“It’s just so ridiculous, it’s just one of the most ridiculous stories ever,” says Pras Michel the former Fugee about his new documentary Sweet Micky for President, which makes its festival premiere this Saturday (Jan. 24) at the 21st annual Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “You couldn’t make it up. If you wrote this script and you shopped it in Hollywood and they decided to make it, everybody would be like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.'”
Indeed Sweet Micky For President is one of the most unlikely stories ever captured on film. It revolves around the 2012 Haitian presidential elections and the controversial candidacy of the Haitian pop star known as Sweet Micky (Michel Martelly), whose bawdy performances include things like diapers and cross-dressing. Underlying the film is the fractious and complex relationship between the two former Fugees, Pras and Wyclef Jean.
The story begins on Jan. 12, 2010, the day of the devastating Haitian earthquake, which destroyed 90 percent of Port-au-Prince, claimed nearly a quarter-million lives and displaced 2.3 million people. Pras, who produced the film with Karyn Rachtman (music supervisor on Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights), visited the scene of the tragedy with first-time filmmaker (and co-producer) Benjamin Patterson ostensibly to document the earthquake. Instead, the duo back into the center of a different tempest: the heated and exhilarating 2012 Haitian presidential elections.
Inextricable from Haiti’s recovery is the country’s rich, difficult and often corrupt political history. This includes a heroic 1804 revolution which defeated Napoleon’s French military, creating the world’s first independent black republic as well as beginning a long-troubled relationship with the U.S., which repeatedly invaded and propped up dictators (the notorious Papa and Baby Docs) as well as supported its more recent Democratic efforts (Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jean Preval). It’s a volatile legacy, and one that would leave a politically fragile nation ill-equipped to handle the enormity of the 2010 earthquake.
Enter Pras “Praswell” Michel, who somehow had the temerity to suggest that his politically inexperienced and eccentric musician friend Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly should run for Haiti’s highest office. “After the earthquake there was this moment when they interviewed the president of Haiti [Preval] and he didn’t know where he was even going to stay that night. I was just like, ‘What is up with that?'” Pras recalls. “I was just thinking, ‘Man, there’s an election coming up and I just need to do something. I need to support someone who can come in there and energize the people.'”
Pras first met and befriended the outlandish pop singer in 1997 when the Fugees played Haiti. Sweet Micky’s performance routines fall somewhere between say Gary Shider (the late diaper-wearing guitarist for P-Funk) and the booty burlesque of Big Freedia. His more political-minded songs, however, are critical of Haiti’s corrupt and ineffective government, Dylan-esque and earned him a spot on the Haitian government’s hit list. To get a sense of what a long shot Martelly’s candidacy was, just imagine a more politically-minded Big Freedia herself making a run for the White House.
Sweet Micky is filled with unexpected plot twists tied to shifting political winds after Martelly throws his hat in the ring, including Wyclef’s own presidential candidacy. This he announced without first giving his bandmate and friend of 15 years a heads-up. “When I get home, this motherfucker is doing an interview with Wolf Blitzer,” Pras says in the film. While only a subplot, the acrimonious battle between the imperious Wyclef and the low-key Pras is fascinating and wildly entertaining, and could be its own documentary (or perhaps better left for a professional therapist).
After some sniping in the media between the former bandmates-turned-political-adversaries, Wyclef goes for the jugular: During a campaign performance he says Pras “only kicked eight bars in the Fugees” and calls Sean Penn a cokehead. (Penn is a Martelly supporter doing philanthropic work in Haiti with his J/P Haitian Relief Organization NGO.) One of the film’s best moments is the surreal scene in which a fur-clad Wyclef mends fences with Pras, Penn and Martelly at an earthquake fundraiser — but not before first pointing his finger at Pras and exclaiming “You fucked me!”
Front-row seats to these dramatic trials and tribulations pull the curtain back on international elections and recall D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus‘s classic film The War Room on Bill Clinton‘s 1992 presidential campaign. Here, though, the adrenaline pumps harder as rampant corruption, street riots, shootings, political machinations and helicopters ferrying international election consultants threaten to thwart the campaign until finally, at the end, there is a shocking reveal for all those not versed in Haitian politics — Americans, for the most part — to behold.
Animating the documentary further are random cameos from Sean Penn, Bill Clinton, Ben Stiller, Noam Chomsky, Nigel Barker, Amy Goodman, Donna Karan, Eddie Murphy and others — names that until now would likely never be mentioned in the same sentence.
At the heart of this impressive and improbable film is the demure Pras. The former Fugee’s skill at betting on unknowns with both Martelly and first-time filmmaker Benjamin Patterson is uncanny. “I found him to be an incredibly intuitive guy,” says Patterson of Pras. “He just has another sense about stuff. It didn’t bother him what things lool like on face value. If he had an impulse about something, that’s just what he did and it served him incredibly well, clearly.”
Pras, for his part, takes little credit for the film. “I think part of the reason why we were successful is because our intentions were good, there weren’t any selfish motives,” he says. “No one was making this thinking this is going to be Avengers 6.”