In America there is a deep tension and contradiction along the color line. The country's popular culture is increasingly diverse (however problematically) in terms of the presence and visibility of nonwhite actors and actresses. However, the country is highly race segregated on a day-to-day basis. Most white Americans do not have any friends of another color. The country's neighborhoods and schools are racial segregated at levels similar (if not worse) than what plagued the United States during Jim and Jane Crow. And as the truism goes, "Sunday is the most segregated day of the week": Black and brown and white Christians do not pray or worship together.
When Hollywood and commercial mainstream American TV tries to grapple with these issues, the result is often flat and uninteresting. In total, neoliberal multiculturalism and accompanying demands for more "representation" on TV and in film are powerful forces and slogans, but they rarely result in compelling and authentic popular art or other types of entertainment. Joe Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard" TV show — which is based on the long-running series of books by the same name — was an intervention and corrective against the Hollywood status quo. Set in East Texas during the late 1980s, the show's narrative revolves around the (mis)adventures of two men, Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams).
Hap is a former 1960s white radical and hippie. He is best friends with Leonard, a black gay Vietnam veteran who is also a Republican. Together in their small corner of the world they try to do the right thing in keeping with their own code of honor about respecting the human rights and dignity of all people. The television series and novels are compelling on a number of levels, but what is perhaps most striking is the authenticity of the relationships between the characters and how Lansdale's humane values shine through in what he describes as his Southern noir-influenced "mojo" style of storytelling.
Despite the show's very enthusiastic and loyal following, the TV series, which concluded its third season, was recently cancelled by SundanceTV.
I recently spoke with Joe Lansdale about the petition and other efforts to save the show, why "Hap and Leonard" resonates with so many people, how the TV show is a much-needed critique of the hateful and divisive politics of the Age of Trump and the ways that the show resonated with black viewers. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
"Hap and Leonard" was cancelled by SundanceTV after three seasons. There is so much horrible reality television out there, and other shows that are doing nothing new or interesting, really just warmed-over filler that appeals to the lowest common denominator, but "Hap and Leonard" was not renewed. Yes there is a petition and movement to save the show, but it still seems wrong and unfair. How are you feeling?
I'm not depressed or really even unhappy about it, I'm disappointed. James Purefoy and I exchanged emails and we both pretty much said the same thing: we're not sad, we're happy. We had three amazing seasons and I'm happy that it even got made. TV networks and producers don't like to deal with programs which explore controversial issues. Even if they're dealing with it in a drama, adventure or crime show.
I saw this with a letter that a lady wrote me in response to an article in Texas Monthly which argued that "Hap and Leonard" was a necessary and needed show in this time of Trumpism. The lady said, "what's this got to do with Trump? All I see is black faces on the television now." I said it's funny because you're noticing those black faces because you are not used to seeing them. It's because a handful for you all might seem like a lot, and let me tell you there's shows that have black faces and they're just inserts. They could be a white face, a black face or an Asian face, that's not the point to me.
What Michael K. Williams brought to the role of Leonard was his channeling of a certain dimension of black culture, black humanity and black life. He had a way of transferring those thoughts and those ideas to the audience, not only based on the characters in the dialog, but in who he is. The TV show was an opportunity for so many great black actors to play black characters, not characters that could have been any color.
Hap and Leonard's relationship seems utterly authentic and real. Online and elsewhere you have so many voices chiming in about the need for more "representation" and "diversity" in TV and film. But that can also result in very superficial efforts by Hollywood to just check off boxes and to have a brown or black face on the screen to fill a quota, real or imagined. But with "Hap and Leonard," you have two characters who are amazing friends that just happen to be of different races. But they also don't avoid the realities of the world. The relationship feels real.
One thing that helped with the chemistry is that James and Michael are actually really good friends. They're able to bring that to the show as well. They're a lot like Hap and Leonard.
I actually cried when Irma P. Hall was on [the show]. She's one of my favorite actresses. It struck me so hard because she was so East Texas and these are the people I grew up with. These were the people I knew and she portrayed them. It was a powerful moment for me to see an older black actress have such a prominent role in a TV series.
Reflecting on the universe you created with the novels and now the TV series, in this political and social moment, do you think there was something transgressive or perhaps even dangerous to some people about the way you depict friendships and intimate relationships across the color line?
It's provocative, I would say. Dangerous? I don't know. But you know, you may not be wrong, for some people. The interesting thing is that ever since I created those characters, I've gotten far more positive responses than I did negative ones. A lot of the negative response was from people who shamefully knew they were assholes for being so racist, but then along came Trump, and though he did not make them racist — in fact he's the one they've been waiting years for — but now Trump gets to say it out loud.
The Republican Party has long had this racist element, and it was a monster they kept in the shadows. Then one day he gets out and in the light a little bit more, and the next thing you know the monster is running for President. The problem was that every time they took that monster out it had a kind of infection. The racism monster eventually infected lots of people. Now the Republicans in the middle of the road, who really probably didn't expect this mess with Donald Trump, can't get rid of the monster.
One of the things I've been trying to scream from the mountain tops about this moment in America [is] that this is a moral crisis. Where are the moral leaders? With "Hap and Leonard" we see two men who are trying their best to do the right thing even when it is not easy. They are role models for a moment in a country where cowardice, for many millions, far outnumbers the brave and courageous.
That's one of the things that provokes some people to respond on my fan page with statements like, '"We don't need this, what's wrong with Trump?" This show was an inoculation for some people against that. It was like taking a shot, of sorts, to get better. We're getting "Hap and Leonard" for six weeks and it dealt with subjects that other shows weren't dealing with or that they were dealing with in sort of a peripheral way. Now, did the network decide to not renew "Hap and Leonard" for that reason? I couldn't tell you, I don't know if that was a factor or not.
I do believe that part of what happened with the show is that you have new executives and other decision-makers come in who want to put their mark on things. Sometimes you hear the words, "they just don't get the show," which means they don't like the show or they don't like what the show is about. But ultimately Hollywood is neither liberal nor conservative really, it's green. But there is no doubt in my mind that that show could be uncomfortable at times for some people. I think that it is a ground-breaker. It's not the first show to ever discuss racism, of course. But it was the first show to consistently do that as well as depict a friendship between a black gay man and a straight white men in conjunction with so many other issues.
Was there one singular moment during the beginning of the series where you felt like, "Yes, we got it right. This could work."
It is a moment that actually got downplayed in the actual first season. I was standing with my friend Nick Damici — who wrote a number of the episodes and was an executive producer on the series — and Hap has gone under the water and all of a sudden he hasn't come up and Leonard is worried about him and he stands up in the boat and he yells, "Hap!" Nick and I both started crying.
The thing is that it was a close up; it was beautiful, and when it was edited it was shot from the distance and it lost meaning entirely. I felt that that was the strongest moment in that particular episode. I knew they had it. I said, "It's real now. It's real now."
I think that's when I realized this is going to work. I had been over to the set by then and I already began to see the screen potential that was about to happen. That moment when we were about to reach beyond the screen, when the characters actually step out of the screen and they're not only in your living-room, they're in your hearts.
If you were to sit down with folks who just discovered the "Hap and Leonard" show, they're watching those last few episodes and this is the final time they may see those two great characters and that whole world on screen, what do you want them to take away from it?
We're just all in this together and that loss is something that we all deal with. We're in a world now where we have so much unnecessary loss. I'm not just talking about deaths from unnecessary wars and stupid politics. I'm talking about the loss of the potential for people to truly connect with one another. Yes, some people are just never going to connect, because you just don't like them, but we don't want to dislike people because they're different, and I'm not just talking about black and white, or gay or straight or what have you. I'm talking about different cultures. There needs to be a way that we can all find a progressive way of looking at cultures that are different than our own and blend with them, because we are already a blended culture.
It's like somebody was talking to me about country music and I said, "yeah, country music has a lot of its roots in European music, but also country music blended with African music to make blues and then blues went on to become rock 'n roll and jazz. All these different kinds of music, but they don't belong to one person, they don't belong to one culture, because they had bled across." I think one of our problems is either culture trying to claim all the achievements in the world. Pretty ridiculous.
There is a petition to save the show. Has there been any movement on that front?
My belief is that if we don't have some movement in the next two or three weeks that we probably will not have any. That doesn't mean the TV show "Hap and Leonard" is dead yet. I can't say it's looking good, but I also can't say it's looking bad either. I'm sure that the more people who say, "Hey let's bring this back," even if Sundance does not bring the TV show back it might encourage somebody else. That's where we are.
We had three great seasons, and as James Purefoy said, "I'm not sad," and I second that I'm not either, because these were ground breaking seasons, really fantastic episodes which are highly rewatchable. They have emotional resilience that is beyond the screen. I have my quarrels with the show too, I want to say that upfront. There were cases where I thought, "Don't do that, do this," but overall I'm extremely happy and proud of it and proud of the people involved.
There are millions of people who love the show and read the books. What are some of the messages you have received from fans of the TV show which really resonated?
I got so many of them, I really did. Some of the messages that meant the most to me were from black viewers who felt that this was the first time they had seen themselves represented so honestly. That was a painful thing too, if that makes any sense, but it was joyful too to think, really you touched something there. I have to give credit to the fantastic black actors on the show. Tiffany Mack was so terrific. I had Louis Gossett Jr., who is one of my heroes, on the show. Irma P. Hall, who of course I've already mentioned.
I got a lot of things from white viewers, too, who said, "this is the way I feel, but I don't speak up. I'm afraid to speak up."
Ultimately, you begin to realize that through entertainment you have a lot more power than you do through political pundits or the like to change hearts and minds and to really impact people. "Hap and Leonard" moved people that way.