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LeBron James Shoots For The 'Stars'

Basketball player LeBron James has been a star since he was a teenager. Now 24, James looks back on his youth in the memoir Shooting Stars, which he co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger.

21:28

Other segments from the episode on September 9, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 9, 2009: Interview with Lebron James; Interview with Cherian Debis; Review of Whitney Houston's "I look to you."

Transcript

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LeBron James Shoots For The 'Stars'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, LeBron James, has been a
sports star ever since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the
age of 17, when he was still in high school. He was the number one NBA
draft pick out of high school. At 19, he became the youngest Rookie of
the Year in NBA history. That was in the 2003-2004 season. At the end of
last season, he was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. He plays for
the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James, who will turn 25 in December, grew up in Akron, and that’s where
his new memoir, “Shooting Stars,” is set. It’s about growing up poor,
the son of a single mother. And it’s about his friendship with the boys
who became his teammates in junior high and how they managed to stick
together, go to the same high school and become state champions. The
book is co-written with Buzz Bissinger, who wrote “Friday Night Lights.”

LeBron James, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you remember the very first time
that you dunked?

Mr. LeBRON JAMES (Basketball Player; Co-author, “Shooting Stars”): Yeah,
I was in eighth grade, and my middle school every year has a teachers-
versus-students game. You know, they play the basketball team. And in
warm-ups, I have no idea what got into me, but it was so - it was so
electric in this gym. I think this gym holds probably, like – oh, it
holds probably, like, I’d say probably about 45 people in there. That’s
a lot, right, for an eighth-grade game, 45 people?

And, you know, the crowd was, you know, the students was having a great
time, and, you know, we got out of school early. And in the warm-ups, I
just decided I don’t know, I was going to jump as high as I could and
try to dunk. And I did it. You know, I went up and dunked the
basketball. I don’t know what got into me that day. And then when the
game started, I got a breakaway and did it again, and the crowd went
crazy. And that was, like, one of the best moments of my whole life.

GROSS: You’re one of the people who went very suddenly from poverty to
wealth. You write in your book, you know, your mother had you when she
was 16. Her mother died when you were three. It was hard for your mother
to support you. You had to keep moving a lot because of eviction notices
and, you know, rent problems. Did you think of basketball as a way out,
as more than just a game?

Mr. JAMES: Oh, I think it is more than a game. Basketball, and I think
sport period, gives you an opportunity to forget about anything that may
be going on in your life, back away from that particular sport that you
may be playing. You know, I definitely used the game to get my mind off
some of the bad things that may have been going on as a child.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. JAMES: You know, just things you never want your kids to see, you
know, violence and things like that. You never want your kids to see
that. So, you know, I used the game of basketball to keep me away from
that.

GROSS: Your mother, when she was having a hard time financially, thought
it would be best for you if you lived with another family for a while,
while she tried to get things together. Tell us a little bit about the
Walker family that you did move in with.

Mr. JAMES: It was a great family, you know, and without them, I wouldn’t
be in this position I am today. You know, they welcomed me like I was
one of their sons, and, you know, they already had a son and two
daughters. And, you know, to open their arms up and to treat me like I
was one of their firstborn, I think, you know, I think that I owe them a
lot of credit for what they did.

GROSS: Mr. Walker was a basketball coach. Did you already know him from
basketball?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I had known him from football first. He was assistant
football coach on a Little League team I had played for first, and then
the basketball season came on.

GROSS: So how was it arranged? You know, like, why that family?

Mr. JAMES: I have no idea how it was arranged. You know, my mother just
told me I was going to be living with a coach of mine, and, you know, I
had never asked my mom why or anything like that. I just – you know,
I’ve always trusted her judgment.

GROSS: Now, how did you meet the three players who, along with you,
became known as the Fab Four, three players that you went to junior high
and high school with and became real winners together.

Mr. JAMES: Well, I met Little Dru through the same Little League team,
through the same league. It’s the ARB. It’s the Akron Recreation Bureau.
And Little Dru, just so happened, played on our rival team. We was the
Summer League Hornets, and he played for the Ed Davis Dream Team All-
Stars. So we were rivals, and you know, we met through that way. Willie
played on my team. He played on the Summer League Hornets with me, and I
met Romeo on the football team, where I played before basketball, on the
East Dragons.

GROSS: What was it about this group that made you work so well together?
Like, what was – describe something about, like, the chemistry on and
off the court that made you work like that.

Mr. JAMES: Well, the chemistry off the court is why we were so good on
the court. You know, we looked at each other as brothers. I mean, at the
time it was the Fab Four. It was myself, Dru, Sian Cotton and Willie
McGee, and we, you know, we used that off-the-court friendship, that,
you know, going to – I don’t know – going to McDonald’s together,
playing basketball outside together, you know, driving to West Virginia
to play in the AAU tournament, you know, things like that. And then when
we got on the court, it was, like, okay. This is the easy part.

GROSS: Little Dru was called Little Dru because he was little. He was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He was, like, 5’3” or something when you were in high school?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, when we was freshmen. No, that’s, that’s good for him.
When we was freshmen, Dru was about 4’11”…

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. JAMES: …when we were freshmen in high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. JAMES: When he came off the bench that year, our freshman year, and
he was a heck of a shooter. And you know, anytime you left him open, he
for the most part wasn’t going to miss, and, you know, he did that from
game one all the way to the last game of the season in the state
championship.

GROSS: So you, Dru, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton wanted to go to the
same high school together so that you could continue to be teammates.
And you went to a high school that no one expected you to go to.
Everybody expected you to go to – is it pronounced Buchtel?

Mr. JAMES: Buchtel.

GROSS: Buchtel, which you describe as the school of choice for black
athletes. It was a public school, but instead you went to a
predominately white, Catholic school, St. Vincent’s. Would you explain
how you ended up, the four of you, going to St. Vincent’s?

Mr. JAMES: Well, we ended up going to St. Vincent’s because Little Dru
at the time, remember I told you he was only about 4’10”, 4’11”, he
didn’t think Buchtel was going to give him an equal opportunity to play
for them. And when Dru realized that, you know, he was, like, you know,
I’m not going there. He had started going to this Sunday night clinic
that our high school coach eventually, Keith Dambrot, was holding. And
he’d seen how much confidence he had in Dru, and Dru was like, hey, I’m
going to St. V, guys. And it was – it was tough at first, you know,
because we knew really nothing but Buchtel at the time.

I mean, we went to all the Buchtel games and all the Buchtel events, the
football games, everything, and we were – our minds was going to
Buchtel. So you know, when Dru just made that decision, you know, it was
difficult for us. But, you know, when we finally sat down and really
came together as friends, we was like, hey, we, you know, we need to
stick together, and, you know, we’re going to let you make this call,
Dru. We’re going to follow you.

GROSS: Now, you write in your book that some people turned against you
when you decided to go to St. Vincent because they thought you were
turning your back on the African-American community. Could you describe
that period and what your response to that was?

Mr. JAMES: Well, it was difficult. I mean, in the summer of – let me see
– I went to – in the summer of ’99, I think that was my freshman year.
That summer before, you know, in between the eighth grade and ninth
grade, you had to – you know, even though we had decided to go to St. V,
we were still playing in the black community. We were still playing
basketball against those same kids and those same adults that really
wanted us to come, you know, to Buchtel. So it was difficult, but I
think our friendship and what we had with Coach Drew was way more
powerful than anything anybody else had ever said for us or, you know,
about us.

GROSS: You started winning and becoming pretty famous when you were in
high school. In your junior year, you were the cover story in Sports
Illustrated, and the headline was: The Chosen One. One of the
controversial things from your early life, from your high school years
that you write about a little bit in your book, is that when you were
18, for your birthday, while your mother still had no money, and you
were still in high school, she bought you a $50,000 Hummer, and got the
loan with the money that you were predicted to earn because everybody
knew you were going to be an NBA draft. And that was pretty
controversial because a lot of people assumed it was, like, an under-
the-table gift, a real gift from a shoe company or an NBA team -
would’ve been illegal. But, you know, the loan was investigated by the
Ohio High School Athletic Association, and they say it was legit. Why
did you need a $50,000 Hummer?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I didn’t. It was a gift. I didn’t ask for it. My mother felt,
you know, I was special. She always wanted to do something special for
me. And, you know, she did something that was very legal, got a bank
loan and, you know, the bank, you know, just basically (unintelligible)
that they would be fully paid back. And, you know, and she bought me
that for my birthday. And it was a surprise to me when I seen it in the
driveway.

GROSS: You know, the funny thing about that, it’s such an odd gift
because she’s getting you this $50,000 car based on money you’re going
to earn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I know, huh?

GROSS: You’re the one who’s going to be paying that loan.

Mr. JAMES: So it was like I’m paying for it myself, huh?

GROSS: Yeah, you’re paying for that birthday gift.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: At that point, at that particular time, it’s the point that
count. It’s the thought that count. It’s the thought that count.

GROSS: So did you have to pay off the loan when you joined the NBA?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Yes, we did. Yes, we did.

GROSS: And did you still have the Hummer by the time the loan was paid
off?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I still have it.

GROSS: You still have it?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I still have it.

GROSS: Was it, like, a keepsake or something?

Mr. JAMES: No, I’ve changed it a few times and painted it a few times,
but I still have it.

GROSS: Are you still driving it, or do you just keep it as a…?

Mr. JAMES: No, I still drive it every now and then.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So you won the state national championship your senior
year. So the bet paid off. The fact that you and your three friends
decided to go to St. Vincent together, it paid off. And then, you know,
you were an NBA draft. You joined the Cavaliers when they were in last
place. I know you’re very fond of Cleveland. You grew up in Akron. Why
would you want to join a team that was in last place?

Mr. JAMES: Well, first of all, if you – you know, I had no choice. You
know, that’s why it’s called a draft. They pick who they want, and…

GROSS: Good point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: …and things like that. But the fact is, when I was drafted to
that team, I felt like I could make an impact. I felt like I could help.
You know, they only won 17 games the year before I got drafted. But, you
know, I felt that my talents could help that franchise. And, you know, I
think the city of Cleveland has some of the best fans that the world has
to see, and, you know, I was happy to go into that experience and take
my talents to that team, also.

GROSS: I’m sure it was your dream to be in the NBA. When you go there,
how did it compare to what you expected?

Mr. JAMES: It was everything and more. I always wanted to be in the NBA
and have a uniform with my name on the back - that say James across the
back of the jersey. And I can remember my first NBA game, which we
played in Sacramento. And to just be out there and to see the fans and
to see, you know, the cameras, and to see my teammates and see the
opposing team on an NBA floor in an NBA game, it was, like, wow. It was,
like, my, like, please don’t pinch me because I know I’m dreaming.

GROSS: Now, Shaquille O’Neal is joining the Cavaliers. So now there’s
going to be two really dominant, famous players on the team. And
everybody’s speculating about how you’re going to feel about that.

Mr. JAMES: I feel great. You know, this is a team sport, and to add
someone like that to the team is great. I mean, he has all the accolades
that you could ever want and more as an NBA individual and as a team
player. So I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think he adds
something to our team that we haven’t had, and I can’t wait until the
season starts so I can get out there and play alongside him.

GROSS: Do you know him? Do you know him well?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I know him really well. Yeah, I know his family and his
kids. I love his kids. You know, I love him. Man, he’s like the
godfather in the NBA. If you don’t – you know, he’s like the Don
Corleone. If you don’t know him or respect him, then something may
happen to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is LeBron James, the NBA’s
Most Valuable Player, and he’s got a new memoir called “Shooting Stars.”
Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is the Cleveland Cavaliers’
LeBron James. He was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA this past
season, and now he has a new memoir called “Shooting Stars.”

Let me ask you: I know – this is just a clothing question. So I ask this
as a woman who finds it very difficult to find clothes in my size, which
is a problem I suppose you’ve had being, like, six-foot – I forget what
- eight?

Mr. JAMES: 6’8”, yeah.

GROSS: So when you joined the NBA, you were probably able to get your
clothes made for you. Is that what you do?

Mr. JAMES: Yes. I don’t anymore. I mean, sometimes I do. I mean, I get
some suits and things like that tailored, but I can go in the store and
sometimes find some clothes.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. JAMES: I can go in the store and find some jeans and find some
shirts. I wear true-to-size clothes, though. I don’t wear that big stuff
a lot of people wear. I wear true to size.

GROSS: Oh, you mean, like, the pants that are – your backside…

Mr. JAMES: Like the 5X, 6X T-shirts and all the pants that’s hanging
below people…

GROSS: Dragging it on the floor…

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I wear, you know, a 2X T-shirt. I wear 40 jeans, and,
you know, I wear it just how it’s supposed to be worn.

GROSS: All right. You know your one-handed, full-court shot?

Mr. JAMES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How’d you develop that?

Mr. JAMES: Um, I don’t know. It’s just – I guess I’m the chosen one, I
guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I guess Sports Illustrated was right.

GROSS: There you go. Now, describe the feeling of taking a shot, and the
ball’s, like, circling around the rim and then it, like, falls out
instead of going in, and the game’s really close.

Mr. JAMES: Now, that’s happened multiple times. It’s not a pleasant
feeling, you know, especially when you feel like that was the one. You
know, you shoot the ball. All - basketball players know when that shot
feels great, you know, and then the ball gets on the rim, and it plays
with the rim, and it just, like, goes in, and then it feels like an
imaginary hand punches it back out of the net. That’s, like, it’s not a
really good feeling at all.

GROSS: And I want to ask you about something else controversial that’s
happened pretty recently. You have something called the LeBron James
Skills Academy, and a college student attending the academy dunked on
you. And it’s been reported that Nike, who was sponsoring this,
confiscated – I don’t know if it was the cameras or just the videos that
captured that moment. And so in some people’s minds, that’s a symbol of
your vanity, that you wouldn’t allow that to be seen, and in some
people’s minds, it’s not about you, it’s about Nike, and it’s a symbol
of a form of corporate censorship. What is that incident about to you?
What’s your version of the story?

Mr. JAMES: It’s just about people just looking in – when you have
nothing more to write about, sometimes people just look for anything.
The summer is dead. No basketball is around, so they need something to
talk about.

Nike has a no-videotaping policy. It’s simple. I mean, if you have a no-
videotaping policy, why are you videotaping? So, you know, the kid,
which is – really, he’s really good, by the way, kid goes to Xavier. And
you know, he caught me slipping a little bit, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Before that day, you can easily go on YouTube and find me
getting dunked on by a few more players in the NBA. And, you know, if
you even want to look a little bit more, you can find me even dunking on
a few players.

GROSS: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I think that may be possible. You may be able to find that. I
don’t know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, you said that you think what makes your approach to
basketball different, like, your approach is based on, like, your mental
approach to the game. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like
that. So what do you mean by that?

Mr. JAMES: That my mental aspect of the game is what?

GROSS: That that’s the key to your…

Mr. JAMES: Oh, it is. I mean, I think the game more than I really play
it. I mean, I can play the game pretty good, too. But I really think the
game and approach the game mentally more than physically, you know, and
that’s watching film. That’s knowing your opponent’s likes and dislikes,
his pros and cons, what he like to do, what he don’t like to do, who are
we playing against this particular team. You know, what do they like to
do? What do they don’t like to do? And that’s the way I approach the
game. I feel like skill-wise, I’m going to be okay. Who’s going to out-
think the game more than the next man in front of him?

GROSS: You know, we’ve been talking through the interview about the
three other friends, teammates, who you went to junior high and high
school with. What are they doing now?

Mr. JAMES: Well, my four best friends right now, Dru Joyce is playing
professionally in Poland. Romeo Travis is playing professionally in
Germany. Sian Cotton is playing football at Walsh University in Canton,
Ohio, and also in school. And Willie McGee is getting his – is going to
graduate school at the University of Akron and also working with the
men’s basketball team.

GROSS: Have you watched your friends play in Poland and Germany?

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

GROSS: And are the rules any different there?

Mr. JAMES: No, a lot different, a lot different. Yeah, I’ve watched them
on the Internet. Sometimes, their game is, like, replayed on the
Internet. And then there’s a Web site I can go to, like
eurobasketball.com, and they replay their games, which is pretty cool
seeing those guys still play.

GROSS: Tell us about what your mother was like when you were growing up.

Mr. JAMES: My mother was great, very fiery, very demanding - demanding
greatness, really, honestly. She was – it just seemed like, it seemed
like she had everything in control, even though it seemed like the world
may have been coming down on her at times. She never let anything get to
her, even in the worst times, the best times. She always stayed calm and
collected and made sure that her son was always happy and did whatever
it took for me to be happy, and I respect that. I respect that in her
not only as a mother but as a friend. As a leader, she set me up for
life early on because I was able to notice how great and how calm she
was, even when times seemed like they was the worst.

GROSS: You said your mother was demanding. What did she demand of you?

Mr. JAMES: No, she just – no, she never demanded anything out of me. I
could just see her fire. She was very, like, demanding to herself. Like,
she was going to find a way to make everything be right.

GROSS: When you think back to the fact that she was 16 when you were
born, do you see that in a different light than you did when you were
young, just in terms of what she had to deal with at the age of 16?

Mr. JAMES: When you’re a kid – right, when you’re a kid, you don’t
really know how young your mother is, or is it that young – too young.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. JAMES: You only know that as you get older. You’re like wow, my mom
was what when she had me? She was really 16 years old? That’s a
sophomore in high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I couldn’t imagine having no kid at 16. I mean, I ended up
having my first kid at 18, but you know, it was – that’s was like – for
a woman it has to be more difficult. It’s way more difficult than for a
man to have his own kid by himself. So that’s - she’s amazing. She’s one
in a million, I guess, or in my words, one in a billion these days.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. JAMES: Oh, well, thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: LeBron James’ new memoir is called “Shooting Stars.” Here’s a
track called “LeBron’s Hammer.” It was written and performed by
Buckethead and is dedicated to James’ 24th birthday. I’m Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, “LeBron’s Hammer”)
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..TIME:
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..NTWK:
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..SGMT:
For 'Amreeka' Director, Life As Inspiration For Art

TERRY GROSS, host:

The Arabic word for America, "Amreeka," is the title of Cherien Dabis's
new film. “Amreeka” is inspired by some of her own experiences growing
up in a small town in Ohio in a Palestinian-Jordanian family. Her
parents immigrated to the U.S. just before she was born.

When the movie begins, a single mother, Muna, and her teenage son, Fadi,
are living in the West Bank where they know he will have no future in
spite of how smart he is. Getting stopped and harassed at a checkpoint
is the last straw. They want to move. Unexpectedly, her application for
a green card comes through, so they leave the West Bank for a small town
in Illinois where they move in with her sister, her sister's husband and
their three daughters. Muna and Fadi have to figure out how to navigate
in a new country with no money, no job, and little understanding of the
culture.

The film premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is now
opening nationally. This is Dabis's first feature film. She's written
several episodes of the Showtime series "The L Word."

Here's a scene from "Amreeka." The mother, Muna, played by Nisreen
Faour, and her son, Fadi, played by Melkar Muallem, have just arrived in
the U.S. They're in the airport talking to a customs agent.

Mr. WILL WOYTOWICH (Actor): (as US Airport Customs Official)
Citizenship?

Ms. NISREEN FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) We don't have.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) You don’t have
citizenship? As in you don't have a country?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) That's right.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) Where are you from,
Israel?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) No, no. It's Palestinian territory.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) Your occupation?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Yes, it is occupied and for 40 years.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) No. What is your
occupation? What do you do for a living, ma'am?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Oh yes, I was working in banking.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) This your son?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Yes. Fadi.

Mr. WOYTOWICH: (as US Airport Customs Official) Your husband traveling
with you?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) No, we are divorced. My husband, he’s not
a good man.

GROSS: Cherien Dabis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you are of Palestinian-
Jordanian descent but you grew up in the United States. You’ve said in
the past that you have an aunt who came to the U.S. when you were going
up from, was it from the West Bank?

Ms. CHERIEN DABIS (Writer/Director, “Amreeka”): She actually emigrated
from Jordan in 1997.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Were there problems that she had adjusting to the U.S.
that you borrowed for your movie?

Ms. DABIS: She - yeah absolutely. I mean she had a lot of problems
finding work. I think that was the main thing that I sort of borrowed
from because I really saw her struggle. And I saw her coming from a
place where she had you know, a great job and two masters degrees. And
in the U.S. she was working for, you know, in the service industry and
factories and sort of going from job to job, really struggling.

GROSS: Now is it true that you went to a refugee camp in the West Bank
when you were casting?

Ms. DABIS: Yes. That is true. I went to the Aida refugee camp in
Bethlehem, and I went to a non-profit there that was training, you know,
young people in the arts and theater and acting. And I - when I arrived
there I realized that most of the kids actually didn’t speak English so
it wasn’t going to be a traditional casting session, and I decided, let
me sit down with these kids and sort of just get to know who they are.
So I took them each into a room one by one and just sort of talked to
them and wanted to hear a little bit about who they were and their life
story.

And as I was listening to some of these stories, you know, and some of
them were very intense. I mean, one kid was telling me about how his
three-year-old brother was asphyxiating in his crib after, you know,
Israelis threw tear gas into their home, and his mother grabbed his
little brother from the crib and ran outside and ended up getting shot
in the leg right outside. So he's telling me this really intense story
and all of the sudden there's gunfire outside the window.

And I look at him and he looks at me like he's just so sorry. He's not
scared. He's actually apologetic to me that this is happening while I'm
there. And it was just a really, it was a really intense moment that
made me realize that I, that this is something that happens there every
day, and I sort of felt like I didn’t have a right to be scared.

GROSS: What was the gunfire about?

Ms. DABIS: It was actually - I found out that it was infighting between
Hamas and Fatah, and nothing ended up happening. Everything was fine.
The gunfire, it got pretty intense and it lasted for about 20 minutes,
but then it dissipated.

GROSS: So, you ended up not using any of the young people that you met
in the refugee camp?

Ms. DABIS: That's right.

GROSS: But did it contribute to the storyline at all? Did you rewrite
anything based on the people who you met there?

Ms. DABIS: Well, I think what's interesting to me was, you know, just
interacting with Palestinian teenagers and teenage boys and really
seeing what their lives were like. Listening to their personal stories,
you know, asking them what kind of music they listened to, seeing the
way that they reacted to the gunfire, it was very eye-opening for me. I
mean, I, you know, I've never lived in the West Bank. I've never lived
under occupation. I don’t know what it's like to be a Palestinian
teenage boy, and I think those interactions absolutely formed the
character of Fadi and made me see things from him point of view in I
think a clearer way.

GROSS: Do you speak Arabic or did you need a translator?

Ms. DABIS: I speak Arabic.

GROSS: How did you learn it?

Ms. DABIS: I learned Arabic and English at the same time and my parents
always insisted that we speak Arabic at home. So, and also while I grew
up mostly in a small town in Ohio, we used to return to Jordan every
summer for three months at a time so that was definitely good for
keeping up the language.

GROSS: Your father is a doctor and so is the brother-in-law of the
woman…

Ms. DABIS: That's right.

GROSS: …who emigrates to the United States in your movie. And in the
movie, the brother-in-law loses a lot of his patients because the U.S.
has just invaded Iraq and he’s seen just implicitly as being like a

Saddam Hussein kind of guy because he's an Arab, you know, period.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: Mm-hmm. That's right.

GROSS: So a lot of patients are afraid to see him. He can't even pay the
mortgage anymore because he's losing patients and money. Was it that bad
with your father during the first Gulf War?

Ms. DABIS: Well, I would say that I definitely, you know, dramatized in
the film. I mean, I don’t think enough patients left that we were, you
know, struggling financially to that extent, but a number of patients
left, and it did have an effect on his practice. And more than that
even, I think it had a real effect on the family. And in many ways, you
know, what inspired me to make "Amreeka" was sort of the way in which my
family sort of coped with that time period, the way it which it brought
us together and made us realize who we were, and in some ways, for me as
a 14-year-old, made me proud of who I was.

It had the reverse effect on me that maybe it was intended to. I don’t
know if I was supposed to feel shame about being an Arab-American but I
think the opposite thing happened. And I felt really proud that I had
these two very rich sort of cultures to draw from. I was, you know, I
could blend in in both places but I was neither one fully, but both in
part. And it was at that time that I really started to embrace that and
really appreciate, you know, where my parents came from and the culture
and I took a real interest in the Middle East. And I think that it was
that that really pushed me towards storytelling.

So, and actually in real life, I think in many ways things were worse in
real life than they are in the film. I mean my father's patients, many
of them did walk out on him. We got death threats on a daily basis for a
time. And actually, the Secret Service came to my high school to
investigate a rumor that my 17-year-old sister threatened to kill the
president.

GROSS: Where did that rumor come from?

Ms. DABIS: You know, I think that, you know, my sister was quite
outspoken in her government class. And to this day we sort of suspect
that someone called, you know, a tip line and made some kind of, you
know, outrageous claim that she had threatened to kill the president,
when I think it was really just, you know, him getting back at her for
really looking at the war from a larger perspective.

GROSS: Some scenes from "Amreeka" are shot in the West Bank. I assume
you shot on location?

Ms. DABIS: Yes we did. We actually shot those scenes in Ramallah and
Bethlehem.

GROSS: There are checkpoints scenes too, you know, at Israeli
checkpoints in the West Bank. Did you have to get permission from the
Israel government or from the government in the West Bank to shoot
there?

Ms. DABIS: Well, we actually created those checkpoints. We created a
checkpoint in which we shot both of those scenes, because it would’ve
been impossible for us to shoot anywhere near a real checkpoint. We did
have the permission of the Palestinian Authority and we shot entirely
within the West Bank. So as long as we were building our checkpoint in
the West Bank nowhere near the borders, then we had no, you know, we
were told that we wouldn’t have a problem, and we didn’t actually. We
found a location that we thought would work. We built, you know, we
built the concrete blocks. We graffitied the walls. We put up the
barbed-wire and the plastic bags that we stuck to the barbed-wire and
the piles of trash and the guard stands. And, you know, we brought in
Palestinians to put on the Israel solider uniforms and play the Israel
soldiers. So it was all...

GROSS: The Palestinians are playing Israeli soldiers?

Ms. DABIS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: Yeah, they had a heyday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, one of the things that happens at the checkpoint in one of
the scenes is that Muna and her son are asked what their house number
is.

Ms. DABIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she says, we don’t have house numbers in Bethlehem and the
guards look kind of confused. So, what's that about?

Ms. DABIS: Well it's actually true. I mean, you know, in many Arab
countries there are no house numbers. It's sort of, you know, there
aren’t even really street names. I think that that's a new thing that
they're starting to implement, at least in Jordan. I'm not certain about
the West Bank, but it’s just a different system. It's a different way of
doing things. And in some ways, it was pointing out that, you know, in
Israel it's done one way and there are street names and house numbers,
and in the West Bank things are a little more organic and you find
someone's house by describing, you know, the pharmacy nearby and then
counting down that it’s four buildings down on the left and it’s got a
red, you know, exterior, and it’s just much more descriptive. And I
wanted to, I just wanted to show sort of that difference while also
looking for a way to, you know, looking for one of the ways in which
conflict escalates at a checkpoint.

GROSS: My guest is Cherien Dabis. She wrote and directed the new film,
"Amreeka." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is film director and screenwriter Cherien Dabis. Her new
movie, "Amreeka," is about a Palestinian mother and her teenage son who
move from the West Bank to a small town in Illinois where they live with
her sister's family.

In this scene, the teenage boy has been out with his cousin who's played
by Alia Shawkat. You may know Shawkat from "Arrested Development" where
she played the character Maeby. The teenagers are returning home. Their
mothers have been worried and are not pleased they stayed out so late.

Unidentified Woman: Where have you been?

Ms. ALIA SHAWKAT (Actress): (as Salma) My God. Jesus. Mom, what are you
doing?

Ms. FAOUR (Actress): (as Muna) Where have you been Fadi? We are so
worried.

Mr. MELKAR MUALLEM (Actor): (as Fadi) We just went to a movie.

Ms. FAOUR: (as Muna) (Foreign Language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: Who went with you?

Mr. MUALLEM: (as Fadi) No one. It was just us two.

Unidentified Woman: Where’s Jim? He wasn't there?

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) Uh-uh.

Unidentified Woman: You are grounded one month, (foreign language
spoken).

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) What, this is ridicules.

Mr. MUALLEM: (as Fadi) Auntie, Julie's a friend of mine.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign Language spoken) Drinking with drugs and
God's know what..

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) Is that all you think that people do here?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) Well here’s a shocker mom. We live in America.
Were Americans.

Unidentified Woman: As long as you live in this house, you live in
Palestine.

Ms. SHAWKAT: (as Salma) You’re delusional.

GROSS: How did your family come to the United States - and I know your
mother's Palestinian and your father Jordanian? Do I have that right?

Ms. DABIS: They’re actually the opposite.

GROSS: The opposite. Okay.

Ms. DABIS: Mm-hmm. My father's Palestinian. My mother's Jordanian.

GROSS: And did your father live in Gaza or the West Bank or did he live
in Jordan too?

Ms. DABIS: No my father was born and raised in the West Bank and
actually went to med school in Cairo. And he was in med school in Cairo
during the '67 war, so he did not get an ID card, which meant that he
couldn’t go back to the West Bank. So he started to going to Jordan,
which is where he met my mother and then he eventually got a residency
at a university in Nebraska, which is when they emigrated and that was
the year before I was born.

GROSS: Ah-ha. Well that answers my question of how you ended up in
Nebraska.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: Yes. And, of course, how we ended up in Ohio is the way many
immigrants end up in Ohio is they're recruited. Many doctors - many
immigrant doctors end up in, you know, rural parts of the country
because they're recruited.

GROSS: Because there was a shortage of doctors there?

Ms. DABIS: Exactly. So this small town in Ohio was looking for a
pediatrician and that's how my father ended up going there.

GROSS: What was it like for you growing up, being born in America to
parents who were from the West Bank and Jordan, did you have values as
you were growing up that were different from - that clashed with their
values and that you had big fights about?

Ms. DABIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, in the U.S. -
going to school in the U.S. is much different from going to school in
the Arab world. And, you know, the idea of even just being involved in
extracurricular activities was in some ways very foreign to my parents
and something that they did not encourage. And it was something that we
really had to - my sisters and I really had to fight to do, to play
sports, to be involved in any kind of after school activities. They
didn’t quite understand that - even things like the prom. I remember
having to explain to my mother what the prom was, and it just sounded to
her like a really bad idea. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: …that was a big fight.

GROSS: I think that’s how a lot of high school students go, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DABIS: So, I think that if I was - maybe if I was allowed to go, I
wouldn’t have wanted to. But because I wasn’t allowed, it was foremost
on my list.

GROSS: Yeah, well, that’s interesting. How did you decide that you
wanted to be a filmmaker? And before you actually had a movie that did
well at Sundance…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …where your parents could be really proud, what was their
reaction that you wanted to make movies?

Ms. DABIS: Such a good question. Well, I think, you know, my experience
during the first Gulf War was really eye opening and made me very
interested in the media in general, because I really realized that the
media and Hollywood movies were perpetuating stereotypes of Arab-
Americans. And I became very impassioned for wanting to do something to
change the way we were being misrepresented and also to change the fact
that we are underrepresented. And there were no, you know, real,
authentic portrayals of us. So I think that, you know, at the age of 14,
I sort of knew that I wanted to tell stories. I didn’t know how.

And I definitely gravitated towards artistic expression, I think in part
because, you know, I grew up in such completely different worlds,
traveling from rural Ohio to Jordan. And I – in some ways, I felt like
an outsider in both places, always. So, I always sort of took a step
back and observed things and felt the need to write things down and sort
of tell my Arab relatives about my American life and my American friends
about my Arab life. And so there’s always this sense that I was this
bridge between these two cultures and I had the ability to tell stories
that would be illuminating to, you know, one or the other.

And so, you know, the Gulf War definitely made me specifically
interested in the media and in film and television. And over the course
of next 10 years, I really explored that. And I definitely, at one
point, started to vocalize maybe in my early 20s that I wanted to be a
filmmaker. And I’ll never forget, actually, when I told my father, he
was like, you can’t be a filmmaker. You’re an Arab. And he meant it in a
way - you know, I think that what he meant to say was: Who’s going to be
interested in what you have to say? I think it was more of a fear than
anything, that people wouldn’t care what the Arab-American experience
was or who the Arab-American voice was.

And, you know, my parents really wanted me to go to med school and be a
doctor. So, like every other immigrant, like most other immigrant
parents, they wanted that for me. So it was, it was a little bit of a
battle. And, you know, ultimately, now they’re very proud. But I think
that they really were afraid that, you know, choosing this path would
lend to a life with no security and, you know, all those things that
immigrant parents are afraid of.

GROSS: Well, Cherien Dabis, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. DABIS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Cherien Dabis wrote and directed the new film, “Amreeka.” Coming
up, Ken Tucker reviews Whitney Houston’s first new album in seven years.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Whitney Houston, Pushing Back Into Pop

TERRY GROSS, host:

Whitney Houston's new album “I Look To You,” is her first new release
since 2002. It features work from a variety of songwriters and
producers, including R Kelly, Diane Warren and David Foster. Rock Critic
Ken Tucker says that while the pop music landscape has shifted a lot in
the past seven years, Houston’s new work sounds ready to take its place
in that landscape.

(Soundbite of song, “Worth It”)

Ms. WHITNEY HOUSTON (Singer): (Singing) This is for the lovers holding
hands in the car. This is for the lovers, no matter where you are. This
is for you.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) It’s for you. It’s for you. It’s for you.

Ms. HOUSTON: This is for you.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) It’s for you. It’s for you.

Ms. HOUSTON: Baby, this is for the lovers…

KEN TUCKER: I've already read one review of Whitney Houston's new album,
“I Look To You” that refers to it as gorgeous. Another called it a
return to her classic sound. I disagree. One reason I like this
collection of songs so much is that Houston's voice is rougher and more
open-throated than it's been since she became a star. And the songs
themselves are, in general, less bombastic, more precise and detailed
than her biggest hits.

(Soundbite of song, "Million Dollar Bill")

Ms. HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, came in the door, checked in
my coat, and who I'm lookin’ for is starin’ in my face. Oh, they played
our song, we hit the floor, he held me strong, and we danced the night
away. Oh, I can see the way that he's makin’ me feel this way about his
love. I've been lookin’ for somethin’ like this. I'm singin’ oh. If he
made you…

TUCKER: The disco rhythm of that song, "Million Dollar Bill," doesn't
come off as nostalgic or retro or out-of-touch. It quickly establishes
itself as a solid R&B background to Houston's singing about a man who
makes her feel good. Co-written by Alicia Keys, it's the lead-off cut on
“I Look To You,” and "Million Dollar Bill" sets the collection's
prevailing tone: energetic and positive without being sappy or frantic.
Working with her long-time boss and collaborator Clive Davis, Houston
has done something very smart here: She doesn't update her sound with
hip-hop beats or street slang. Instead, she stands her ground and
retains her own voice, both literally and metaphorically.

(Soundbite of song, “For The Lovers”)

Ms. HOUSTON: (Singing) To all the lovers in the place, this song is for
you, babe. This song is for you. To all the haters in the place, I’m
singing something to you, babe. I’m singing something to you. It’s been
a long, crazy week. All I want is a little time. Rest my hands and my
feet, let it go tonight. Leave the stress at home, tell drama no. You
ain’t gonna kill my vibe. Oh, no.

I look at you, you look at me, and you already know what I want, what I
need is you and me on the floor. I can feel your love when our bodies
touch. If anyone is feeling like me tonight, now throw your hands up for
the next three minutes. It’s about the lovers

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You know it. You know it.

Ms. HOUSTON: (Singing) Baby stand up…

TUCKER: That’s a terrific pop single, a tune called “For the Lovers.” Of
course, Houston cannot ultimately resist including a few blow-the-roof-
off ballads. She waits awhile to get around to it, though - until the
album's seventh cut, in fact. The song is called "I Didn't Know My Own
Strength." It's about, you know, getting through the pain, holding my

head up high and finding light out of the dark. It's big, it's florid,
but it doesn't tip over-the-top. Its stately piano figures and Houston's
vocal restraint keep the song rooted in a way some Houston mega-hits
were not.

(Soundbite of song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength.")

Ms. HOUSTON: (Singing) Lost touch with my soul. I had nowhere to turn. I
had nowhere to go. Lost sight of my dream, thought it would be the end
of me. I thought I’d never make it through. I had no hope to hold onto.
I thought I would break. I didn’t know my own strength and I crashed
down.

TUCKER: Houston also pulls off something on this album I didn't think
I'd want to hear: another version of the Leon Russell oldie, "A Song For
You." For one thing, she's got the authority to make palatable the
song's premise: a big star professing to act like a vulnerable, normal
person. She and her producers also do a clever thing: after that intro,
about 90 seconds in, the song bursts into a disco arrangement that gives
the chorus an energy that freshens and revitalizes its sentiments.

(Soundbite of song, "A Song For You")

Ms. HOUSTON: (Singing) I know your image of me is what I hope to be.
I've treated you unkindly, but darling, can't you see? There's no one
more important to me. Baby, can't you see through me? We're alone now,
and I'm singing a song to you.

TUCKER: It's odd to think that Whitney Houston, who's done more than any
other contemporary singer to enshrine the diva style of pop singing, is
currently probably known to young audiences more for her tabloid
troubles with drugs and her ex-husband Bobby Brown than for her
performances. She's been Beyonce'ed and Mariah'ed to the margins of pop.
This album is her way of getting back in the game, and Houston does it
with skill, shrewdness and a paradox: powerhouse humility.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed, “I Look To You” by Whitney Houston. You can download podcasts
of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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