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"I called Clint,” my friend said, as he fumbled through his address book while we sipping a beer in a cafe in San Francisco. Clint?
“Yeah, you called Clint? Clint who?” I give him another look. “You mean, Clint as in Clint Eastwood?”
“You know Clint Eastwood?”
“Yeah,” my friend said, “We’re friends. I called him but he hasn’t called me back.”
“Well, maybe,” I think out aloud, “He’s busy with his new movie and some other Black person, like Morgan Freeman.”
My friend is undaunted. “It’s strange,” he goes on, “I called Francis too, and he hasn’t called me back.”
“Francis? As in Coppola?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Before I could get really annoyed with my friend for dropping the names of famous white people, I had to check myself, because my friend really is — or was — friends with these famous people. He’s not just name-dropping. Since the seventies, he knew these famous people though his music. He plays music, and white people, famous or not, like black music — and friendships bloom — and, as the elegy in a churchyard goes, it fades.
But what my friend is going through is being experienced by a lot of black people. White people, who for reasons various and sundry, used to be more friendly to blacks than they are in this information millennium.
Doesn’t it seem strange, even stupid, to expect Clint Eastwood to call you back? I personally would not have him in my address book. Not being that into his films to begin with — not since the movie about Charlie Parker’s life — I could not understand his disappointment. Why would he want to be friends with Clint Eastwood anyway? Clint, he insisted could really play the piano.
I yawned. Give me a break. I interviewed Clint on the set of "Bird," but to get the interview I had to wear a hassid wig and get in line with the extras.
But my friend is different. It just reminded me of the painful reality — many black people have famous white friends who don’t call them back any more.
I, too, cannot exclude myself in all this. I, too, have a stack of “white people” I call my friends. But when I call them, they don’t call back any longer.
For years I have enjoyed the friendship of many famous white people; but to be honest, I have noticed that the phone is not exactly ringing off the hook.
Would you believe it, there was a time when I’d call Warren and he’d call me back? To be sure, that was many years ago, but that is my point. Back when we hung out in Berkeley, Richard Pryor and I use to meet up with Warren Beatty.
It all happened because I had sold my book to David Foster, who brought me with him to Vancouver to be on the set with Director Bob Altman and Warren and Julie Christie. As I stood in line watching the actors, during one of the takes, Warren walked over to me and said hello. We were on the set of his movie "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" in Vancouver. Warren walked over to me, the only black person on the set, and said that he heard that I knew Richard Pryor. I said I did. Wow! He would like to meet Richard. When I got back to Berkeley, I told Richard to get his stuff together, we were going to meet Warren, who was the hottest white man alive in those days.
The three of us had dinner and took in some porn films. By the time, I got to Hollywood, Warren and Richard were steadfast friends and had done tons of nasty stuff that Richard would only hint to me about. Not too long ago, I mentioned to my old friend David Foster that I’d like to see old Warren again. David said, No problem, I’ll call him. That was a year ago! No love from Warren. No love from David.
Bob Altman, who directed some of the greatest films, was a great friend. We met on the set of his classic film, and I liked his rugged middle American style right away. He didn’t start directing films until his forties, and he had a joking side to him that I related to. When we met in New York, I remember one scene where I was the light of the whole party. Altman was celebrating his newest movie and I was telling stories about growing up in North Carolina to a roomful of people in his hotel.
Years passed and I saw that he was being celebrated at the San Francisco Film festival. I called David Foster and wondered if Altman would remember me. He was eighty-four then. When I reached through the crowed and pulled his coat, he turned and smiled. I told him that David didn’t think he’d remember me. “You know, David’s problem is that he can’t remember who he is!”
So Altman has a good reason for not getting in touch with me now, he’s dead.So is my other great white friend, French Film maker Louis Malle. He liked my book Coming Up Down Home so much that after we meet, and talked for an afternoon comparing our different childhood—mine southern poor dirt farming, he upperclass French Bourgoesie—he camed to North Carolina to visit my people. Aunat Amanda, whom he had read about in my book, and whom he met in real life, always asked me about him. “Little, Louie! He was a nice man!” That was real love. But what about the rest of that sorry lot? Those whites who wanted to be so hip that they just had to have a black friend!
Oh, and what about my old pal Sean Connery. We met on the set of "Rising Sun," where I play “Big Boy,” opposite him. We got along so well because we both enjoyed his national poet Robert Burns. When he was talking about the movie on the Tonight show, he even mentioned me.
And he told about some directors, Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, brothers, who were pestering Johnny Depp about his lack of knowledge of black literature, asking him had he read, Iceberg Slim. Depp replied, “Have you read CECIL BROWN’s Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger?” That would set these black lite Negroes straight! But you’d think that if he was that into my novel, he’d drop a line. Nothing, from that old hipster Johnny Depp!
It’s not just Americans who used to be into black people. When I lived in Berlin when there was a wall around the city, I was popular and friends with the leading German writers, including Heiner Muller, Volker Schlöndorff (director), Wim Wenders (director), and some that American don’t even know. No love from Berlin these days, either
I was in Copenhagen about fifteen years ago, and one night I got into a conversation with this Danish producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen. He said that the best films would have a “small story,” without any lights and no artificial music. Some years later, this concept came to be called Dogma. In 2005, I was back in Copenhagen, and I had my modem attached to my laptop, so I would make calls in Copenhagen. Just on a lark, I sent an email to Peter. In my email, I sent over the stuff we talked about that night, because frankly, I never really forgot it. And after I saw their film “Celebration,” I realized that this dude was serious.
After I sent the email, I’d forgotten about it and was having another beer, when my email went off. I was surprised when the email came back from his secretary. “Yes Peter remembers everything. Come, let us catch up on lost time.” Before you could say, Hans Christian Anderson, I was invited to the film town where he lived outside of Copenhagen. Peter showed up at eleven o’clock. Then as we are talking, here is Lars Von Tier was standing there. Lars just happens to be the coolest mother-humper in the world. We had several meetings talking about race and films. He showed me his Mandelay. These Danish dudes treated me like I was one of them, with full honors and respect and laughter.
When I came back to the states, I wrote a screenplay and sent it to Denmark. No love from Denmark, not even a farvel.
And where is Michael Moore? He told me he liked my book and wrote an endorsement in his own handwriting. I called him, but he hasn’t returned my call. All I get from him is emails about President Obama. Just like Obama needs another white friend! What about me? Don’t I need one?
The new black writers are not black, but white women. The novel that’s selling like hot cakes is a book by a white woman called “Helpers.”
When I sent my agent my book on my friend Richard Pryor, she wrote back that nobody’s interested in “Mr. Prior.”(Her spelling and her ignorance.) When she meant that if there is a book by a white guy who never met Richard that would be a book she’s interested in.
I tell my friend how Bill Cosby once told me that the sixties were back again. We were on the set of his movie in Berkeley. He was trying to make fun of the fading situation. But Cosby may be right. When the sixties do come around again, the white people will show up. But this time, we will realize that they are just there for the excitement?
One of my favorite writers used to be William Hazlitt. He once made a list of all of his friends who disappointed him. He said that he wanted them to know that he wasn’t into them anymore, either. That’s how I see it too. If you notice that white people don’t call you back, great! There is a whole world of white people waiting to be your next best friend.
I still get return messages from some white friends, though it really doesn’t bother me. I know what the literary agencies are up to, and I know that white authors and playwrights and script writers write all black material. The public is not very discerning these days. Real Black people are not in—white guys writing about blacks are really in.
I was at home that night when my phone just rang.
“Melvin — as in Melvin van Peebles?”
“Yeah-bro. What’s up? Man, I was in Paris for the last four months and I saw you called me. I’m just returning your call, bro.”
Returning my call? See, that’s what I’m talking about! An old-school friend.