Ta-Nehisi Coates On Police Brutality, The Confederate Flag And Forgiveness
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we’re continuing our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. In a year when so many African-American parents were worried that their son would become the next Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a book in the form of a letter to his teenage son. It's titled "Between The World And Me," and it draws on history as well as personal experience to discuss the different forms of violence young African-Americans are especially vulnerable to from all directions – on the street, in school and from the police. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. And this year, Coates was the recipient of a MacArthur genius award. Coates was born in 1975 and grew up in West Baltimore, where he says everyone had lost a child somehow – to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. Coates is national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Last year, he won a George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story "The Case For Reparations" about the long history of what he calls white-imposed black disadvantage. Our interview was recorded in July.
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GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You wrote this new book in response to the recent police shootings of African-American people - children and adults. The book is addressed to your teenage son. So when you were growing up in West Baltimore, what did the police mean to you when you were your son's age?
TA-NEHISI COATES: They were another force. So there are two sides to this, you know, 'cause I don't want to be too cynical here. I, you know, am an American and so I did understand them as representing, you know, some aspect of the state that I was a part of, some aspect of the country that I was a part of. But at the same time, there was definitely another part of me that basically recognized them as another element within the society, within the community, with no real moral difference from the crews and the gangs and the, you know, packs of folks who dispensed violence throughout the neighborhood. The police were another force to be negotiated that could dispense violence.
And, you know, I want to be, you know, really clear about that because when you're on the outside it's very easy to, you know, label a group of, you know, a, quote, unquote, "gang" as criminal. But, you know, when you live in the neighborhood, these are people who you see, who you talk to. I mean, everything does not always come to violence. You can negotiate things, you know? There are ways of, you know, dealing with folks. And I talk about that a little bit in the book. And the police were, in that respect, very much the same way. Just like there's a - you know, there's certain rules for how you deal with, you know, a certain crew that lives in a certain place. The police have certain rules for how you negotiate them too if you want to avoid violence.
GROSS: Did you ever see the police as possibly protecting you from violent forces within your own neighborhood?
COATES: Yes, I did, but I also saw the crews the same way, you know? That's the interesting thing. I saw many - you know, with my friends we would be labeled as criminals in the same way. The question, you know, for me was when do you call what, you know what I mean? So if somebody breaks into your house, you would call the police. Again, I don't want to, you know, be overly cynical here. You would call the police. But by the same token if, you know, you happened to be walking somewhere and five people jumped on you and, you know, did some degree of violence, you probably would not call the police. You might call, you know, some of your cousins or you might call some of your friends. So it really depended on what the case actually was.
GROSS: You had a college friend - you went to Howard University - a man named Prince Carmen Jones who was shot and killed by a policeman. The policeman said it was in self-defense after Jones tried to run him over in his Jeep and you and everyone who knew Prince Jones didn't believe that story. You write about this in your book. Tell us a little bit about him.
COATES: I went to college with Prince Jones. It's very funny because when you write, it becomes sort of abstract for a while. And then when people ask you about it, suddenly it becomes real again. I went to college with Prince Jones. We weren't, you know, best friends or great friends, but he was someone who I knew, who I, you know, spent time around, who I had, you know, just a great deal of affection for. Prince was tall, probably about 6'4" or so, slender, a beautiful, beautiful man, very, very handsome, extremely intelligent. He was from Texas. He went to a magnet school in Texas for math and science - statewide magnet school. As his mom explained to me, he was the only African-American student there. As I, you know, did the interviews for the book and talked to his mother, Mabel Jones, who lives in the Philadelphia area now - and when I talked to her what I realized was he was from a family - a very, very well-to-do family, a mother who had grown up in dirt poor poverty in Opelousas, La., whose folks were sharecroppers, who had, you know, basically worked her way out of poverty, had become a radiologist, had gone to LSU, had served in the Navy - you know, had basically done everything America tells you to do and had, you know, accumulated assets and some degree of wealth, and he was killed. He was killed. I mean, he was executed like an outlaw as far as I was concerned.
The officers were attempting to track down someone who they had believed had stolen a gun from another officer. Somehow they got it in their head that the Jeep that Prince was driving either belonged to the guy who stole the gun or one of his friends. They ran the plates on the Jeep. The Jeep came up with Prince's mother's address and Prince's mother's name in Philadelphia. They assumed that this, you know, could possibly mean that the Jeep was stolen when in fact all it meant was that his mother had bought it for him. They followed Prince Jones out from the suburbs of Maryland where they, you know, first began tracking him into Washington, D.C., and then out into Virginia where they shot him within, you know, mere feet of his fiancee's home. The thing about this that, you know, when I ran it through my mind is this - the basic, you know, report from the officer was that Prince had attempted to back up his Jeep several times and rammed the car that the officer was driving, so he had to kill him. He had to shoot him because his life was in danger.
But I tried to imagine myself in Prince's shoes. The officer who was tracking him was not in a normal police cruiser. The officer was not in uniform. The officer, in fact, testified that he pulled out his gun, said police, but did not - never showed Prince his badge. The officer was dressed in an undercover disguise like he was supposed to be a drug dealer. And, you know, this is how insidious it gets. I have to imagine myself followed from the suburbs of Maryland through D.C. out into Virginia, realizing at some point that I'm being followed, not having any idea that this is a cop. And then having somebody pull a gun out on me and knowing that I'm near my fiancee's house, so it always seemed to me perfectly logical, you know, that Prince perceived that he was under threat.
GROSS: Was this ever investigated?
COATES: Yes, it was. Nothing came of it. It was investigated by the prosecutor's office out in Fairfax, Va., I believe and nothing ever came of it. There was an internal investigation by the Prince George's County Police Department. The officer was not punished. There was a civil suit, eventually, where the officer and the police department was found liable. But when I, you know, was checking on this, the officer was not suspended. He had not been punished. He had been previously found to have lied during another case and the lie was, you know, so bad that the prosecutor's office actually had to throw out every, you know, case in which this officer had testified.
The Prince George's County Police Department was at that time under federal consent decree. They were being investigated. The Washington Post did a series of investigative articles on the Prince George's County Police Department around that time - around 2001-2002 - and found that they were more likely than any other police department in the country to fire their guns. The point that his mother made - and I think this is absolutely, absolutely crucial - according to the official record, Prince attempted to kill a police officer, and that's how he died. So according to the official record, it's actually his fault. He's the criminal. He's the one that actually instigated this. That's the last word on his name, which I just - I mean, that is terrible. It's just awful.
GROSS: This happened nearly 15 years ago. When it happened, what impact did it have on you?
COATES: Oh, God...
GROSS: And I know you were at his funeral or his memorial service at Howard.
COATES: Oh, it devastated me. It totally devastated me. A year later 9/11 happened, and I just - I had no compassion. I had none. I was cold. I was absolutely, absolutely cold because they killed him. They killed him, and no one was held accountable. They sent the officer - they put the officer right back out on the street, right back onto the force. I couldn't believe it. You know, after that, the conclusion I had to draw was that this was a group of people, you know, who had been given - empowered by the state to use lethal violence. And there was very, very little chance that any of them would be punished. And so should there be a mistake - any sort of mistake with me, any sort of dispute in which I was killed or, you know, my son was killed - in general, I could rest assured that no one would be held accountable.
That's very, very different, you know, 'cause people make this comparison between this and, quote, unquote, "black-on-black violence" or neighbor-on-neighbor violence. But, see, you know, if somebody in my neighbor did some degree of violence, I mean, see, there were recourses. There were things that could be done. There was, you know, a mediation, some sort of thing. And sometimes that mediation might in fact be violent, but there could be no mediation between me and the state, you know? I mean, they killed Prince and that was it. That was it, end of story, nothing, nothing.
GROSS: So given your personal experience with having a friend who was shot and killed by an undercover police officer who never presented his badge, never showed his identity, put that in context with the more media-covered recent shootings of African-Americans by police. What does that add up to in terms of the message you're trying to give your teenage son now about dealing with police?
COATES: I don't know that anything has changed in my mind, like, in terms of, like, how I talk to him. There's a lot of reporting that, you know, depicts as though there's a wave going on, you know, an uptick in events. But I doubt that there's actually an uptick. More people are paying attention, but I've been paying attention at least, you know, intently for the past 15 years.
GROSS: Yeah, well, that's why I mentioned the, like, the media coverage 'cause I think that's what's changed.
COATES: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: That there's cellphones and the cellphones have led to media coverage and people are, like, watching these incidents over and over and over again. And I think for people who haven't been directly exposed to that kind of, you know, police shooting or brutality...
COATES: Yeah, no...
GROSS: ...It's very educational.
COATES: It is. It is, and, you know - but the thing that I, you know, in my mind - and I don't know that we're at this point yet and, you know, and this is why I say it really hasn't changed in terms of how I talk to my child, my son - there's a kind of evasion going on wherein people think about what the police did and they say, well, this is a bad cop or if we had body cameras, maybe we could do something about that. But there's very little critique about why our police operate the way they operate in the first place because that critique ultimately comes back to Americans themselves. We've spent the past, you know, roughly half a century or so growing increasingly draconian, stripping back, you know, people's rights in terms of how they deal with the criminal justice system, increasing the punitive nature of the criminal justice system once people are in the system's clutches. All of that is brought to bear when we think about each of these deaths. Behind each of these is something else, some sort of policy, some sort of decision.
I - you know, when Prince was killed, I actually did some reporting around his death in P.G. County - in Prince George's County - because there had been so many other cases like that. You know, and I'll never forget one of the folks telling me that Prince George's County, you know, at that time was one of the most wealthiest enclaves for African-Americans in the country and yet the police were one of the most brutal police departments in the country. How could that possibly be true? Well, you know, many of the citizens out in that county had made the same sort of calculations that white citizens around this country had made. Their great fear was crime, you know? And any sort of hint, any sort of, you know, inkling of crime, from their perspective the police were empowered to do whatever they wanted. And so ultimately for me it's a question of where the citizenry is. You know, it's not just a question of what the police officers are doing. You know, it's a question of what policies, you know, we've decided to pass.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has a new book called "Between The World And Me." And he's a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Last year, he wrote an award-winning cover story for the magazine called "The Case For Reparations." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. And he's written a new book called "Between The World And Me." That's addressed to his teenage son, and it's about growing up – like, his growing up and the lessons he learned about growing up in West Baltimore. It's about growing up in a frequently violent neighborhood. It's about fear - fear of people in the neighborhood, fear of the police. It's about things like the Confederate flag and the meaning of that. And Coates is a national Correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Last year, he wrote an award-winning cover story called "The Case For Reparations."
We've been talking about fear of the police and anger at the police. But part of your book is how you lived in fear when you were your son's age - when you were a teenager - when you left the house 'cause there was a lot of violence in the neighborhood. And you say basically everyone in your neighborhood seemed to be reacting out of fear. You were afraid of other kids. You were afraid of your father's beatings. You write, when I was about your age, each day fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not. So I guess I'm interested in what were some of the behaviors you had to learn to protect yourself, just, like, walking to school, walking home from school, going to visit a friend.
COATES: Oh, God. Don't walk to school by yourself. Make sure you have at least five or six people with you. It's very interesting - when - Philadelphia 76 - Allen Iverson, when he came into the league, there was all this critique because he went everywhere with a posse. And there was all this talk about posses. Why's Allen Iverson - and I immediately understood, you know (laughter)? As a matter of physical safety, for many years, you're trained not to go, you know, into places that you don't know by yourself.
Getting back to those rules - don't go to certain neighborhoods unless you know somebody over there, unless, you know, your grandmother's there, unless you got a cousin there, unless you got a really, really close friend there. If you have a girlfriend in another neighborhood, you need to go with four, five or six other people. Guys need to be prepared, and, you know, you need to, you know, be watching out. When you walk through the street, as my dad - I can hear my dad telling me this right now - walk like you have some place to be. Keep aware. You know, keep your head on a swivel. Make sure you're looking, you know, at everything.
Little things, like understanding that - I think about this all the time - that, like, the first really warm day of the spring or the summer when you're in school is actually a really, really dangerous day for you because there's going to be a lot of kids out. And people are going to, you know, be feeling a certain way, and it's quite likely that, you know, some amount of violence might occur. And so you need to keep your eyes out on those particular days. Thinking a lot about which way you want to walk - you know, this is just particular to my middle school - I think about this all the time. You know, did you want to walk down the hill or should you walk up the hill? Should you take a long, circuitous route, as I would sometimes, you know, through other neighborhoods with other friends from those neighborhoods so that you avoid certain people at certain times because they're, you know, already home by then? (Laughter) It's a laundry list, you know?
I can remember having, you know - like lunchtime. You know, you might have a problem with somebody or somebody might have a problem with you, so you say, well, I'm not going to lunch today. I'm going to, you know, spend my lunch period in the library, which is what I would do sometimes because you don't want to get caught with certain folks. And then it's the more insidious aspect of it, which is this - my disposition is not, you know, to the street at all. You know, it was not - anybody who knew me, you know, growing up would tell you there was nothing street about me at all. But, you know, one of the first things I learned within my first year in middle school - because middle school's when you really start getting indoctrinated into this stuff - is that any sort of physically, you know, violent threat made to you has to be responded to with force. You just - I mean, you just - you can't tolerate any, you know, anybody, you know, attempting to threaten or intimidate your body. You must respond with force. This had - I mean, this had real repercussions. I mean, you know, like, I go to school ninth grade year in my high school, you know, and I, you know, I got suspended for threatening a teacher.
GROSS: I was going to ask you about that 'cause you refer to that in your new book, and I don't feel like I understand why that happened. Like, what did you say or do that was so...
COATES: I felt like he disrespected - I felt like he disrespected me. It was the same, you know...
GROSS: By doing what?
COATES: He yelled at me in front of the class, like, really, really loudly. And again, I mean, this was the sort of thing that you, you know, you couldn't tolerate.
GROSS: That is what teachers do sometimes (laughter).
COATES: I know. I know. But, see, it sounds like you're laughing because, like, it's funny if you've never been in the environment...
GROSS: No, I get it. I get it.
COATES: ...And all you have is your dignity. That's all you have. I mean, you know, teachers yell loudly at kids from time to time. You're exactly right. But if you live in an environment, you know - if you're, you know, from a place where all you have is, like, the basic, you know, sort of physical respect - you will talk to me in a respectful way - you don't have anything else to lean on. That's very serious. That's really, really, really serious, you know? If somebody yelled at me now, it probably would - you know, I'd, you know, sort of walk away and laugh. Well, I've accumulated certain things. I have certain things. I have a family. You know, I feel, you know, great personal value in myself and in my work and in what I do. I feel, you know, deeply loved by everyone around me. I don't feel like I live in a particularly violent environment. I wouldn't perceive being yelled at, you know, as necessarily communicating to other people around me that they, too, could disrespect me at any moment.
GROSS: So you threaten the teacher, and then you're arrested. Like, what - how did that - what did you say and...
COATES: I said something to the fact that, you know, if you say something like that to me again I'm going to knock you out. It was something - but it was a physical threat.
GROSS: Wow. OK.
COATES: And I - and in that moment, I was not like - it was not idle either. I was very angry. I was really angry.
GROSS: So who called the police, the teacher or the principal?
COATES: He did. We had school police. We had school police.
GROSS: Oh, school police. OK, yeah.
COATES: Yeah, he called the police. The teacher called the police, police came. And I probably - as I recall that I got into some sort of verbal thing with the police, too. The police handcuffed me and took me downstairs. They called my parents. They wrote up an arrest report and everything. Eventually, they unhandcuffed and released me and sent me home by myself to my parents.
And I - Jesus, I hate saying this. Well, maybe I - this is just what happened, OK? And I wrote the book, so - and I've written a book about this before. It's out there. It's the public record. They released me. I went home. My dad kicked my butt. And that was the moment, you know, where, like - and I've said this several times - where he says to my mom, and I see this clearly, you know, my mom was really, you know, upset and had never really been upset about, you know, my dad dealing out physical discipline. My mom would deal out physical discipline. My mom beat kids. I mean - you know? So - but it really upset my mom - the sight of it. You know, I was 14. I was, you know, becoming a big kid by then. And she tried to stop him, and he said to her, you know, either I can do it or the police.
And so I go through this thing in the book about fear. And what I understand now - and this don't make it OK and this doesn't mean that it's what I would do - but what I understand now is how deeply afraid my parents were when they heard I got arrested. I remember my mom later, you know, after all this, you know, maybe, like, a couple hours later that same day, talking to me about it and just, like, crying, like, just breaking down and crying. And they are - there are African-American families, you know, around this country - a large, large number of African - that just operate out of complete fear that their kids are going to be taken from them and will do anything, you know, to prevent that.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates after we take a short break. And we'll listen back to a 1993 interview with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He died Sunday at the age of 93. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. His book "Between The World And Me" won this year's National Book Award for Nonfiction. The book is addressed to his teenage son at a time when cellphone videos have documented police shootings and beatings of African-Americans. Coates drew on his own experiences growing up in West Baltimore and on his knowledge of American history to reflect on the violence so many young black men face on the streets, in their schools and from police.
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GROSS: You've described how when you were young your father beat you, and sometimes he beat you for getting into trouble, like when you threatened your teacher after your teacher hollered at you in what you saw as a very humiliating way in front of the class. But your father also beat you once for not standing up to the person who stole something from you. And you felt like, well, OK, he's beating me for being violent, he's beating me for - you know, for speaking violently. He's beating me for not being violent enough. But you understood that he was also beating you because he said to you, it's either me or the police. And he was beating you in a way that he hoped would kind of discipline you and protect you from getting into bigger trouble. So that's how you were raised. What about raising your son? Would you hit him? Would you take off your belt and hit him with that, like you were raised?
COATES: So in fairness to my dad - I should say my mom and my dad. It was not the case that my mom did not, you know, hit me either. (Laughter) I just don't - 'cause fathers sometimes take the blame or take all of this, you know, to the extent that there's blame to be doled out.
Yeah, I have hit my son before. I can count, I believe, on - I'm thinking of it now - I think three times - I think three times in his life. I would never hit him with an object. I would never hit them with a belt.
I had a pretty big rule in my house about disrespect - and I say had because he's so old now that we're pretty much past all of this. But I had a pretty big rule in my house about disrespect, and by which I mean - and maybe this - you know, I'm having this conversation with you, maybe this hails back to something really old. But I wanted him to talk to his mother in a certain way. And I wanted him to talk to me in a certain way, and I wanted him to talk to adults in a certain way. And I wanted to communicate that to him like it was, like, the big, big thing in my house.
Now, I recently had a conversation with him. I was 24 when Samori was born. His mom was 23. And, you know, again, your kid's a boy, and you have all of this great sort of fear. I hit him, you know, three times, maybe four times in his life. But I told him recently that if I had to do it again and if I had a kid right now, I would resolve not to hit the kid at all, you know? I just...
GROSS: What's changed? Why wouldn't you now?
COATES: Because he's going to be OK. And I didn't know that when he - when I was a kid. You know, I thought he might go out and disrespect somebody, and he'd get shot. (Laughter) Like, that was what was in my head, you know what I mean? Like, oh, he mouthed off at a police officer, and, you know, he'd get the, you know, hell beat out of them. Like, that was what was in my head, you know? It wasn't just, I am personally offended by how you're talking. No, you disrespect somebody, brother, it's dangerous out here for you. It is dangerous out here for you. And I have to communicate that to you.
And I'm more confident - and maybe it's because I – well, I guess there are a couple things going on, OK?
The first thing is I've seen how my son has grown, you know, and I've seen how maybe things that, when he was younger, I would have thought of as, oh, my God I got to get this out of you because if you continue like this, you know, until you're 20, you know, this could be a threat to your life. I can now see them as him being a child. Like, I understand, oh, you're a child, and this is what children do. OK, all right, got that.
The second thing is, I, to be quite honest with you, have raised my son largely around a different class of people. And I mean a literal social class...
GROSS: Yeah, right, right.
COATES: ...You know, who don't hit their kids, by and large. And I have seen that kids do, to be honest with you, all sorts of things that would've, you know, you know - just my head would've exploded if Samori had done some of these things. And they don't hit their kids. And my initial reaction is, you out your - you know, you're out of your mind. That was my initial - you're crazy. You're crazy. That's why your kids are, you know, out here doing X, Y and Z. But I've seen those kids. Now, like, I'm old enough, and I've seen those kids go off to college. I've seen those kids straighten out. You know, I've seen those kids, you know, basically, you know, grow into adults and mature. And I've seen that basically the parents were right. The parents understood that they were children and doing, you know, some of the things that children did. And I think, you know, from an African-American perspective, you know, what folks hearing this would say was that, yes, but, you know, a lot of those children are white, and they are. A lot of those children are white and have more room to do X, Y and Z. Well, that's true, but when you accept that, you kind of bring the injustice to the child. You put the injustice of the world - you know, you say, well, we don't have much room to do X, Y and Z, and so I'm going to do this to you.
GROSS: My impression hearing you talk right now is that because you're African-American and because you grew up in West Baltimore in a neighborhood that was often violent, getting along in the world, raising your son are more complicated. Maybe I'm just stating the obvious. (Laughter).
COATES: They are. No, you're - no, but I think you summarized everything I was trying to say. So…
GROSS: That they're just more complicated than your white counterpart.
COATES: They are, and they definitely are. They definitely are. They definitely are. I didn't really know people - well, I knew - I did know - I knew one father that was this way. But in general, I didn't really know people, with that exception, that came home, like, had a bad day and then beat the hell out of their kids. That was not, like, the environment I was really raised around. Like I said, I can think of one exception to that. But by and large, I mean, this was - the way folks dealt with their kids, the way folks disciplined their kids was the way all of their peers disciplined their kids, the way they had been disciplined as kids, the way their parents had been disciplined as kids. People have this conversation now about, you know - about spanking and about beating and about, you know, hitting children, but I - you know, and I understand it. Like I said, I wouldn't put my hands on my kid now. Now I wouldn't do it. But I just think it's really important to understand where that comes from.
GROSS: What did you have to learn about loving your son as a father that was different from how you were loved?
COATES: I had to learn not to be so hard. I had to learn to not be so hard. And I had a wife and, at that time, a partner when Samori was born and for most of Samori's life, a partner, who, for whatever reason, did not have to learn that and was very tender and very, very soft with him. And I - when I saw that, for whatever reason, I didn't process that as, oh, that's his mother. She's being that way. Like, I immediately wondered why I wasn't that way, you know?
And I labored, you know - I very, very much labored to be that way, you know, to be softer, to be, you know, affectionate, you know, to tell him, you know - and little things, little things - to tell him I love you every night and to kiss him every night before he went to bed.
You know, my parents loved me. It's just not something that we did. It wasn't manifested in that way. I learned it from my spouse. I learned it from my wife. And now as you know we enter in this period, you know - he's going on to 15 and I can see the end and I'm, you know - I'm sad. Like, (laughter), you know, I'm learning that this is not going to be forever, that he's going to leave me one day. I'm very happy I did that, you know, because if anything ever happens to me or, God forbid, anything ever happens to him, it cannot be said that I did not make it clear to him every day how much I loved him.
GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for talking with us.
COATES: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of the book "Between The World And Me." Coming up, we listen back to a 1993 interview with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He died Sunday at the age of 93. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.