Monday, December 17, 2007

Brian and Snoop

Last Friday morning, I heard a remarkable interview on NPR. It was conducted by Brian Lehrer, who was talking to Felicia Pearson, who plays the relatively small but riveting role of "Snoop" on The Wire, the best show in the history of shows. The character of Snoop (which is Pearson's nickname in real life, too) has always scared the living hell out of me. Her androgynous look and gravel voice make her easily mistaken for a man, but it's the dead tone of that voice and her general demeanor that make the performance so chilling.

She was on Lehrer's show to talk about the show, and to promote her new memoir, Grace After Midnight. It was a comfort just to hear Pearson laugh during the interview. She actually seems like a good-natured person, which is somewhat miraculous given her background. Born a crack-addicted baby in Baltimore, she went to prison at 14 for shooting a girl in self-defense. (The girl died.) Her answer to one of Lehrer's questions about the experience is hard to argue with:
You write about how prison changed you. How did prison change you?

Because I don't like nobody tellin' me what to do. You know, "Lay down." "Go to sleep." Like, who likes prison?

For most of the interview, there's a disconnect between guest and host, but it's mostly charming and in the background. (When Pearson says, "You follow me?" and the uber-geeky Lehrer responds, "I do," it's a tiny but classic moment.) Then, as was probably inevitable, there's a culture-clash moment between the New York NPR studio and the Baltimore streets:
You also come out in the book as a lesbian. How are you viewed in real life as a gay woman in the gang world, which is dominated by straight men?

I mean, they accept me. Straight men...if they don't get along with me, they don't like what I like. They homos. You know, so ... I get along with everybody.

Now wait a minute, you're talking about being accepted as a lesbian, but you just used "homos" as an insult.

No, that ain't no insult. Straight men is (I can't make out what she says here) with what I'm doin'. Straight men is supposed to love women, and I love women. So, if they hatin' on me, they don't love women. So they homos. You understand what I'm sayin'?

I guess.

(Pearson laughs)

I'm not sure.
Both guests handled it well (Pearson's laugh near the end couldn't sound more innocent), and you get the sense that Pearson does mean something further that she doesn't have the time or rhetorical skill to flesh out, but it still jolted like the scratch on a record. In a good way. I was most disappointed to find this comment written by a listener on Lehrer's site:
Brian -- Not a very interesting interview, was it? I enjoy Snoop's character on The Wire, and more power to her for doing a book and telling her story. But the fact is, she really had nothing to say on your show. Perhaps this is the peril of us white progressives getting all excited over finding an "authentic" celebrity voice -- the voice may be authentic, but that doesn't mean it's saying anything. (But at least she says it in that great Baltimore accent.)
I wholeheartedly agree about the accent part. As for the rest of it, my problem is less with the tone (he identifies as a "white progressive," so I'm assuming he's not trying to bait other commenters into a full-fledged racial brawl) than with his failure to get something out of the interview just because Pearson isn't verbally dazzling. Take this excerpt:
How about you, are you political?


You followin' the presidential race?


You got a candidate?

Not yet. I'm still undecided right now.

What are you political about, certain issues?

Uh, when you're incarcerated and you come home and try to vote. Yes, I'm one of those. You know, I'm tryin' to vote.
This might not win the Evelyn Waugh Award for Outstanding Conversation, but I found it heartbreaking and illuminating. Here's Lehrer -- and I'm a fan of his -- trying to draw out Pearson's views on certain issues because she describes herself as political, and there's Pearson clarifying that, for her, "political" means trying to get a foothold in the larger system. She's not a policy wonk, she's an ex-con tentatively trying to hold her life together.

I recommend listening to the whole thing here. And here's a brief visual clip of the show, capped by her departure from the studio as they play the theme song to The Wire:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. J and I both share your fascination and unease with Snoop--we were just talking about her last night, actually. This is fascinating, and your analysis of what makes her such an unsettling character is dead-on.

-Wombat King

2:16 PM  

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