Hamilton Harris is the guy in <i>Kids</i> who taught every suburban teenager watching Larry Clark’s film debut how to roll a blunt. He’s also the man behind an upcoming documentary—<i>The Kids</i>—that charts the real stories of the individuals in the...
Hamilton Harris (right) with the late Harold Hunter (center) and pro skater Jeff Pang, around the time Kids was filmed. Photos by Gunars Elmuts
Hamilton Harris is the guy in Kids who taught every suburban teenager watching Larry Clark’s film debut how to roll a blunt. He’s also the man behind an upcoming documentary—The Kids—that charts the real stories of the individuals in the movie. Which, if you've never ended up watching it as a house party turns into a bunk house, is a fictional story revolving around drugs, sex, youth, and AIDS in 90s New York, inspired by and starring a bunch of real Manhattan skate kids whose lives weren't that far removed from the characters they were playing.
It's that distinction that inspired Harris's documentary. While a couple of the first-time actors ended up front-page famous, some cast members resented the way their group of friends had been portrayed, and many were left feeling just as marginalised as they had before tourists were handing them boards to sign and asking to take their photos outside the newly opened Supreme store. I called Harris, who now lives in the Netherlands, to talk about the legacy left by Kids.
Harris (center-left, in the open shirt) and others during the filming of Kids
VICE: Hey, Hamilton. So in your film’s press release it talks about how, growing up, you guys created your own reality. In Roger Ebert’s review of Kids he talks about that reality being a world where “adults simply do not exist." Is that a fair assessment?
Hamilton Harris: No, I don’t think so, actually. Maybe it’s because I’m four days off my 40th birthday, but I’m coming to the realization that there’s a lot of crossover between children and adults—some children can be just as psychologically and emotionally advanced as an adult, and vice versa.
So what was the reality?
Oh, it was, uh [laughs]... As raw as it seemed, it was still a fun experience. And as fun an experience it was, there was still a lot of pain and trauma. You know, growing up in America—this is global, but I say America because that’s where I was in the 90s—you’re dealing with stuff like crack, AIDS, and full-blown racism. People don’t like other people because they look "different" [laughs]. It’s fucking hilarious, but it’s real! So we had all those issues around us, but because we were a group of individuals who had different racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds—though the same traumatic situations at home—our experience went beyond race, creed, and background.
It seemed like skating helped with that transcending of race and background.
Yeah, definitely. What’s cool about skating is that you’re always in motion. And when you’re on the board, even if you’re with a group of homies, skating isn’t a team thing—you’re not gonna get the assist to jump a garbage can; it’s all on you. When you fall on your ass, it’s on you to get up and deal with it. It gives you a sense of responsibility—you’re being your own therapist, which I think is especially helpful if you come from a dysfunctional home, you know? Skateboarding is therapy.
It is a pretty isolated thing in that way. But it also seemed like—in your case, at least—it gave all you individuals a collective identity.
Yeah, it’s that thing of something being so abstract but so tangible. See, that’s what Larry captured in the film, man. I don’t care how fabricated the story was—us bashing gay dudes, all that shit. It was Larry's story and vision; let it be what it is. But he did capture that primal essence of this reality we were living—that energy, which is spiritual, as far as I see it.
It was a pretty pivotal turning point in street skating, too—the early days of Zoo York and Supreme, and the first wave of New York skaters starting to go pro.
It was. Kids brought that skateboarding subculture into pop culture. Kids made Supreme pop, because skating in New York was a far cry from cool before the film came out. Growing up in housing projects where only black, Puerto Rican, or possibly poor white families lived, it wasn’t hip to ride a skateboard. And within our group of dudes—white dudes, Spanish dudes, Indian dudes, Chinese dudes, Albanian, Muslim, Christian, atheist, alcoholic, whatever—skateboarding was a gateway to bringing people together. Others witnessed this and appreciated it.
Who carried on skating, besides you? Harold Hunter, Justin Pierce, and Javier Nunez?
Well, you know, everybody on and off screen always skated. When we think of Kids, we think of Justin, Harold, and even Leo Fitzpatrick skating, as well as Rosario [Dawson] and Chloë [Sevigny], obviously. Kids was based on skate culture, but that side wasn’t portrayed in the movie, because skating—and the kids who inspired Larry—wasn’t the story being told.
Harris and Justin Pierce's sections from the Zoo York Mixtape (1997)
How did that go down?
After the movie happened, people who weren’t in it—but who were a part of the group—had gripes with this intrusion into our lives and people making money off it, while we’re still struggling, starving, and finding our way through life, alone. That’s not to say [the filmmakers] did us wrong on that, because those of us who were in the movie chose to be. But there was a lot of dysfunction both prior to and after the film's release—people going from being in this little subculture, dealing with these complex situations in a sleepless city, to being a part of this new pop culture, with all that dysfunction and trauma squared. It’s still a very sensitive topic—there’s a lot of resentment. So this documentary is quite a responsibility on me, you know what I mean? I had to do a lot of reflecting on myself first to get to the point of even doing this interview, 20 years later.
What was the spark that made you decide to go ahead with it?
It started in 2006, a few months after Harold died. At that time, people were doing all kinds of documentaries and books on our lives growing up, which was great, but nobody from the group ever told it themselves. We were all still dealing with various levels of mental and emotional trauma, and then Harold passes and it’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” But the thought of doing something kept haunting me. I got talking about the idea to one of the producers—writer, playwright, and actor Peter Welch—while working at a restaurant two blocks away from Rosario and Harold's hood. This was in 2008, after years of self-doubt and fear of taking on this responsibility. It wasn’t until then that I actually sat down and got started.
Because there was still stuff you didn’t want to address?
Yeah—I’m still running from myself at this point. But in 2010 we shot some footage with Tobin Yelland, who’s one of the premier skate photographers and videographers—top-of-the-line dude, a part of skate history. And then I got talking to Chloë about it, so we filmed some interviews with her and some of the skaters, but we still didn’t have it all together at this point. Peter was like, “Yo, Ham, the only person who can write this story—give it a message and a purpose—is you.” I was like, "Oh, shit, nowhere to run and no rock to hide under now."
Then, in 2013, writer and performer Caroline Rothstein—who’s also a producer on the movie and wrote this article [about the legacy of Kids]—got on board. She was followed by Harold Hunter Foundation board member and Harold's surrogate sister Jessica Forsyth, and then NYC skate native—now firefighter—Peter Bici. He got involved maybe a month and a half ago because I needed somebody I'd grown up with in the New York skating scene who'd gone through a certain amount of evolution in themselves—someone I shared those high and incredibly low moments with, on a soul level. That's not taking anything away from anyone else and their experiences, of course.
I read that article. There’s a quote where you’re talking about how Kids gave skaters this cool, grimy image, but that the circumstances behind all that griminess were never really touched upon. Is that something you want to address in the documentary?
We have to, yeah, because that’s where the essence of that energy comes from—the inner struggle. If we don’t talk about that struggle, then the inside story makes no sense. The evolution to now makes no sense.
Agreed. Larry Clark’s involved now, too, right?
Yeah, I went to see him in New York this April, and yo, the conversation we had was just, like, full circle. I was able to talk freely about the resentments that I, and others, had in the past.
The late Justin Pierce (far left) and others on the set of Kids
Resentments about how your group of friends was portrayed in Kids?
About how we were portrayed, about people making money off us, about people getting… I was able to say all that freely. And Larry starts telling me stuff that I’m like, Man, he’s telling me shit I thought he'd take to the grave. And I’ve got to tell you this other bit, because it’s funny but honest. So I don’t smoke weed no more, right? But I had this bad-ass toothache that wouldn’t go away while I was back in New York, so a friend was like, “Yo, I’ll get you some weed!” And I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll smoke weed before I take a Percocet.”
Right, natural medicine.
Medicinal. Straight up. So I’m at Larry’s house and my tooth started kicking up. I’ve got my stash on me. I go, “Larry, I got this crazy toothache, and this shit is about to start kicking up, I need to have a little smoke.” So I’m sitting in his window, smoking, and we’re having this conversation, and I was at that threshold before you cross over to being really stoned, where instead you’re super subconsciously aware.
Yeah, I hear you.
And man, to be sitting with Larry, and for him and me to be speaking from our hearts like that—me being the one who showed the world how a blunt is rolled in his directorial debut, and after knowing him for, like, 23 years, we’d gone completely full circle. It was then I felt it was officially the right moment to make this film. It’s time to share some insight into that group within the subculture behind this movie, which had such an impact at that particular time... how what we were experiencing in our collective history not only affected but shaped so much of the society we know today.
Follow Jamie on Twitter.