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When documentary subjects strike back

On the surface, there’s little that Errol MorrisTabloid and Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest have in common beyond the fact that they’re both documentaries currently in theaters. The former is an exploration of the conflicting accounts of the 1977 “Mormon sex in chains case” offered by perpetrator/victim Joyce McKinney and the British press, with master documentarian Morris leaving behind the political focus of his last two films to return to his favorite topic of the eccentric and obsessed. (Though it’s starting to seem that in Morris’ view, everyone is potentially such a character.) The latter is actor and dedicated fan Michael Rapaport’s directorial debut about A Tribe Called Quest’s history, music, considerable influence, and eventual break-up. But the scandal sheet Rashomon and the bittersweet hip-hop portrait have been united by something unexpected as they’ve found their way into theaters—their subjects have noisily rebelled.

For Rapaport, the struggle’s been primarily waged on Twitter, where back in December, before Beats, Rhymes & Life’s Sundance première, ATCQ’s Q-Tip announced to his hundreds of thousands of followers “I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary.” “The filmmaker shld respect the band enough to honor our request regarding the film,” he continued, alluding to what was later explained in more detail to the press as a conflict over whether the band would receive producer credit and a share of the profits. (Karina Longworth’s interview with Rapaport in the LA Weekly adeptly outlines the conflict.) While Phife Dawg showed up in Park City to support the première, giving an emotional speech to the crowd post-screening, Q-Tip has continued a mixed-message campaign of both promoting and protesting the film in social media. He’s suggested to MTV “the friction stemmed in part from the group’s lack of control over the story, despite being listed as producers” and has told followers on Twitter the film is “not the full tribe story,” hinting that, as was rumored, he might have had issue with the film’s warts-and-all portrayal of conflicts between ATCQ’s members.

Tabloid’s Joyce McKinney, whose fame was far more fleeting than that of Q-Tip, has taken a more direct route to challenging the film in which she’s portrayed: she’s showed up, unannounced, at screenings, starting with Tabloid’s New York City première at the DOC NYC festival, where she joined a bemused Morris onstage and chided the audience, “It hurt me when you guys laughed, because I thought ‘They really don’t know the story. They don’t know the heartache and the fear and the trauma that I went through.’” She’s since popped up at other screenings around the country, claiming her story has been “stolen” and that her intent is “to clear my name,” though as the New York Times notes, “What she wants to clear up, however, is not so simple a question.” Her objection seems to be with the film’s allowing room for anyone else’s account at all, though that’s what it’s about: No one is an entirely reliable narrator, least of all the fascinating, frightening McKinney. As for the lengthy comments left on many blog posts and articles about the film—claiming libel, slander, that Morris is being sued for millions of dollars and that the whole project is funded by a Mormon conspiracy—there’s no easy way to tell whether they came from McKinney as well, but given how many of them exhort the writers to call her manager to get her side of the story, it seems fair to assume they at least came from an associate of hers.

To someone without stakes in the game, neither Tabloid nor Beats, Rhymes & Life appears to come with any crippling bias. Certainly neither is any sort of brutal takedown. Tabloid is removed almost to a fault, allowing everyone interviewed room to have their say and enough freedom to run themselves into walls. Beats, Rhymes & Life is admiring of its subjects while never glossing over their all-too-human sides and the destructive evolution of their group dynamic. But to say both seem fair is to raise the question of whether a documentary ever really seems fair to those in it, no matter how flattering.

In her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote, “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling somebody out.” It’s an often, probably over-quoted phrase, because it rings true, for nonfiction on screen as well as on the page. The agenda of a documentary filmmaker is to make the most effective film he or she can, not to best serve the film’s subject or to guard that subject’s feelings and self-image. A doc is rarely a true collaboration between its subject and its creator, despite that being offered as a subtext or as a reason to participate. (“We’ll tell your story.”) To allow yourself to be filmed is to turn over the stuff of your life to someone else, to submit to another narrator whose interests lie, foremost, in what will make the best film, regardless of how you come off within it. You may be the reason people come to see the film, but the film belongs to someone else.

And God knows, that’s almost always for the best. In the case of these two films, a self-commissioned ATCQ doc would surely skip over most of the painful, fascinating personal entanglements in favor of more deserved (but far less interesting) back-patting. And one can only imagine what kind of film Joyce McKinney would choose to make of her own story. Judging from Tabloid’s framing segment in which she reads from her own book, it would be a soft-focus thing filled with princesses rescuing their true loves from brainwashing cults with the power of their love, with nary a mention of rape.

At Sundance two years ago, another hip-hop doc, The Carter, premièred without the support of its subject Lil Wayne, who agreed to appear in the film only to later pull his support and file a lawsuit in an attempt to block it from release. He (or his management) reportedly wanted to have the scenes of drug use—pot and the rapper’s beloved prescription-strength cough syrup—removed from the final cut. And Morris himself has clashed with a film’s subject in the past, settling out of court with The Thin Blue Line’s Randall Dale Adams after Adams sued him over ownership for his own life rights. (This despite the fact that most credit the film for Adams getting his conviction overturned.)

“When he got out, he became very angry at the fact that he had signed a release giving me rights to his life story,” Morris explained on Wisconsin Public Radio in 2004:

And he felt as though I had stolen something from him. Maybe I had, maybe I just don’t understand what it’s like to be in prison for that long, for a crime you hadn’t committed. … But as a filmmaker I also had a propriety interest in releasing a film, and making this film and producing a work that could be shown in theaters. I mean, one of the great jokes was that because The Thin Blue Line had gotten so much publicity, so much critical attention, he thought I was getting rich. 

The subject of the French documentary To Be And To Have similarly tried to sue for both a share of the profits of the film and to protest being misled about the way his image was used—he was ultimately unsuccessful, to the relief of the French film unions who feared a win would set a precedent in which every doc subject would be able to demand payment for participation.

What’s changing, beyond people hopefully getting over the assumption that anything but a lucky handful of documentaries ever make money, is that everyone is more sensitive over control of their own image and the price paid for exposure in this over-sharing, yet privacy-obsessed, age. As a society, we’ve become media-savvy enough to know both that there are more outlets than ever before to spread one’s own version of the story, and that having a very public fight with how you’re represented in a film may end up getting you more attention than the film itself. “What happens to the authority of a documentary when its subjects are able to disseminate their own alternate stories in real time, on the Internet?” mused Longworth in LA Weekly. It becomes something to question, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and doesn’t necessarily undermine the film’s integrity. In the chorus of voices in the new media world, we could always do with being reminded of who’s telling the story we’re taking in.