Words by Andrew Ricketts
Brooklyn favorite and budding dramedy maven Shaka King got invited to Park City, Utah’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival with his unruffled humor layered in gutsy slurs.
King’s 2013 full-length Newlyweeds explored a match made in stoner heaven that some liken to a darker turn on Dave Chappelle’s Half Baked and garnered a cult following on Netflix.
Now that his selection Mulignans has leaked to hungry internet fans, a broader group will be exposed to his biting noir satire. Mulignans borrows from the world of New York gangster flicks to confront unequal portrayals in Hollywood. Never mind his dry delivery, because King thinks so far ahead of his audience that the remarks some call strong are only excerpts from his gristly critiques of the modern world. So he just drops them in casually, explaining how he made his characters to offend, to push past convention.
watchLOUD spoke with director King about the 2015 Sundance selection for Mulignans and the challenges of viewing social roles and race through a comedic lens.
WatchLOUD: I just wanted to talk to you about Mulignans…how it came to be this concept after it was a part of your life first. Now it has this other life in the public sphere. How does that process play out?
SK: I don’t even know what part of the process we’re at. I know it’s being watched. This is the peak (so far) in its popularity. We got 30,000 hits in one day. Today we got a thousand and change. It could be that [day] was the peak of it. What did it feel like? It’s cool, on one hand. It’s cool on every hand, honestly, when we made it for the web primarily. I personally made it because I wanted to see people’s response. The kinds of conversations that happened around it. I fumbled. I actually didn’t make the full-length commentable, for a period. Then it got up on Reddit and on that page I could see people interact. That’s been interesting.
But I think that I’d thought it would be more polarizing. It isn’t particularly polarizing. People either don’t understand it at all, and just acknowledge that. And then other people completely get it. But nobody’s like ‘this sucks’ or ‘this is racist’. That’s what I thought I’d get more of. People taking offense to it. But that isn’t the case. People aren’t, by and large, offended at all. I haven’t encountered anyone who’s said that. I remember when we first got into Sundance and we first decided to use the definition of ‘mulignans’ in the synopsis, to keep it as nebulous and vague as possible, I thought that it read cold. My professor and friend posted the link to the synopsis on his Facebook page and an older Italian-American gentleman took umbrage to the fact that we named the work Mulignans, like, ‘What could they possibly know about being called mulignans? That’s a racist term from when my grandfather was fresh off the boat. Nobody’s used that term in x-amount of years. I’m an Italian-American who finds that offensive.’ He didn’t like the representations of Italian-Americans in television and cinema and was somehow blaming us for that. Without having seen the film at all. The dialogue from the people [after] shut him down, but I just thought ‘Wow, people are reacting this way just based on the synopsis. Wait til they see the show.’ But there hasn’t been a hostile reaction to it, thus far. We’ll see if that changes.
WL: What’s the importance of offense and hostility in terms of your original vision? It seems like the response you anticipated might have informed your process? Did the response from the public play into how you wanted to do it? Am I correct in thinking that?
SK: Yes, you are. Offense played a big part of it. The whole thing about it was that it had to be funny and it had to cross a line. It had to actually be offensive. There were certain lines that I intentionally wrote to offend. (King chuckles here.) But they just get laughs. I’m not upset about it. I think that’s a testament to…the end goal was to make something funny. We haven’t been doing this for years because we wanted to make a statement. We’ve been doing this for years because we wanted it to make us laugh. Ultimately, our goal was to make people laugh, but we also saw this as something more interesting, and seeking to intentionally offend was important too.
WL: You are in the film. I hope that’s not a spoiler for people who haven’t watched it yet. You portray one of the characters in the film and you use these offensive terms. I think we can all admit that these are offensive things to say, both to women and people of other races and nationalities. Why do you think that gets laughs?
SK: That’s a good question. I think the first question is ‘does it make people people laugh because a black man’s saying it?’ I think it does. I’ve always found those mob movies fucking hysterical. I mean those guys are so quick and so witty. Joe Pesci (in GoodFellas and in Casino) he’s doing these violent acts but you watch them and laugh because — just look at DeNiro’s reaction every time [Pesci] does something brutal — his character’s reaction every time there is something heinous. His initial reaction is to laugh hysterically. Then he goes too far and they’re like ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Those movies desensitize you to these acts because something about them is humorous. The surprise is part of it. These guys being so quick, and having on this weird costume. The violence even feels theatrical. It feels like caricatures committing these acts, and not real people.