You’re Just Dealing with Moe

Moe Verneau, Money & Violence, and the roots of the realest series on YouTube

After their assistant calls to tell me that their normal hangout—the Brooklyn Tap House—is closed, I meet the Cloud9 TV crew at a Mexican restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The place is empty when I arrive, save for a few people at the bar and a couple of indifferent waiters near the kitchen.

A few minutes later, three men enter. Moe Verneau—the visionary behind the out-of-nowhere popular Money & Violence web series—hangs back, circumspect. He’s the last to shake my hand. As we sit down, while the other men make small talk, I have the feeling Verneau is watching me, trying to feel me out.

The Tap House (which is featured in the series), like the Mexican place, is part of a familiar landscape for the crew—part of a neighborhood depicted in the series that is obsessed with neighborhood. As we go down the menu, they recommend some dishes and warn me away from others.

Soon after we’ve ordered lunch, I start asking questions of the group, expecting to interview all three of them: What’ve you been up to today? What’s next on the horizon for the show? But as I begin, Verneau’s cohorts excuse themselves politely. “You’re just dealing with Moe,” one says, and they move a couple tables over.

Verneau is impeccably dressed in a freshly-pressed white shirt, his hair and beard carefully edged. When he finally speaks, his words are considered. Some you can tell he’s used to repeating—slightly canned-sounding truisms reminiscent of those spoken by the characters on the show. The series is laced with one-liners—sometimes inspirational, sometimes funny, which Verneau later admits to creating intentionally in order to further the series’ message: There is more to life than what happens in the streets. For the viewers whose environs resemble those of the show, Money & Violence is a cautionary tale. For outsiders, it’s an attempt to humanize people who participate in crime as a means of survival.

Strip away the tough guns-and-gangsters exterior, and Money & Violence is a fairly typical drama—on the soapy end—with a motivational core. The show features an ensemble cast of interconnected characters, most of whom are involved, either directly or through friendships or romantic relationships, in street life.

The cast of Money & Violence has achieved a mode of success unique to our era. They are YouTube stars, with fans numbering in the tens of thousands, and views for the series in the tens of millions. Money & Violence has also received acclaim from critics, and an honor from the Tribeca Film Festival. But the goal was never fame. “I never thought this far ahead,” Verneau says, “I saw something that was wrong in my community, and this was my effort to do something about it… and all of a sudden it just took off.”

Offers have come in—including $250,000 for the rights to the second season from an independent film and television production company—but they’ve turned them all down. When I ask Verneau why, he says that he’s more focused on achieving what he set out to do: deliver his message to as many people as possible, without a studio or production company diluting it. “If the right deal comes along, great. If not, we’ll just continue to do it on our own.” And doing it on their own, without establishment media investment, meant crowdfunding the second season.

In the early going of their campaign on Seed&Spark, Verneau and the rest of his team were finding difficulty converting their legions of viewers into funders. Some people complained on social media about being solicited for money, at which Verneau, understandably, seems perplexed. His crew has funded the entire operation and made it available for free. Asking for a $1 or $2 donation seems reasonable in exchange for all his viewers have gotten—a 27-installment first season—for nothing.

It wasn’t until the cast of Money & Violence began holding social media-promoted meet-and-greets around New York, from Times Square to Flatbush, that support began to pour in. Their foray into crowdfunding, which eventually raised nearly $100,000, may be the first six-figure campaign to collect a big portion of its goal in paper cash, dropped into a bucket passed around IRL events like the offering plate at a church service.

Verneau, born Moise Verneau, grew up on a block in Flatbush, Brooklyn, that he describes as one of the city’s most dangerous. One of Money & Violence’s selling points—and the quality that has made it so popular with viewers—is its authenticity, its realness. The series is shot with a handheld DSLR camera and untrained actors. It’s filmed on the streets of Brooklyn on an open set—no permits, no street closures—so whatever’s going on that day goes into the series. One of Money & Violence’s most iconic episodes was filmed during Brooklyn’s West Indian Labor Day Parade. In that episode’s scenes, people stand watching, drinking, and reveling. They mostly ignore the camera, but some who do notice it glance at it with puzzlement.

As Verneau and I talk, it becomes clear just how intertwined the series and his life are. Like any good artist, his experience serves as mining ground for the show’s main themes. He portrays one of the series’ characters—a sympathetic and sensitive tough guy named Rafe who, despite a mean streak, is clearly just trying to get by. And this, in the end, is the series’ main thesis: Often those we see as villains are good people trying to navigate desperate straits.

Money & Violence takes place in what Verneau calls the “Old Brooklyn,” the Brooklyn he grew up in. This is a place as yet untouched by gentrification (though in some episodes, a lone hipster can be seen wandering into a frame). For Verneau, “Old Brooklyn” was a place imbued with a moral code. “We’re now in a world where most people are morally bankrupt,” he says. “I feel the only way [to change things] is to revisit those old principles and values… I hate hearing, ‘There’s no honor amongst thieves,’ and things like that. There’s a code to everything.”

Money & Violence strives to represent a point of view rarely—if ever—explored in television and film. When I compared the show to The Wire, Verneau reacted knowingly, as if it were something he’d gotten used to hearing (we should all be so lucky). Characters like those portrayed in Money & Violence—those from the ghettos of America, involved in street crime—are often written about, but usually as stereotype-encrusted, cartoonish villains devoid of nuance. This is true, to some extent, even of shows as well written as The Wire. David Simon may have studied the corner as diligently as any middleclass white man ever has, but he didn’t live the life.

A recent article on Bossip entitled, “On ‘Money & Violence’ and the Importance of the Black Narrative” articulated Money & Violence’s place among black TV shows:

… As great as Black-ish is, it’s a show about maintaining Blackness in a wholly White world. Empire comes close but it’s so over-the-top that it’s insane to consider it even remotely realistic. Verneau’s story of street corner ethics is just as needed as Whitley’s story of discovering her blackness on an HBCU campus. We need Money & Violence just as much as we need A Different World. These stories make up the oeuvre of the Black experience. And if we don’t tell them, who will?

Taken in that light, the scale of what Verneau has accomplished begins to look enormous—even historical.

The second season of Money & Violence premiered in February on Jay-Z’s Tidal, with new episodes releasing each week. True to Verneau’s mission, seven days after its debut, each episode is available free on YouTube.