November 2002
The Education of Sonny Carson : An Interview with Michael Campus

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

The Education of Sonny Carson - Movie PosterThe Education of Sonny Carson : An Interview with Michael Campus

In 1974, a film that is widely documented as an inspiration for today’s African-American filmmakers, musical artists, and politicians came out. Rap artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and singers like Lauren Hill continue to refer the film in their songs. The film is called “The Education of Sonny Carson”. It was widely praised, yet became difficult to find on video. Finally, after much campaigning, the film will hit the video for all to see how important this film was to so many. In an interview with, Director Michael Campus spoke about the man who made a difference with his story.

WM: Why did it take so long for the film to be release on video?

MC: I’m really surprised by the amount of time it’s taken because when we made the film, it caused an enormous stir. We had used real gang kids. I had just made “The Mac” and I had been through that whole incredible experience in Oakland with the battle between the Black Panthers and the black underworld for control of Oakland. In the middle of all that, I came in with my little film. When “The Mac” came out, it caused an enormous stir. Those allowed me to go into Bedstuy in New York and used the 4 real gangs and make this picture. When the film came out, I thought the ripple effect would be enormous. But at that time, we were so few theaters that it never got the audience. It never caused any tension. That’s despite the fact the film receive extraordinary reviews. So it’s hard to understand why the video release took so long.

WM: There are lots of issues in the film that still resonates in today’s society such as the gangs and police abuse. How do you feel knowing you brought out these same issues over 30 years ago?

MC: Well, I’ll give you the perfect example to me about all this. When the film was screened, there was a scene where Sonny Carson was being sadistically beaten for 30 minutes and when we first show the film, someone in the audience got up and said “stop this, you can’t show this, it’s too barbaric”. “It’s wrong”, said the same person came up to me at the end of the film and said, “how could you have shown this?” I said, “If I had shown you what really happened to Sonny, you would have been appalled”. That’s the impact of the film. It tells the story of the kids who really suffered.

WM: With the film now on video for many to see for probably the first time, what’s the message you want them to draw from the film?

MC: When Sonny came to me with this picture, what he wanted to say and what I embraced and I totally believe with all my heart and soul, is that we are wasting young black lives. It’s true today and it was true back then. Thesekids never had a chance. They never had an opportunity. They’re 10, 12 and 14 years old kids. They are not Campus and Carson going to be Shaq, Michael Jordan, or even Barry Bonds. These are kids who never had a chance in the year I made this film. As far as I can, especially on the West Coast, where I live in Los Angeles, the same conditions exist today. You must change this. This something I firmly believe in. You must change what’s happening with young black kids, young black males. For me, the legacy of the picture and the fact that it’s been compared to “Boyz in the Hoods” and that it has gone through so much, it’s because finally a wider audience is seeing “The Education of Sonny Carson”. People are getting a chance to view it and are asking themselves “Where has this film been”? I think the message is there. Sonny, unfortunately, is in a coma right. He had a massive heart attack. This is a terrible situation. He’s been my friend for 27 years. Not just as director and the subject of a film, but as brothers and as friends. To me, this is a tragedy because Sonny had planned to go on a nationwide anti-gang crusade with me. It would have started this month and continued across the country in the weeks to come.

WM: What is “The Education of Sonny Carson”?

MC: The film is the story of one young kid, Robert Sonny Carson. He was an honor student and at the same time going through enormous troubles. He joins a gang and then descends into a personal hell with these other kids. In the end, he was the youngest person ever to go to Sing-Sing prison. He was in there at the age of 16. So it the story of the descent on this young person and his redemption as he finds a way out which is really what happened. Sonny emerges from prison and as we know became a civic leader in Brooklyn, NY. His message is very clear. Save yourself and once you’d done that, save others.

The Education of Sonny Carson director Michael CampusWM: On October 24, 2000, Mayor Bloomberg honored Sonny Carson in Bedstuy, NY for his dedication to the cause. Can you talk about that?

MC: People are assembling at the restoration hall to honor him. There’s an audience made up of politicians. Folks from the corporate world, down to the entertainment world that loves Sonny and believes in what he has done came to see this historic event. I was in the hospital to see him and I sat by his bed and held his hand. There are a lot of people in this so-called white establishment who dislike Sonny intensely because he’s been an agitator. He’s been someone who wasn’t willing to sit down and just take it. He stood up and said that the African-American cause must be attended to. He’s a strong voice in all of this. Sonny Carson Day is important to a lot of people. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a tribute to his life as much as it a tribute to “The Education of Sonny Carson”, the film made about him.

WM: Thanks for talking in behalf of Sonny.

MC: There’s a lot of information on the internet about Sonny but the real thing to do is see the film to experience what Sonny went through to get where he is today. The trouble of trying to grow up with family or support and struggle through all this is heart wrenching. One of the scenes of the movies is in AFI “The 100 great moments in film history”. That’s a tribute to the fact of the importance of the message and the strength of it.