Film traces how Pras hand-picked outrageous candidate to run for Haiti's highest office
It wasn't so long ago that Americans elected a B-movie actor as President.
That looks pretty tame compared to Haiti, where in 2011 an entertainer ran for President who was best known for performing on stage in diapers.
That candidate was Michel Martelly -- known as "Sweet Micky" to his music fans. If he was an unlikely contender, so was the man who orchestrated his candidacy -- Pras Michel of The Fugees.
Michel Martelly got on Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, CNN, Fox, Al-Jazeera with no money and plus he wasn’t even an American candidate. Think about it!
The story of how the American-born musician selected Martelly to run and then managed his campaign -- despite having no experience at that kind of thing -- is told in the new documentary Sweet Micky for President, produced and starring Pras and directed by Ben Patterson.
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Sweet Micky for President is in contention for the Oscars, having qualified with a theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Pras in Los Angeles about Sweet Micky and the man some would say is his American corollary -- Donald Trump.
Nonfictionfilm.com: Among people in the US there is very little knowledge of Haiti— correct me if I’m wrong.
Pras Michel: Forget about the US. Amongst Haitians there’s very little knowledge. Just the other day I had four Haitian people come up to me, like, “Man. I’ve learned a lot [from Sweet Micky] and I was born in Haiti!” But the same could be said about Americans, right, and our history. If you go ask the average American certain basic questions they won’t know. I just think people just don’t care. In this day and age what people care about is their immediate needs and wants, right, how I’m going to get to work, how big is my check going to be, can I pay my bills. So to know that, for example, the only President that had a Ph.D. was Woodrow Wilson. Who’s going to know that, unless you’re a historian? And who cares, right?
NFF: In the film it becomes clear that you're really astute about politics. Have you always been interested in politics?
Pras: Not at all, not at all. I just was using my brains and my ingenuity. I think I’m somewhat smart in certain areas so it’s just about application, right... So I guess all I did is took everything that I’ve learned and just apply it to, “What do I need to do [to get Michel elected]? Okay, Michel Martelly, hmmm, we don’t have any money in our treasure chest. So how can I get attention for Michel? Oh, Pras, you’re a celebrity. Why don’t you bring him on the news media with you?" Why would they want a Haitian candidate [on TV] in America? Ahhh. If I do not [support] Wyclef [Jean, Pras' Fugees bandmate who was running for President of Haiti too], the media might jump on it.” That was a good gamble. They did [jump on it]. The first people who reported that was AP, “Pras does not support ex-bandmate.” Wildfire.
Pras: What’s interesting about this movie -- I’m watching the parallel between Michel Martelly’s campaign and what’s going on with Donald Trump’s campaign — it’s almost like he went and looked at our blueprint because Donald Trump has not used or raised any money during his six months of campaigning. He’s been using the media. That’s exactly what we did with Michel Martelly. Michel Martelly got on Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, CNN, Fox, Al-Jazeera with no money and plus he wasn’t even an American candidate. Think about it!
NFF: How is it that you decided of all the possible candidates--
Pras: --Why Michel.
NFF: Yes. Why Michel.
Pras: My calculation was he was the most popular person in Haiti— well, him and Wyclef, obviously, but him a little bit more so because he’s actually Haitian, musically speaking. Secondly, he was an outsider and so I just thought it made a great combination. Now in hindsight— see, here’s the thing, when you believe in something and your intentions are good the unimaginable can happen. Because if my intentions were, “Man, I’m going to get Michel to run for President so I can be Prime Minister,” then I would already know, “There’s no way they’re going to vote for this diaper guy,” right. But.. I really did believe this guy can do a change for Haiti — I really believed he was the answer.
NFF: As I understand it, at some point [director] Ben Patterson realized this whole experience could be shaped into a documentary.
Pras: He took the initiative... So then we start[ed] to get into the creative process of what kind of documentary we wanted to make. I said to Ben, “Look, we got to make something that people — no matter who it is — I’m not trying to make a movie just for Haitians.” Because if you’re telling me somebody made a movie about Haitians and politics — I’m Haitian and I wouldn’t want to see that shit. I’d be like, “Next. I want to see Avengers, the new James Bond movie." But we wanted to do something that, no matter who you are -- you do not have to know about Haitian politics or even care about Haitian culture, history, politics -- that movie is a part of you because the essence of what it's about is the human experience, hope, belief that anything can happen when we want to do something; it takes one person to make a change.
NFF: Obviously you care deeply about Haiti and the culture. Is that something that came from your parents, them saying, “Don’t let it go.”
Pras: Yeah, the parents… You got to remember the time I came from. My generation, we were like the last Mohicans as far as like what we find is important to us. You have a generation now — this generation right here, the millennials — they’re on a whole different zone. And I don’t know if it’s good or bad, it’s just different. Reason I say it’s different is I don’t want to sound like my parents, “I remember, I used to walk 20 miles to school and 20 miles back so by the time I got home I had to just take a shower and go to sleep and get up. I didn’t even eat….” I was always brought up to believe that you have to be proud of where you’re from, because that’s your identity at the end of the day. That’s what makes you.
NFF: What happened after the film? Michel wins, and then gets the booby prize of having to govern. Are you glad you effectively got him elected?
Pras: I’m definitely glad I did it. The outcome wasn’t as great as I would have hoped it would be. I wish it could have been definitely better. Part of me might feel a little bit disappointed but you know it’s a tough, tough, tough, tough position, I mean. If Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln came back as President and Vice President I don’t know that they would have done that much better. With a country like Haiti you need a full pledge commitment because you’re talking about a country — Michel was the third democratically-elected President in 207 years at that time. Now it’s 211 years. It’s very kind of like trivial thinking to think that this guy can really come in and he could change, unless he devoted his whole being to make that change. Has there been progress? There’s been some progress. Has it been major, aggressive progress? I wouldn’t say that.
Pras: It’s a tough question to answer because Sweet Micky is my guy. I love him to death. You see it through the movie — he’s the most charming guy. He’s fun. The thing that I’ve learned in this whole process — I’ve learned that being an artist and being a politician is literally night and day. It’s the total extreme opposite. Because an artist — our whole being is to express what we feel. You don’t compromise the integrity of the art. A politician’s whole existence is, “I’m going to say what I think the voters want to hear so I can get their vote.” So the minute that you become that politician now you have to compromise because you have to censor what you say and what you don’t say. That’s why when you think about it the two should never mix. If I’ve learned anything with this movie that’s what I’ve learned.
NFF: Do you think being in office changed Micky?
Pras: You would have to be an extraordinary person to walk in those shoes and not let it affect you... It just comes with the territory. There’s too much politics that you have to deal with. You would have to literally be a monk. No, seriously… We’re human beings. How many people can put self to the side and say, “I’m going to do it for the greater good of the people”? I don’t know that many people that can. All of a sudden you have all that power, resources, you’re like a king. We don’t call it that, right, but that’s essentially what it’s like. Modern day.
You’d like to think the purpose of a government is to serve the people. That sounds good but that’s really not the reality.
I entered the system being naive... Haiti’s just an extension of America. There’s no real difference. Haiti’s like saying Alabama. You go to Alabama, you go down to Mississippi, it looks damn near like Haiti. Have you been to Mississippi? You go to Mississippi and you think you’re in a different country. Literally, okay. The GDP is almost similar to each other. But what I’m saying to you is, you’d like to think the purpose of a government is to serve the people. That sounds good but that’s really not the reality... It’s better to kind of live in a bubble. When you get out of that bubble you’re like, “Wait a minute. So you’re saying to me we can’t have a real comprehensive health care plan because special interests and corporations have to have their way? It’s not really about the people? It’s about the bottom line?” You start to think like, “Woa. What’s really going on?” All the things that are happening are based on special interests that dictate our life, how bills and laws are passed.
NFF: You mentioned Donald Trump earlier, and the parallel between him and Micky.
Pras: I have friends of mine who keep making fun of me and I keep telling them, “Don’t laugh at Donald Trump. Do not underestimate that.” Because you do not know how disenfranchised people can become. Michel only got elected because [people] felt like, "We are tired of the status quo." Now the people are not stupid. They know Michel couldn’t really govern this place. But it was a message to the status quo, like, “Listen, we not fucking with you!” Do you know anyone who supports Donald Trump? I don’t know anyone who supports him or anyone who knows anyone... Yet he’s number one with 32 percent in the polls. I mean there’s a silent majority out there.
Now I don’t have anything against the man. But he has some real aggressive rhetorics to him and whatnot. But still, people eatin’ it up and to me that’s the parallel between him and Sweet Micky. We seen it right here underneath our nose.
NFF: Lastly, in the film we see quite an evolution to your relationship with Wyclef. Did it surprise you that you were able to ultimately get on the same page, after he was ruled ineligible as a candidate?
Pras: Not really. It’s politics. Right. What you going to do? Stand on the losing side, [or] you going to go on the winning side? Look, I know Wyclef always was friends and did like Michel. Loved Michel. I don’t think it was that far of a fetch or stretch for him to come and support Michel [after Clef was ruled ineligible]. It was natural, you know. I don’t know if it was that big of a deal, because at the end of the day he wanted to get into what was happening. Everybody always wants to be with the winner. By the way, it’s no different here in America. It’s the same.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.