Back to School:
The Education of Sonny Carson
October 25, 2002 | If DVD has the potential to resurrect films that have undeservedly fallen out of the public eye, then The Education of Sonny Carson should be a prime candidate for a renaissance. A tough, gritty look at the formative years of a controversial figure in New York black activism, The Education of Sonny Carson was produced and released by Paramount in 1974 to critical acclaim only to be followed by a quarter century of near-obscurity. Quoted and name dropped in recent years by rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan and the Fugees, the film may be ripe for a comeback of sorts.
In a cruel twist of fate, however, the real Sonny Carson, who has never stopped speaking out against what he sees as injustice, was felled by a heart attack mere weeks ago and right now lies in a coma in a Brooklyn VA hospital. Going ahead with plans for select community screenings and a wider DVD release, however, director Michael Campus (who also directed the 1973 classic The Mack) has been tirelessly discussing this seminal work and the process of collaborating with the fiery Carson. Campus, who is white, may at first seem like an odd collaborator for Sonny Carson, but to hear him talk about their work together, either in person or on the DVD's excellent joint commentary track, is to really see how deep their mutual respect runs.
The film shows Sonny's double life honor student and criminal starting as an elementary school student. From his childhood in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant (the same neighborhood depicted in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing), a stint in juvenile detention, membership in a feared gang (called the Lords in the film) and a lengthier stay at Sing Sing prison (where he was one of the youngest prisoners in history), Sonny learned some of the lessons that many of his peers never survived long enough to learn for themselves. The film contains scenes of intense emotional and physical violence, including an astonishing gang initiation, a vicious beating by the cops and a chaotic gang rumble. While the film doesn't extend into Carson's adult life it does communicate the shaping of a young man in one of the nation's toughest neighborhoods in an extremely powerful and provocative way. Even today's audiences, bombarded by films about the ghetto and gangs, will no doubt be struck by the honesty and strength of Campus and Carson's film. And there's no doubt that they delved deeper into their subject matter than anyone had up until that point.
"No one attempted to deal with the gangs," recalls Campus. "They were considered so violent and so uncontrollable that the Brooklyn political system just said 'we don't see it, we don't know [about] it.' The thinking was kind of 'maybe if we're lucky they'll kill each other off.' Bed-Stuy was like uncharted territory. You went in there at your own risk. Sonny was one of the few people who these kids looked at and said 'he's been through it. We respect him.'" Carson's involvement was crucial to the filming, given that Campus strove for absolute realism almost every step of the way. "My whole documentary background said to tell the truth. Don't sugarcoat it. Tell the truth and the truth will lead you in the right direction."
Incredibly, the gangs in the film were not recreated with actors but were played by real Brooklyn gangs so real that one big gang rumble in the script had to be cut after Campus got word that the kids in the scene were planning on actually fighting. According to Campus the sense of danger extended behind the camera as well. "One time a kid came up to me and I turned my back on him, which was very foolish, and he pulled out a knife and was coming at me. I've got my back turned, directing the scene, and this kid thinks I'm ignoring him. So he pulls out a knife and he's walking towards me. Sonny grabs the kid by the elbow and swings him around. You know, he always was there for that." The end result, however, was a film that's unmistakably genuine.
The shooting environment helped in one other way it kept studio interference to a minimum. "The head of Paramount, Frank Yablans, came out in this black stretch limousine to visit us on the set. He rolled to a stop in front of us, rolled down the window and said 'how are you doing?' I said 'okay' and he said 'great,' rolled up the window and drove as fast as he could back to Manhattan. That was the only time I ever saw anybody from Paramount there."
Collaborating with as strong a character as Sonny Carson had its own set of complexities. Campus is filled with stories about their working relationship like the time they disagreed on a casting choice. "I had hired somebody to play the preacher in a scene that everybody loves. And Sonny was ticked at me because I hadn't hired his local minister. So I said 'Sonny, I gotta hire this guy. I know this guy is gonna work.' And Sonny said 'you can't do that to me.' I said 'Sonny, I have to hire the person that's right for you, for your film.' So he walked away from me.
"The next day I'm on the set. Sonny shows up with everybody and they come, stand in front of camera and won't let me film. He said "you hired somebody and you didn't ask me.' I said 'first of all if I don't get this scene we're going to lose it forever.' He said 'I don't care. We're not gonna shoot this scene until you hire my guy.' We glared at each other and finally he said 'okay, you're not gonna shoot.' So for two hours I sat there until finally he got tired and walked away. Now, that's the negative of Sonny. The positive is when [we watched dailies] and looked at that scene. When the lights came up he had his head down, which was very rare for him to have his head down for anything, and he said 'man, he's great. From now on you shoot what you want. That's it.' And that was our relationship. Even when we had disagreements we never stopped jawing at each other, talking with each other."
Campus hasn't been the only person with a long-running relationship with Carson. "In the eyes of the white establishment in New York Sonny's been a thorn in their side. He's been an agitator, he's been a firebrand, he's been difficult, he's been impossible. He's advocated things that they considered reprehensible. On the other hand, he's been a friend to a whole other section of the population, black and white. He's been a champion, he's been a leader. He's been a man with a mission."
It was Carson's strength that drove the project for Campus as well as helping him to understand the message. He recalls the first screening for Paramount after finishing the film. "In the scene when Sonny gets beaten, which is a very difficult scene to watch. Somebody got up in the audience while the scene was going on and said 'this is outrageous! How could you show this scene?' People started yelling 'sit down! Shut up!' and after the film was over the person came up to me and said 'how could you show that scene?' I called Sonny and [he] gave me the answer. He said 'you showed that scene for one minute. It lasted sixty seconds. I sat in those chains being beaten for thirty minutes. Can you imagine if you'd show them the scene the way it actually happened?' And from then on I had the answer because I could tell people you don't understand until you've lived the experience that he lived and lived the experience that I lived with these gang kids to know what the truth is."
The news of Carson's illness came as a shock to the director. "Can you imagine?" Campus asked. "I've been Sonny's friend for 27 years. I can't process it. He and I have been really close all this time. A lot of times you make a film and you move on to the next film. But Sonny and I remained really close through the years because we understood each other even when we were clashing. We always respected each other and there was always a feeling we were out for the same thing. I can't compute that Sonny lies in a coma because he was always the most vital person of the two of us. No question he was the one with the energy."
"We would clash, we would argue, we would discuss, we would talk, but in the end he always saw what was best for the film. When I finished [the film] he called me and said 'man, I'm proud of what you did.' I guess one of the things I regret when I see a lot of films today, I don't see or hear directors talking about their attachment to their work. I understand that everybody has a career and everybody wants to make money but to me, part of the experience is the attachment to the work and to the people you meet. That's the thing you carry away with you long after the reviews are gone, long after the box-office is closed. What you take away is what you brought to it and the relationships you form."
Campus has high hopes for this newest release of his film. "The democracy of DVD is the one thing that I hope will really help us. What's happening with [the DVD release of] The Mack is very interesting. I'm getting all these extraordinary reviews from critics but I'm also now hearing from the public and what I really hope with Sonny Carson is that that will happen that they'll begin to say 'wait a minute, check this out.' I'm hoping that somebody will carry the torch and say 'see this.'"
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