Words by Jason Fitzroy Jeffers
Photos by Martei Korley
It may be hard to grasp, but next year will mark 20 years since the Fugees won hearts, acclaim and awards worldwide with their multi-platinum hip-hop masterwork The Score. In the years since, both Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean have continued to occupy the spotlight with their exploits both on and off the mic, but Pras Michel has gone a different route: he’s quietly been spending time in Hollywood.
After a string of roles in smaller budget features and television shows, in addition to producing a few documentaries, Pras fully steps into the spotlight with Sweet Micky for President, an award-winning doc chronicling his deep involvement in the unlikely, yet ultimately successful presidential campaign of the ribald Haitian kompas singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The engrossing film offers a fly-on-the-wall look into the campaign, which found Pras backing and advising his controversial friend through a tumultuous, post-earthquake campaign that put him up against another unlikely candidate — his former bandmate, Wyclef.
Following a world premiere earlier this year at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, Sweet Micky makes its Caribbean debut tonight at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival in Port of Spain, where it’s been selected to open the 10th edition of the region’s largest film festival. We spoke with Pras about the challenges of plotting a presidential campaign in front of ever-rolling cameras, the drastic steps he thinks Haiti must take to get itself back on track, and the next steps in his creative adventure.
LargeUp: Sweet Micky for President has been really successful on the festival circuit, having won best documentary at the Slamdance Film Festival. Why do you think people have responded as strongly as they have?
Pras Michel: People are loving the story, and we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback. It’s because it’s a film about hope; it just happens to take place in Haiti. It could have taken place in Egypt during the Arab Spring, or in Ferguson last year. I mean, think about it: It’s a dynamic story about a guy who used to wear diapers on stage that runs for president of his country. How is that not a compelling story?
Think about it: Donald Trump is running for president, he’s currently hot. I know everyone’s saying he won’t be president, but you don’t know what people will do when they’re disenfranchised. You don’t know what’s gonna force them to change. That’s what Sweet Micky was. We were tired of the conventional politicians. After a huge disaster and all these lives being lost, people voted in some guy who wore diapers on stage to be their head of state.
LU: I’m sure you’ve had some interesting conversations around it. Are there any insights that you’ve gained from touring with the film or reflecting on it five years after filming it?
PM: What’s been most interesting to me is that a lot of people who have seen the film are people who really don’t know or even care much about Haiti, but somehow this movie resonated with them. It’s been interesting to realize how it’s such a universal story. All kinds of people—from New Zealand to Cleveland, all different walks of life—have responded enthusiastically.
LU: The cameras were with you before Martelly even announced his campaign and stayed with you right up until he was elected. What was the most difficult thing during that process?
PM: It was probably the lack of resources that we had on the campaign. We had to be very creative. I remember meeting Michael Jackson a long time ago, and I asked him what was the biggest challenge of making the two great albums—Thriller and Off the Wall—as that was when he was transitioning from his days with the Jackson 5 into his solo career. He said it was the limitations he was faced with: when you have all the luxury money can buy, things are easy. It’s when you don’t have all the resources you need that the challenges come up. He said that he had to use ingenuity. However, he also said that’s usually the best way to create something, because then you have to rely on that special thing inside of you.
The conventional wisdom would have held that Wyclef should have been the winner of the elections, because he had all those resources, all the notoriety, and all that money. It was the same thing in the US in 2008: Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner and had all the money, but little did she know that some guy from Chicago would come in and blindside everyone. She had the name recognition, the finances, the husband, time in the White House, and she had the whole country backing her, but it didn’t go her way. That’s the same thing we see in this film. We didn’t have all the resources everyone else had, but we ended up winning.
LU: How did you balance being a friend and participant in Martelly’s campaign with being a filmmaker? The film walks a fine line, and could have easily become a piece of propaganda.
PM: That’s the beauty of the film, I think: people are responding to it because it’s so raw. They’re saying, “If he’s the filmmaker, he could’ve easily deleted this scene or that scene.” There are certain parts where you’re cringing. And you have to ask, “Did he sign off on this?” It was about being objective. The best thing about filmmaking or any creative endeavor is showing vulnerability—if you put yourself out there, people can relate to that. Myself and the director, Ben Patterson, we wanted to keep it as true to the essence of what was happening in live time.
LU: What is your relationship like now with the president? He’s come under a lot of criticism. What’s your view of his time in office?
PM: Well, my relationship with him is different from my views of him as the president. He and I will always be boys, but when it comes to politics, you don’t have to be a political scientist to know that he did a horrible job [laughs]. The writing is on the wall. He knows he didn’t do a good job. He may front like he did, but he knows he didn’t. The country’s no better off than before he came into office.
Maybe he can say that the number of people living in tents after the earthquake is down to 50,000 from a million, but I think any president — especially with all that aid coming in — would’ve been able to do at least that, so I can’t bust my gun to salute him for that. Look, could he have made Haiti into Miami Beach in four years? No, but I think there are some fundamentals that could have been handled: there’s still no real infrastructure, no proper education as we know it in the modern world, no irrigation, and there are no jobs. It’s not me hating. Those are just the facts.
You have to understand something: the reason that I didn’t support my bandmate, who I have a longer relationship with, is because my concern has always been for the 15 million Haitians on the island. I firmly believed Michel Martelly would’ve done a better job than Wyclef Jean.
He’s about to be done at the end of this year. When we see each other, it’s going to be laughs. But when it comes to politics, I could never agree with what he’s done. He hasn’t accomplished what I envisioned. At this point, I think I would have been better off supporting Wyclef. He might’ve even made me Prime Minister and Lauryn Hill Secretary of State [laughs].
LU: Have you ever thought about getting into politics yourself? And if you did at one point, has that changed?
PM: I can’t deal with politics. I don’t totally believe in full-blown democracy. I know that’s going to sound crazy as a black person living in America, but the problem is, you have to take everyone’s opinion into consideration, even the idiots. I think for a country like Haiti and a lot of third world countries, full-blown democracy is almost never going to work. I believe in absolute rule, because that’s the only way you can fix a country like that. The minute you try to bring democracy into the mix, that’s when corruption rises. Nothing’s going to get done, as we’ve seen in Haiti.
Here in America, we’re still getting used to democracy. We have police feeling they can kill unarmed black men even though the Civil Rights bill was signed in 1968; that was over 50 years ago! We’re still trying to get to having some civility with one another. Can you imagine a country that has been rampant with dictatorship and all types of things, and now you want to spring democracy on them? It’ll never work.
LU: What do you say to the counter argument that you’ll just end up with a dictator?
PM: You’re not gonna get that in the Western hemisphere. I don’t believe in dictatorship, but if you want to turn a country like Haiti around, you have to try a different approach. Let’s use the Dominican Republic as an example: When they started to make their turn for the better about 30 years ago, they had a progressive dictator. That’s what Haiti needs. That means you come in and rule with an iron first and then you slowly let up off the gas pedal. That’s what’s what happened in Singapore, that’s what’s happening in China.
Haiti’s no different from a country like Iraq. They went in, went on a wild goose chase for weapons of mass destruction and got rid of Saddam. I’m not saying they should have kept him, but what I do know is that since his demise, that whole region has become destabilized. We said we were going to implement democracy, but people weren’t ready for that. That’s been a total failure: Iran has become stronger and now we have to deal with ISIS. I was in Iraq recently, so I’m not speaking from a theoretical point of view. I know what’s going on. I’m not saying I’m an expert or anything, but I’m more of an expert than those pundits sitting on CNN. That’s a failed state. It’s going to take 75 to 100 years for that place to turn around.
LU: So what’s next for the film?
PM: It’s coming out the first week of November in theaters, and it will be on cable in January. We’re still doing more festivals until then to build the buzz. We’ll see where it goes from there.
LU: With all the film work you have going on, do you still have any time or interest in making music?
PM: A little bit. I’m doing a soundtrack for Sweet Micky for President, so look out for that. The itch to do music is always going to be there.
LU: Your music with the Fugees has been the means through which a lot of people around the world have been introduced to Haitian culture. Do you foresee other Haitian music making inroads into global popular culture?
PM: No, simply because of the language barrier. I think people will continue to appreciate it, but I don’t know that it will become pop music. That said, one of the notes I’ve consistently received about the film is how good the music is. People can’t understand what the musicians are saying, but it feels good. That’s the power of music. Are we going to hear it hit the Billboard Top 20? No, that’s not going to happen, but it is something that people can seek out and get into. People will borrow sounds [in house music, etc.], and that’s always going to happen. There are only two types of groups that have been able to penetrate the American market on a consistent basis—the British and the Jamaicans, and that’s because people can understand what they’re saying. Everyone once in a while you’ll have some novelty song—“Gangnam Style”, for example—but that’s about it.
LU: What else are you working on these days?
PM: I have a lot of other things going on. I just optioned a book called The Search For Johnny Nicholas, about a Haitian guy who spoke seven languages fluently—including German, French, and Polish—and who was the only black guy in the concentration camps during World War II. He saved about 2,000 Jewish lives. It’s an incredible story, and I’m going to make it into a film.