Rob Hatch-Miller might not seem like the obvious choice to direct a documentary about underrated soul singer and songwriter Syl Johnson. He’s a White film and media creator whose credits are mostly indie rock-related music videos, short documentaries and comedy sketches.
Johnson is an obscure soul artist who is better known for being the father of former "R&B Divas" cast member Syleena Johnson than his own records. His ode to anti-Blackness, "Is It Because I’m Black?", is one of his best-known singles.
But Hatch-Miller’s distance from Johnson’s experiences didn’t prevent him from from directing and co-producing an insightful film. "Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows" follows Johnson’s life, from minor success during the late-’60s and early-’70s to the present revival of his musical fortunes fueled by vinyl-heads tracing his songs sampled by artists such as Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z. The film offers perspectives from Johnson’s family, former and current band members, label heads and hip-hop stalwarts including RZA and Peanut Butter Wolf.
Hatch-Miller and co-producer Puloma Basu are searching for distributors while screening the film at festivals and one-offs around the country. We caught up with Hatch-Miller after the film screened at last week’s DOC NYC festival. Here, three questions, three answers and some classic Johnson songs featured in "Any Way the Wind Blows."
You’ve worked a lot with musicians, especially in indie rock. A documentary about an underrated legend from another era is a significant thematic departure. What brought you into the fold on this doc, and do you think that there was something transposable from your other work in telling this story?
Well it’s interesting, because when I started making this film [nearly six years ago], I had never made a music video before. All of that stuff was happening kind of parallel to making this film. My first shoot for [the documentary] was in 2009. At that time, I had made one short documentary and student films. The first music video I did was in 2010. The documentary and music video work kind of informed each other. It was a learning process, and I feel like it doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re working with, there’s definitely things—following the music rhythm while you’re editing, for instance—and that kind of musical sensibility of editing crosses all genre lines.
For my interest, the indie rock thing was less the kind of music I was listening to. That’s just the contemporary world of music that I’ve been working in—I’d love to work on hip-hop videos, I’ve just never been asked to do it. So I’ve always liked soul music, and the music in this film is more directly in my own personal tastes. The thing that excited me most about Syl probably was the Wu-Tang Clan connection. They were one of my favorite, if not absolute favorite hip-hop groups. As they said in the film, they sampled Syl a lot, and I knew it would be important to the film.
You are, to be sure, a White filmmaker talking about a Black cultural figure. Did you have to take certain steps or make creative decisions to preserve the film’s authenticity and cultural competency?
I was always very aware that I’m a White filmmaker telling a story of a Black artist. I definitely felt like, early on in the filmmaking process, if I had come across a Black filmmaker who was trying to tell this story, I would have said, "Maybe I can work in sort of an ancilary position and produce this film." As the film progressed, no one came in and asked to do this story. … Syl is only getting older—he had some health scares as we were making the film. We felt that he was such an important cultural figure and a great human being, and we wanted to make sure the story was told. So we just pushed forward.
Beyond that, I don’t think him being a different race than me was in the front of my mind ever, except when Syl addressed it, because it was readily apparent to him. You see a few times in the film, he yells off-camera to people, "These White kids are following me with cameras!" It’s funny, and also something interesting. At every Syl Johnson concert I’ve been to the audience is predominantly White, with a smattering of younger Black people and older Black people who remember him. …I don’t know what the explanation is, but there’s a sort of cultural shift in the people looking back at older, underappreciated soul music. The records that get re-released don’t typically get marketed to [a younger, Black audience].
Contemporary debates about the future of hip-hop, and Black music in general, often touch on the appropriation of the genre by White artists and audiences who don’t know the context of the art form’s history. We’re also in the era of Black Lives Matter, where conversations about racial justice have a lot of visibility. Do artists like Syl Johnson and films like yours play an important role in shaping the discourse?
Syl, for sure, plays a role in it, though maybe not as much a role in the genre’s future as much as making people aware of the continuum of all music, not just Black music. Music is always sort of in a dialogue with itself, and goes back and references itself. Certainly, Syl’s music will live way beyond any of us. Those songs will not stop being building blocks of something, unless our music culture shifts 100 per cent.
I don’t know how much the film plays a role in that. There was some pressure on us to get more overtly-political at points in the movie, and get very vocal about making the connection to Black Lives Matter, and having Ta-Nehisi Coates-type social commentators come in and talk about a song or political music in general. But I felt, as a White filmmaker, that, to me, would have been inauthentic. So we just tried to let the music speak for itself. Obviously, now, it’s as socially relevant as it has been and probably, unfortunately, will be. But we didn’t want to get all Amy Goodman, "Democracy NOW!" on it. We just wanted it to be about him and his music, first and foremost, and let the music’s politics speak for themselves, rather than let the movie speaks for the music’s politics.
Visit the documentary’s website to learn more about future screenings.