Mikey Alfred Is Bringing His Dreams To Life Through Illegal Civilization [Interview]
The founder of creative brand Illegal Civilization offers his thoughts on Get Out, Kamala Harris, and what it’s like to be a young black director.
Inside his apartment, Mikey Alfred has a collection of DVDs that reside in his living. He also has a Rosemary’s Baby poster alongside an Illegal Civilization poster alongside a printed image from The Sopranos. The Rosemary’s Baby poster is the most notable considering Alfred’s mother has served as the personal secretary to Robert Evans — the man who produced Rosemary’s Baby, Godfather I and II, Chinatown, and others — for the last 36 years. Alfred understands that to become the best you need to study the best.
Ever since Mikey Alfred was a child he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. He explains that his latest Illegal Civilization skateboard video, the third in the series, ends with a scene of him from eighth grade where one of his teachers ask him what he wants to do when he grows up.
“And very seriously I just stare in the camera and I’m like, ‘I want to film and edit,'” he said.
At the age of 12, Alfred came up with Illegal Civilization, a clothing brand and skate crew that has since grown into a creative empire that has allowed the North Hollywood-born 24-year-old to live out his dream of being a filmmaker. Aside from his Illegal Civilization skate series — which features Aramis Hudson, Kevin White, Na-Kel Smith, Nico Haraga, Ryder McLaughlin, and Zach Saranceno skating throughout Los Angeles, New York, and beyond — Alfred has directed Tyler, the Creator‘s Cherry Bomb documentary, as well as produced a fashion video for Vogue that featured Tyler and Kendall Jenner.
Last year saw him earn his first co-producing credit for Jonah Hill’s feature directorial debut mid90s. The film, which follows a 13-year-old skater as he befriends a group of other skaters in ’90s-circa LA, also features Na-Kel Smith in a leading role.
Now that mid90s is finished — and he has curated his own event that was part of Red Bull Music Festival Los Angeles this year — he’s focused on his directorial debut North Hollywood. The film is about a skater who wants to go pro but his father is against it.
Okayplayer spoke with Alfred on North Hollywood, Mac Miller’s passing, and more.
What do you think of Jordan Peele’s ascent and him being heralded as a black director? What did you think of Get Out?
Jordan Peele, I think, is incredible, and I thought Get Out was the best movie of 2017, and the best movie I saw in theaters, maybe ever.
I truly think that. I think that maybe that, and this other movie Greenroom, were two movies that I was old enough to go to the theater and see myself. And just walked out being so impressed and energized.
With the recent release of Illegal Civ 3, why did it kind of take so long to make? I imagine sifting through so much footage takes time.
Yeah. Sifting through the footage for sure. But the skate videos, there’s no story, there’s no ark, and all of it is just feeling. So it takes so long for me to make them because I have to feel it. I have to be in that mode where I go “OK this is done, this is good, it’s ready,” and it took four years to have that feeling. But once I had it, I was able to edit it in like three or four months. We started putting all the prints together but I have to be in that mode. If I’m not in that mode I can’t create anything.
What do you mean when you say you have to feel it? Is it a feeling you would say is like overarching the entire video or within a certain sequence?
When I say feeling I definitely mean overarching the whole video. Anytime I edit or work on anything I get chills, every time. Like even if I’m reading someone’s script, giving them notes, whatever, I get chills. If I don’t get those chills then I’m not in the right head space. And trying to work on IC3 always starts with the intro. So I’ll work on that intro for the whole four years. And then the moment that it gives me those body reeling chills, I’ll go “Cool I’m here, let’s edit this whole thing.”
A notable moment that, at least the snippet that was shown at the event, included a memorial to Mac Miller. I also know you did a short film with him. What do you think it was about him that people in LA’s music scene and beyond resonated so strongly with?
I think his ability to be available. He was so open to everyone, he would give everyone his number. They say one of the kind of laws of power is to be available. When people feel like they can get to you, when people feel close to you, it increases their loyalty. And Mac had that with a lot of people. They felt close to him, they felt like they could call him or text him anytime, or go to his house. He kind of had an open door policy at his house. People would just pop in randomly.
For you personally, what was it like working with him and just being in his presence?
He was a hoot to be around. He was funny and he would always say the most truthful version of whatever you were talking about. He never bullshitted, he never lied, he was always a straight shooter.
Being a fan of skate videos and growing up in skate culture, I feel like I learned a lot through it. I didn’t just learn about like a brotherhood or camaraderie, but the thrill, the adrenaline, the joy, the community. What does skateboarding culture mean to you? What about it resonates with you?
OK, so to be a cello player and to be in the classical community, you have to have access to those instruments, you have to access to someone who can teach you how to do it. To be a snowboarder, you have to live in a certain climate, you have to be in a certain area to partake in that activity.
Skateboarding is cheap to get involved with and you can do it anywhere with cement. For me, that’s really powerful, there’s very few activities in the world besides maybe soccer, that have such a small bar of entry.
And because of that there’s so many different types of people in the skate world. What it means to me again is being open and learning about the world through this activity. You can go anywhere in the world and you see someone with a skateboard, immediately you can connect with them and be their friend. And very few other activities are like that. If you’re in another country and someone has a basketball, that won’t necessarily make you friends, you know?
I literally, if I see someone with a skateboard I tell them, “Yeah, you can stay at my house, I don’t even know you.” There’s something really powerful about that.
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The way that you articulated that makes me think about the Illegal Civ commandments. In another interview that you did, you talked about your merchandise and how the messaging of it has to be positive. That’s the number one thing. Where does that philosophy of positivity stem from?
I think really simply, it’s just there’s so much negative stuff out there, that it’s boring you know? Why not put something positive out there. The power of positivity is real. The power of negativity is weak. And I’m about being strong and winning.
Someone told me as a human, your reflex to the thing that happens automatically is to be negative. They explained it to me like a garden. If you don’t touch anything and just let it grow however it wants, weeds grow. Weeds are the natural thing that just what pops out of the earth with no effort. And that’s like negativity in yourself.
But to grow flowers or to grow plants or to grow fruit or food, you have to water it. You have to take care of it. And positivity and winning within a person is the same thing. You have to try to be positive. You have to actively make that an activity.
Going back to the skate videos, a component of that is skating in areas that you’re not supposed and dealing with security guards or someone who feels they have the authority to stop you from what you’re doing. As a black director in this day and age where people can get gunned down for no reason, how do you navigate that space? Has that ever been a concern for you while you’re filming? When those interactions happen do you just allow them to occur or do you stop doing what you’re doing?
I’ll film fights and all that stuff but no one is ever going to be hurt in front of me. There’s been situations where I’ll be filming someone fighting and the other person starts to win, and I’ll just put the camera down and step in, every time.
The other day we were filming in New York, Jonah was directing a music video, I was standing outside with some of the crew members, and this guy was walking into our location, a random civilian, and pushed this lady to get out of his way. Like put his hands up on her chest and shoved her out the way. And everyone was like whoa and didn’t do anything. So in a situation like that, that lady is not about to retell that story and go, “Mikey Alfred was standing there and he didn’t do shit.” So I walked up to him and I grabbed him and I said, “Push me.” He just looked at me and I’m like, “You’re a fucking coward, you’re a coward.” And he went his way and I went mine.
So I’m a human first. I don’t care what job I’m doing, no one’s getting hurt in front of me without me stepping in and trying to help.
Also the overarching thing, my belief is that as black people we need to do a couple things mentally. As kids, when a white kid is in a store and he says, “Mommy what is this?” She says that’s ravioli, and he touches something — “Mommy what’s this?” And she says, “Oh you know put that back, but that’s Chicken Campbell’s Soup.”
When a black kid is in the grocery store and he says mommy what is this, she says, “Be quiet, stop asking questions.” You know when he touches something — don’t touch that, that’s not for you, you don’t own that, that’s not yours. No matter how strong and how loud and how whatever black people might act, we are taught to be submissive.
You ever meet these guys where they’re really tough and they’ll be super gnarly and beat up other people of color, and then when you tell them to go in a board room they get scared? They start being mousey? You know you tell them go to a meeting and they start looking down and they can’t make eye contact?
You know that comes from us as kids. You know in the 60s to be a good black person was not to annoy white people. And we just have to unlearn that. It’s like we have to learn that we are valid, we belong there, we can do things, we can do what we want, and no you don’t have the authority to tell me what to do.
Something else I truly believe, in which is why Illegal Civ has the film aspect, the clothing, is because we have to build our own institutions. We keep trying to play other peoples games and of course you’re going to lose when it’s not your game.
That’s why I look up to Jay-Z and Diddy so much. Instead of trying to play the record label’s games they started their own record labels. Instead of trying to play the fashion people’s game they started their own clothing line. That’s what we have to do on every level — small, big, whatever.
Hopefully, that can one day get into law and congress and policing. Where we can police our own communities, we can give ourselves laws and guidelines, and we don’t have to get it from people who don’t look like us.
It’s crazy to me that it’s still like, almost 200 years later, when you look at Congress and you look at government, it’s still majority not us, you know?
So yeah, that’s my whole goal — just building our own institutions and teaching people to stop being timid. It’s like everyone in our communities are tough in the wrong situations. It’s like be tough for about your future. Be tough about your career. Why are you such a pussy about your career? You got all these guys, like rappers who have guns, and they’re shooting people and all this stuff, but then they’re getting punked by some white record executive in their business.
I consider Illegal Civ at this point a creative empire and I find it fascinating that it has managed to maintain its skate culture roots even as you’ve expanded the brand and have built relationships with people unassociated with that culture like Kendall Jenner, Chief Keef, and others. What do you think allows Illegal Civ to frequent all these different spaces?
Like I said, Jay-Z is one of my favorites. An interviewer asked him once, “When you do a deal with Def Jam or whoever, does that take away from your street cred?” And he’s like, “Not to people who have really been in the street.”
I think that Illegal Civ is similar in a sense that we really are skaters for real and put that time in, put that blood and sweat into it, and a lot of other people know that. And all the people in the skate industry know that. So it doesn’t matter if I hang out with Tyler or Chief Keef or whoever. Because you know what’s up, you know? There’s nothing I can do to take away from my credit as a skateboarder. I’ve spent too much time doing it, I’ve put too much of myself into it.
And every time I’m with those people it’s to bring skateboarding up and help all of us. Skateboarders are the lowest paid athletes in the world, it’s crazy. There are people who play cricket who make more than skateboarders.
Anytime I’ve ever had someone criticize me it’s always someone who didn’t put that time in, who wasn’t a part of it the same way I was. I’ve fought people over this, I’ve been hurt over this. I don’t care what you say.
Illegal Civ became more of a common name through your relationship with Tyler. I read in past interviews they always spoke about how you were quiet and always filming, but they grew to see you as a friend. How do you go about navigating spaces that way when you’re just meeting somebody?
When you’re filming people or when you’re working with them or you just meet them or anything, first it’s about do we connect on a human level. When I hang out with Tyler, forget his career, forget I’m filming for him — just as humans we click. Or I hang with YG. Forget his career, forget anything — we just connect, we laugh, we joke, we have a good time. So I think that has to be established first. That just energy wise we’re on the same page.
And you have to push the limit. You have to film too much and they go, “Bro stop filming.” Just so you understand people’s minds. Because with certain people they don’t care. With YG I can film him do nothing and he won’t say anything. And with Tyler I can film him for a long time and he won’t say anything. But then with Frank [Ocean] he has a line, he has spaces where he doesn’t want to be filmed. And I know that line, I know that space. But I only know it because I’ve over filmed, I’ve pushed that line.
So you just have to have that confidence. You have to have that bravado to say, “I’m gonna push it and they’re still going to want me here.” Because that would be a reason for not pushing it. You might think, “Maybe they’re not gonna want me around so I’m not going to film as much.” But I believe that’s wrong, it’s better to — it’s always better to say sorry.
It’s always better to just ask and someone be like no and you go, “My bad I shouldn’t have asked that,” as opposed to not asking and just nothing happens. Because sometimes you do ask and people go, “Yeah, sure.”
There’s been plenty of times where I’ve messed up and people forgive me. And when they don’t forgive me, OK, well you didn’t care about me that much because when people have messed up in my life I forgive them. But they mess up too much I can’t keep forgiving you. Every person in the world has a line. They have a threshold.
Since you mentioned government and politicians, what do you think about Kamala Harrison?
It’s so funny, because one of my mentors is heading her fundraising campaign — Paula Madison. I just spoke to her. I’m going to try to help them put some events together. So I’m a big fan of her, of course.
What was it like having Jonah Hill as a mentor while working on mid90s?
It was great. I got to learn a lot from Jonah and from other people on the team. It was validating — it told me, “Wow you can do this, you can be a part of films and be a part of cinema in a real way.” It also showed me that it needs to be more [black people] behind the camera on all projects. In Hollywood there’s this stigma that black people can only tell black stories and be a part of black projects and it’s not true.
I was at Sundance with a short film that I made and there were all these panels about diversity and I’m like, “Guys are we still fucking talking about this?” It’s 2019 — you still are trying to convince them? This is dumb, what are you doing? Let’s make our own companies. We don’t need to convince anybody of anything. We don’t need to tell people, “Yeah, you know, it’s important to hire Black people.” Let’s just hire each other.
That’s what mid90s showed me. I need to do it now and encourage other people to do it. To make films yourself, go find the money, get a distribution person, and then it’ll come out. It’s truly that simple.
Mahershala Ali he had a great thing in a Variety interview. He said that someone asked him, “How does it feel to be a black lead in a movie?” And he laughed and said “Are we still having this conversation?” It’s mind-boggling.
I’m at a point now where I feel like any black person who’s around my age, who’s trying to do work in music, or movies, or any type of entertainment, let’s just get together and do it. I think now in 2019 it’s the time to take it a step further. Like, why aren’t black people making Blue Planet and why aren’t black people making movies about 18th century England? And why isn’t a black director making something about space? Why in 2019 are we still only telling black stories?
That’s a problem and it’s limiting too. There’s so many black filmmakers out there who are so talented, who can do more than that and have a human perspective to offer.
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Why does it always have to be we can only tell stories about the hood or about being oppressed? I’m sick of that. I grew up in North Hollywood, I went to private school my whole life. I haven’t felt that oppression. And it’s no disrespect to my ancestors but they went through it for a reason.
I feel like we’re disrespecting them. They sat in the back of the bus, they were second class citizens, they had real oppression for real. Why are we still acting like we don’t have the opportunity or we don’t have the tools? We have them let’s use them. That’s why I’m getting involved with Kamala Harris. She’s somebody that I can get behind. She’s not sitting and complaining, she’s like, “Let’s fucking go. I’m gonna run for President.”
We have the tools, we have the intelligence, we have the smarts and we should be doing it. So let’s get in the government, let’s get in the police academies, let’s get into entertainment. Let’s do it, let’s stop talking about it.
One of my closest friends…is Andrew Kimball. He’s at Boston University studying ethics and he’s going to be an ethicist. And what that means is he can go to Amazon or go to any corporation, police systems, or any type of government systems, and he does ethics checks because there’s all these things that operate off legality and not ethics. He would go into those systems and change the rules and change the laws to be about ethics, not about what’s legal and not legal. He’s not playing. He’s sick of seeing black people be treated poorly and he’s gonna go out and do something about it.
You’re working on your own film called North Hollywood. Are there any updates you can offer on it?
We have the money, we have our producers, but I’m trying to get Matthew McConaughey to play the father role. Once I figure out how to get to him, it’s go time.
In the movie the dad character was raised by southern parents, so he always had these southern ethics instilled in him but he grew up in North Hollywood, so his mindset never matched his surroundings. And that causes this kind of internal frustration within the person and that frustration is projected on his kid. And McConaughey being from Texas but working in Hollywood and living in LA, and having to be around Hollywood people — I’m not saying he’s that guy but I think he’ll understand that guy.