openness. He was always joking, “I’m not the creative one, you are the creative ones. You, the editors, you the writers, you the producers.”
And on top of all that I saw through the years, because I met Bill when I was a teenager, I saw Moyers grow and change. When my father first worked with Bill Moyers, it was like… and I went to Europe with them on Why Work in, I think 1974 for PBS. He was like, “Al, you know you’re just a red from Brooklyn, well, you got to tone down that comie stuff. Come on now, we’re working for public TV here. This is not the international Al Levin.” And when I just finished a few years ago, working on Rikers with Bill, he was spouting radicalism, “We need a revolution, the system, the whole system’s corrupt.” I said to him, we were sitting in our editing room. I said, “My God, if my father could hear you now, Bill, he would just crack up.” I call him the last liberal.
His vision of interest from poetry to religion, to politics, obviously to economics, it was universal, to Joseph Campbell. I mean, he did know the famous series of dialogues with Joseph Campbell. No, he was a teacher, a mentor. Bill Moyers is a man who the camera’s turns off, and he’s just as generous and compassionate and interested as when they’re on. And I think he really had an effect on me when I think back to seeing him go from edit room to edit room. He had one film here, he had another film there, he had another film there and just juggling like that and working with creative people and never really getting lost in the screaming and yelling, he left that to Jerry Toubin and others. That was a great teacher, a great teacher and it was great that we were able to reunite on the Rikers project a few years ago.
Tell us about the work that you guys began to do at Blowback in the world of crime and criminal justice.
I think it was Gang War interestingly enough, where Daphne and I first went down to Little Rock, Arkansas and then Al joined us. And really were initiated into the world of street gangs, gang violence, just a whole subculture, which… gangster rap was part of the… Dre day had just come out, bow wow, wow, yippie yo, yippie yay, that’s how the film starts. And the fact that it was black and white kids and boys and girls, and Daphne had actually seen the article in the New York Times. It said that Arkansas had, had this murder spike that per capita, it was now the leading place of homicides which caught her attention. She got in touch with the Coroner medical examiner, Steve Nawojczyk. That was really the beginning I think of us focusing on what’s happening here, this war at home, this war against the poor, this war against black and brown people, this war against young people, this war on drugs. Now obviously, as I said earlier, I came of age and lost people to drugs. But it was going down there and seeing, becoming close to Steve Nawojczyk, we were still in touch with that. And I’ll be the first to admit it, Daphne, I don’t know if you remember this, but that when Sheila said, “Well, we’re going to do something on gangs.” And I was like, “Oh, the movie, Colors just came out, Sean Penn, what’s more to say about gangs.” This is like 1992, “Oh, that’s already been done, Sheila.”
And she just looked at me and Daphne and said, “Not the way you’re going to do it. You go down there.” So we went down and we were naive, and of course, we ended up getting caught in the middle of a drive by, which Daphne to her credit captured and memorialized. I’ll be the first to admit that when… well, first of all, it was in the middle of the afternoon, so we didn’t think there was much to worry about, and we were with Steve Nawojczyk, who was an official of the Coroner and we were at the Crip House. And then all of a sudden this red car comes around the corner and pulling in front of us. We were parked, we were about to leave, we had brought pizza over for the afternoon, about to leave. And I see this hand reach out with an automatic weapon and start firing at the Crip House, and everybody that was on the porch. And all I remember is saying, “Are you rolling? Are you rolling, Daphne? Are you rolling?” And I dove under the steering wheel.
And we went back to the hotel a little while later and replayed the video, and she had captured this drive by which got a lot of notoriety when the film came out. But that was really the start of it, I think in terms of us being initiated quite literally at that moment into this world which now people have finally said, “Enough, we got to change. We can’t keep going on like this, locking up generation after generation.”
Right. You guys were at the forefront of documenting the relationship between the gang and, crack epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s and the move to mass incarceration. You guys have been at the center of that. Daphne, tell us a little bit about your experience of the Gang War film.
Well, it was pretty shocking to see at that time, white kids in gangs It was just really unusual at the time. It’s like, “There are white kids in gangs in the Heartland, like what’s happening here?” And we came to understand that those kids were experiencing the same thing that the black kids were. That they were coming from broken homes and they were looking for some kind of surrogate family.
And that is probably the beginning of another thread we started covering, which was what was happening to the white working class as they became more disenfranchised. And where did they turn? They turned towards people who are experiencing the same things, these kids. And so, I guess the continuum with Thug Life is that just looking at how the society was dealing with kids in that situation, broken homes, no real upward mobility. They weren’t doing well in school and no one was helping them. And the way we decided as a culture to deal with that was just to start locking people up.
And I think as the gap between rich and poor started growing, there were just more and more black kids that were experiencing that. And they just were funneling them into the juvenile justice system and then into the prison system, and that was of our… our social policy was to lock them up and maybe start bringing resources to them once they got to prison, but then they got out and there was still nothing for them to do nowhere to go. So it just kept perpetuating in that revolving door and the number is increasing, and so, yeah, I think we started seeing the beginning of it and how the culture was starting to crack.
That was certainly the beginning for us, and it was a bit ahead of the curve. Two things. First, we were naive and threw ourselves in the middle of figuring sleepy little rock, this is right after Clinton was elected. Sleepy Little Rock, what do we got to worry about? But I think what protected us in a way is, there was a suspicion that Daphne and I were really undercover FBI agents and that we weren’t just HBO producers.
And in a way, that may have helped us, because I think we did go into a few places that may be, if we had known more we would have been a lot more cautious, or would have brought some kind of security with us. I mean, one was when we first met Bobby Banks, who was one of the most dangerous gang leaders. And it was in a park and it seemed just totally like who would ever worry about it, but when we told people later, they looked at us like we were out of our minds.
And then another was, which still stands out in my mind as one of the most incredible places in all the productions we’ve done that we’ve ever entered. That was Tony Dog’s, club. There was a club that was like an after hours club in Little Rock, Arkansas, where all the gangs would go and it was a demilitarized zone. And Daphne and I went and we were the only white people there. And again, I think that there must have been a suspicion that we were probably a law enforcement of some kind, but that was one of the most amazing evenings, just to see all these gang members, many of whom were trying to kill each other, but actually just all hanging out.
And of course they were listening to Dre Day, which had come out then, that’s how the film starts. And later in my life, I made a film with Snoop and I remember him coming up to me and saying, “Ah, so you’re Marc Levin. You’re the one that made Gang War.” And I met Dr. Dre, he said the same thing, and they both said, none of them could believe that in Little Rock, Arkansas, kids were singing their songs. That’s Dr. Dre and Snoop. They were like stunned that these kids out there in the middle of Little Rock and that they were claiming Bloods and Crips and Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, and the whole thing, that it had spread.
So that was the eye opener for us and the initiation. And again, I don’t think we planned, I think when Thug Life happened which was a few films later, I remember we had met Richard Stratton, and Richard and Kim, his wife had started a magazine called Prison Life Magazine, and we joined forces with them. And I think at that point, Washington D.C. had one of the highest incarceration rates. So it was like, “Here’s the nation’s capital and what are they doing? They’re locking up all these young men of color.” And that was how that started.
You and Richard were first starting to work together at the time that I was working with you. And for our listeners, he is a writer and also served a stretch of time for transporting marijuana and his wife at the time, Kim Wozencraft, had written the book Rush upon which the film was made. She was an undercover narcotic’s agent, and also served time, and they had this fantastic magazine, Prison Life, which they published together for a few years back in the ’90s, and you guys made some films together. What was the first film that you worked on with Richard?
Prisoners of the War on Drugs was the first film we worked together. That was, I mean, that film, if you want to talk about being ahead of the curve, I mean, that film was about how we were… most of the people in prison were there for drug offenses of one kind or another.
And again, Daphne got amazing footage of people doing drugs in film, and of one character, Denny actually giving a chemistry course in an Oklahoma State Prison on how to make crank, how to make homemade meth, the whole thesis was: Here. You are in a maximum security prison, you can’t even keep drugs out. You got people shooting up in their cells and you got a professor giving a chemistry course to other inmates on how they can make crank, and that’s in a maximum security prison. So this war on drugs is insanity right.
Now, I’ll say this about that. Richard and I, and Daphne all felt, “Wow, we’d made this film. And yeah, let’s bring it to the Criminal Justice Reform Movement and the drug reform movement. And everybody’s going to say, great work guys, great work.” Well, it didn’t work out that way. We had a screening and they all looked at us like, “You guys are insane,” because the film was not just a didactic political kind of a propaganda piece. It had characters that as somebody in that room said, “They may be straight out of the Hollywood’s central casting, but not politically correct central casting. We want sympathetic first time, nonviolent offenders. We don’t want Denny the Meth monster, we don’t want, who was it that gave the whole tossed salad, the-
… Snowball. We don’t want no Snowball.” I mean, so there was some outrageous characters in the film and Richard and I were so crestfallen. We were so disappointed that the drug reform movement had smacked us down, and Ethan who was the head of the drug policy group, I remember maybe six, seven, eight years later, there was a woman in that film, Jan Warren who was the kind of victim they were looking for, who had helped her boyfriend and had never committed a crime and got some terrible sentence under the Rockefeller laws. And she got clemency and she got out and there was a party and there was a reception for it.
And a lot of the people that had been at the screening back in ’97, when we did that film were there, and Ethan Nadelmann came up to me and he apologized. He said, “You guys were right,” because Jan Warren said to him, she goes, “I would have never gotten out of prison if it hadn’t been for that HBO film, Prisoners of the War On Drugs. So it’s strange how these things work. And another character from that film Amy Ralston Pofahl, is now one of the leading voices in the Criminal Justice Reform Movement. She was actually the first inmate I met, who was in a federal prison on an MDMA charge and ecstasy charge. First time offender, gotten like 25 years. Unfortunately the feds would not allow us to film her, but I’m still in touch with her, and she’s become a very important person in this Criminal Justice Reform Movement. So that film, Prisoners Of The War On Drugs, that was key.
Yeah. And in addition to, as you mentioned, introducing the country to the concept of tossing the salad.
I don’t want to go over Thug Life in DC without mentioning Momolu Stewart and Halim Flowers. Halim Flowers, Daphne, and I met during Thug Life in DC. We couldn’t believe it. It looked like he was 12 years old and he was locked up in the DC Jail and looking at a life sentence because he was an accessory to a homicide robbery. And he came to visit us last year because he was released when the District of Columbia changed the law that if you were under 18 and given a life sentence you could be eligible to get out after 20 years.
He had written 11 books in prison. He’d become a spoken word artist, an amazing young man still, in his 40s now. Very moving to see. And he’s taken a leadership role in this whole movement. And he was friends with Momolu Stewart, another character who was in Thug Life and then ended up being featured in the film Slam that I did in the DC Jail. And he is the character that when Saul Williams, the main star of the film, is thrown in jail on a small drug offense, he hears this kid rapping and the two of them do this freestyle, which is one of the high points of the movie. He got out also. And…
Momolu was also featured in Vince DiPersio’s film with Kim Kardashian in The Justice Project. I interviewed Vince about that film as well. And so caught up with Momolu. It must have been what? 25 years after you guys made Thug Life.
That’s right. And I was just reading before we got on that Halim credited in terms of what changed his life. He said it was somebody that saw a Thug Life in DC that reached out to him in prison and became a mentor and encouraged him to become a writer, to become a poet, a spoken word artist. So it is amazing the impact these films can have when they’re out there and how they can touch people. And it was very moving for Daphne and I to reunite with Halim and to talk to Momolu.
Let me just share one last anecdote just in the earlier period when we did Gladiator Days, which included racial murder in prison. The security cameras captured Troy Kell the leader of the white power movement in that prison stab this African-American man and Eric Daniels held him down. Eric Daniels had been sent to prison because he wrote a bad check and he got busted for it. And he got sent to the wrong prison and he was a white from Chicago. And he got in with the white power clique and there he was, he became an accessory to murder and ended up getting a life sentence. And he had originally been sent to prison on a bad check.
Anyway, the point is that my father became a rabbi to Eric. Eric was part of the white power thing, antisemitic, anti-black. And he and my father somehow connected. I still don’t understand quite how. And they developed this unbelievable friendship where Eric, after my father passed away, would be writing me letters about all the things my father taught him and they exchanged ideas. And Eric is still in prison in New Jersey, down in Trenton, but is totally a different human being. And he attributes it all to the relationship that he developed with my father.
You can find part 2 of this interview here.