We need to talk about Apu. One of television’s longest-running institutions, The Simpsons, has been on the air long enough to see five different US presidents, four separate decades, and yet some aspects of the show remain unchanged from its earliest years. Among those consistencies is the presence of Kwik-E-Mart employee Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a caricature of an Indian immigrant voiced by one of the show’s most gifted voice actors, Hank Azaria, a white man.
In The Problem With Apu, director Michael Melamedoff teams up with comedian Hari Kondabolu to expose the damaging effect that a character like Apu has had on the South Asian community while tackling issues of representation in comedy and entertainment.
For Melamedoff, this is another in a series of films he’s made which shine a light on underrepresented voices. In 2012, he cast Laverne Cox in a role that had been written for a cis woman, and currently, Melamedoff produces Shade: Queens of NYC for the Fusion channel. At DOC NYC, I asked the filmmaker about documentary filmmaking as opposed to narrative filmmaking, how he became interested in the subject of Apu, and why he values outside perspectives.
What is the appeal of non-fiction film to you?
Ultimately, I don’t choose to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction. It’s all storytelling. It’s all about finding stories that I personally gravitate to that I think there’s an exciting and entertaining way to frame it for a wider audience.
In the case of The Problem with Apu, I relished the opportunity to look at the impact and the legacy of The Simpson. Recognizing it as one of the most substantial and significant television comedies but seeing how a show as important to our culture as The Simpsons could still have clear blind spots when it came to talking about something as complicated as race.
That was a story I was eager to engage with. For me, it really opened up the possibility to talk about complicated dynamics around race and representation through the filter of a program that so many of us had seen, that so many people love. That might make that conversation more accessible to people.
What was it that initially drew you to this project specifically?
I was drawn to the project largely because of Hari [Kondabolu] and his work. I was familiar with him as a comic. I had seen his earlier monologue regarding The Simpsons and race on Totally Biased years ago, a show I really admired. It introduced me not just to Hari but to Kamau Bell. I was really excited by the opportunity to work with [Hari].
I, like Hari, am a first generation American. My parents are immigrants here, too, and while we’re not South Asian I saw clearly the intersect between the sense of cultural outsiderism that I think anyone who is first generation American feels that you don’t fully belong in the place where your parents came from, and you don’t always feel like you fully belong here in the States. No matter how much you love America and the best part of its ideals, there’s this sense of being outside of them.
That was a clear point of connection to me for Hari. I was excited about having a chance to work with him, to talk about issues that were important to him, because I respected his voice so much.
What is it about comedy that it often finds itself at the center of racial or other finds of controversy?
Comedy by its nature does two things consistently. One, great comedy pushes up on boundaries, and it dares great comedians to go into unsafe spaces. But two, comedy is often a way of recognizing sameness in people.
If somebody tells you a joke and you laugh at it, it’s because you both have a touch point. There’s a place of agreement between the two of you about whether something or not is funny. Oftentimes, really great comics surprise us by revealing similarities in points of view, but it makes it really easy also for comedians to step into hacky jokes that reinforce stereotypes or xenophobia.
Those things get edged into the cultural consciousness really easily. When we’re looking to identify people who are the same as us, really simple defaults like ethnicity and race become easy points of identification.
Throughout our culture, we’re finding a lot of people looking back and re-evaluating people or premises that were taken for granted. Is there something about the current moment you feel has fueled that?
We’re in a moment right now where part of the culture wars that we’re facing is who gets ownership over certain kinds of representation and what that representation stands for. Ultimately, the problem with a figure like Apu is that he was not created by South Asians, he was created largely by a room of white men who, for all of Apu’s truly bright moments in The Simpsons, those moments are often surrounded by a lot of comedy that relies purely on Apu’s racial and ethnic identity to bolster laughs.
That’s problematic not only because Apu is not only the only stand-in for South Asians on that show for a long time, but Apu is one of the only stand-ins in our culture for a many years for South Asians. As somebody who was eight years old when The Simpsons hit The Tracey Ullman Show and ten years old when they hit the air as their own series, I can say with a certain measure of confidence that there weren’t a lot of particularly strong touch points of South Asian representation in the culture.
You had Fisher Stevens’ brownface character in the Short Circuit movies. You had Jawaharlal standing in the background of Head of the Class. You had Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. All representations that, even if they weren’t malevolent in their intent, were highly problematic and clearly impactful to young Indian-Americans, young South Asians growing up in this country.
For a lot of these creations, it can be difficult to separate intent from impact.
Yeah. Ultimately, I think you have to fall on the sword of effect over intent. We spoke to a lot of really smart people who grew up around the show, who were involved with writing the show, none of whom I think set out intentionally to hurt anyone with this character. The problem is exactly that; it’s easy to be thoughtless. It’s easy to navigate with these blinders on in regard to race, especially if there’s nobody in a writer’s room speaking up and saying, “Hey! I’m not okay with this!”
For a long time comedy built around race from the perspective of white men has been part of the lingua franca of comedy and that is problematic if you don’t have the equal opportunity to offend. A lot of people will say The Simpsons is an equal opportunity offender, but for The Simpsons to truly be an equal opportunity offender, there have to be diverse voices of color, across gender lines, who are willing to throw punches up in the other direction, as well.
For so long that’s what the entertainment industry has lacked, at least in this country, is that diversity of voices. That’s what we’re trying to work towards. I’m not trying to tell anybody to disavow their love of The Simpsons. I’m not trying to tell anybody to stay away from spaces that are potentially unsafe.
I’m saying, let’s be more thoughtful about how we construct systems around representation. Let’s be more careful about how we hire a writer’s room. Let’s be more careful about how we promote executives up that have decision-making power. Let’s make sure that you have more than one place to turn [to see] a wide array of voices. We only benefit by diversifying the offers that are out there, diversifying the creators in shaping content.
Was there a challenge in directing a documentary that featured someone other than yourself leading the on=camera investigation?
I was really fortunate to have a great partner in Hari. I could not have undertaken this project without Hari, not only because he hired me onto it but really because for all of the intersections between my experiences and Hari’s experiences, I’m not South Asian. I hope the next time somebody makes this investigation that there’s a South Asian director at the helm, quite frankly.
That’s also part of the process of improving these narratives. This is a first step towards integrating a diversity of voices. The next time around I hope that our industry advances to a place where there are numerous over-qualified South Asian candidates who could take this job from me.
But in the interim what the process required was constant conversations to make sure that what was being represented on the screen reflected Hari’s experiences. Authentically reflected his voice. Perhaps the benefit of those constant conversations was that we were also able to see points of view outside of our own.
We were clearly able to see countervailing arguments against the film. We were also able to invite a diversity of thought around the question, not just of Apu, but also of representation in its totality.
How important is highlighting other group’s stories and elevating minorities to you as a filmmaker?
My career has consistently been built around working with voices that I thought were underserved. Points of view that I think have been underserved. That’s been consistently a hallmark of my work as a director and as a producer. It’s something that I’m incredibly proud of.
Both opening up doors for people to tell these stories and placing a great amount of effort towards elevating those voices in front of the camera and elevating those voices behind the camera, as well. Insuring that our hiring practices on productions are diverse. That we are elevating people of all gender and all color to crucial creative positions across our productions. It’s necessary, and it’s made every single production I’ve worked on better.
The last time we talked was for your film The Exhibitionists, which I remember had cast Laverne Cox just before she became a huge star on Orange is The New Black.
That experience of casting Laverne Cox, well ahead of her work on Orange is the New Black, and casting her in a role that was not written for a trans woman was, to me, important. Laverne was the best actor that walked into that room, and that should have been the only qualification when thinking about casting her and that was what lead our choice. To my mind, we found a star there.
The success she’s had since is proof of that.
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have access to great talents. To Laverne, to Bobby Cannavale, to Hari, and to catch them in the early stages of their career. To be able to give them opportunities and to gain wonderful opportunities through their perspectives.
What’s exciting about bringing your film to DOC NYC?
For me, this is a hometown festival. I’m a New Yorker through and through. I was born here, raised here and I’ve lived my whole life here. This is also an audience that, I think, is not just going to automatically be agreeing with all of the questions that the film raises, but that is going to give those questions a chance and engage with those questions thoughtfully.
That’s always the hope with a film like this. I’m not necessarily looking for people to come into the film already agreeing with our point or even leave the film agreeing with our point of view. I just want them to engage with it honestly.