KEEPING IT REAL
John Waters on Police Brutality in Baltimore, Sex in Voting Booths, and the Insanity of Fox News
The trash cinema auteur opens up about the recent unrest his native Baltimore, the 2016 presidential election, and getting weird with it.
If he could, John Waters would make torrid love to the American democratic process.
“I always vote, yes!” Waters tells The Daily Beast, in between stops on his current book tour. “I even have a scene in one of my movies where people have sex in a voting booth.”
It’s true. He’s also designed a T-shirt encouraging his fellow Americans to get it on in voting booths.
The 69-year-old writer/director (nicknamed the “Pope of Trash”) is keeping busy. It’s been a decade since he helmed his last feature film, and even longer since he made his mark on the cult movie scene with raunchy comedies like Desperate Living and Pink Flamingos. Nowadays, he’s traveling a lot, doing stand-up comedy, working on his art pieces, promoting the paperback of his book Carsick, and has a development deal for something on television. (He wouldn’t discuss further details, due to his contract.)
Waters is a man of various talents—he’s also a bit of an outlaw, and admittedly so. His federal crime dates back to the failed 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress.
“I have committed voter fraud, yes, but she didn’t win so it didn’t matter,” he recalls, continuing to explain his zeal for democracy. “I voted for her twice, because in those days they didn’t have picture ID. So in California, I would ask people, ‘Are you gonna vote?’ and if they said no, I would go vote for her. I wouldn’t do that today. I get carried away—I’m such a good citizen I vote more than once.”
He says, however, that he has never committed voter fraud in Baltimore, his hometown and preferred setting for his films. He claims residence in San Francisco and New York City, but Baltimore will always be his Home Sweet Home.
“Baltimore is my home, mentally,” he says. “I’m on the road constantly, so mentally, Baltimore is my home.”
In recent weeks, during which Charm City suffered through rioting, violence, tense protests, and a state of emergency following the death of Freddie Gray, Waters has had time to reflect on his beloved city, and its longstanding problems with crime and poverty.
“I was around for the first Baltimore riots,” Waters says. “My first apartment in Baltimore was on 25th Street and Calvert, and there were tanks outside of my house. Everywhere was burning. Believe me, these riots were not as bad as those. But the riots in Baltimore this time were more widespread than what you saw on CNN, because if you watched CNN, you’d think it was that one big fire and Penn and North. The Penn-North neighborhood, I guarantee you, 80 percent of white people I know haven’t been there. I used to live [around] there. I used to live in an all-black neighborhood…The problem in Baltimore is that…there is also an equal number of poor white people. I really wish that they would team up. The poor people of Baltimore need to make it a class issue, not a race issue.”
When much of the rioting was going down in the city, Waters was out of town shooting a cameo for the upcoming Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. “The story is not at all over,” he says. “That’s why I didn’t want to talk about it at first. Because, A) I’m a white person, and it didn’t happen in my neighborhood, and B) when I got arrested [in Baltimore years ago], they didn’t break my back…Whatever you think, Freddie Gray was walking up the street and then he’s dead. Somebody has to pay for that. It was somebody’s fault.”
There was one aspect of the recent chaos in Baltimore that appealed to Waters’s artistic sensibilities.
“The only thing I liked about the Baltimore trouble was the ballgame [at Camden Yards] they played with no spectators,” he says. “And now, I think they should reverse it as an art project, with the stadium filled with people, and no game.”
Waters’s interest in politics, within and without his hometown, has been part of his public life for years now. He campaigned with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley (a close friend, who attends Waters’s annual Christmas parties) for marriage equality. He has campaigned against capital punishment, and views solitary confinement as a form of torture. He is a news junkie who reads the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, New York Times, and USA Today every day—and has a particular distaste for cable news.
“Why would I torture myself by watching Fox News? Life’s too short,” Waters says.
As you can guess, he is a self-proclaimed “bleeding-heart liberal,” who would gladly get behind O’Malley or Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic nominee (“I think it would be great to have [Bill] as First Lady”). And he is, in his cynical way, pro-Jeb Bush.
“I’m pro-Jeb Bush, because I want him to be the [Republican] candidate, because I think we can beat him,” he says. “I think the governor from New Jersey could have won, if it wasn’t for Bridgegate…Unless he comes up with a new campaign slogan saying, ‘Let’s put junk food back in the schools, and don’t fuck with us. We’ll shut YOUR roads down!’”
As for his solution to the issues that plague his city, and so many others across America? In John Waters’s perfect world, there would be a policy of economic compassion.
“Every place I go when I talk to young black people, they tell me horror stories,” he says. “You know, cops don’t pick on me…Black kids from all sorts of economic backgrounds…they tell me they get hassled, and not just in Baltimore, everywhere! The answer, I say, is really that you would have to switch neighborhoods once a week, and live in an opposite economic neighborhood of where you live. That’s the only way I can think that you’re ever going to feel what it’s like. Get your hair done there, put your kids in the school there.”
For all his activism and friends in politics, the famous trash cinema auteur has only managed to make it to the White House once—when a Republican was in power.
“The only time I ever was in the White House, I was in the Reagan White House,” he recounts. “Because Lee Atwater, one of the most insane Republicans ever, invited me to the White House because he was a huge fan of exploitation movies. I went, and it was just myself, and my boyfriend at the time, who didn’t say one word the whole time we were there, and Lee Atwater…I kept the secret that he had invited me there, because it was not announced…Nobody was there. It was like going over to somebody’s house when a friend is babysitting. He showed me the button that Nixon could push if the end of the world happened, or something. We didn’t talk politics. We talked exploitation movies, he knew everything about them.”
(To this day, Waters still has the little White House cufflinks that Atwater gifted him.)
Nowadays, the “Pope of Trash” is still on the road, jumping from town to town until this leg of his Carsick tour wraps in early June. And he insists that if he never directs another movie again, that would be just fine with him.
“I was routinely making independent movies that cost 5, 6, 7 million dollars—there’s no such thing as that anymore,” Waters says. “I’ve just gotta tell stories, and luckily, I still am doing that. I’m always on the road. My tour never ends.”