Filmmaker tries to debunk labels of black men
Quick. Pop quiz. And no cheating. Are there more black men in college or in jail? Janks Morton, a new movie director, is willing to bet...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Quick. Pop quiz. And no cheating.
Are there more black men in college or in jail?
Janks Morton, a new movie director, is willing to bet you got the wrong answer. Although he thinks the very nature of the question is an "abomination," he wonders: Would that same question be asked so often of any other race in America? The very premise of the question, he said, leads to faulty science. But the question is insidious, like the images that have seeped into the public psyche so deep that many black people themselves don't get the answer right.
Morton poses the question while sitting in a restaurant seven hours before his movie, "What Black Men Think," premieres in Washington, D.C.
He turns to three black men at a table behind him.
"Quick question: Are there more black men in college or in jail?"
Man in green shirt: "Jail."
Man in brown shirt: "Jail."
Man in blue shirt. "Jail."
Morton calls over the waiter: "Hey, R.J.! Are there more black men in college or in jail?"
The waiter ponders the question, turning it as if he were inspecting a utensil. "I believe ... in jail."
Morton: "Now let's ask some women."
Woman in pink pearls: "I don't know. I would say jail."
Wrong, wrong, wrong, Morton said. There are more black men in college than in jail.
In 2005, according to the Census Bureau, 864,000 black men were in college. According to Justice Department statistics, 802,000 were in federal and state prisons and jails, Morton said.
Between the ages of 18 and 24, black men in college outnumber those incarcerated by 4 to 1.
Still, the idea that the opposite is true stems from an image that has been perpetuated, Morton said, by the government, the media and the black leadership.
"I'm worried about us and what we think about ourselves," he said.
That is the point of Morton's documentary, which was released on DVD last week. The film, which cost him $7,000 to produce, explores the stereotypes and statistics that label black men, families, women and children. "This project, top to bottom, is all me," Morton said. "With the new digital capacity, we have an ability to drive demand without relying on other people. I assembled, I edited, scored the whole thing in my house. That wasn't feasible five years ago."
The film sets out to debunk stereotypes that he said have been perpetuated for so many years that they have struck the black community to its core. Stereotypes that have insulted, demoralized and humiliated. That have left others intimidated by black boys and black men.
The "docu-logue" is in a style akin to Michael Moore's, with interviews of black intellectuals. It's infused with graphics, historical footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and provocative moments, such as black women calling black men dogs.
Morton appears on screen in dark shades, "Matrix"-like. "More than one hundred years ago," he said, "Harriet Tubman was quoted as saying: 'If I could have convinced more slaves they truly were slaves, I could have freed thousands more.' "
At another point, the screen rolls up, rolls down, deliberately out of focus. Morton said, "How could you have bought into the false castigations that keep you from one another?
"You sit idly by and watch your media distort your images. You know that the government stratifies you. You know that the black leadership exploits you, and you choose to do nothing."
Morton, 43, said he graduated from Bowie State University, earning a degree in business and industrial psychology. For at least a decade, he worked in the entertainment industry, including with Ginuwine and Boyz II Men. He owned a record label, learned to stage, film and edit music videos.
Then, fed up with the industry, he quit.
"I didn't pick up the camera again until 2005," he said.
"One night, I was watching TV. It was one of those debates on Fox. A statistic came out: 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. That blew my socks off. ... I went to the Census Bureau and found it was true."
He wondered what happened to the community.
The film includes interviews with intellectuals and others, including journalists Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Juan Williams, activist Jesse Lee Peterson, authors Shelby Steele and Steve Perry, columnists Armstrong Williams and Darryl James, scholar John McWhorter, actor Joseph C. Phillips, professors Alvin Poussaint and Kellina Craig-Henderson, and commentator Mychal Massie.
Though many of those interviewed have been called conservative, Morton said that he tried to talk with people across the political spectrum.
Morton said he made an unsuccessful effort to contact the NAACP's Julian Bond and activists such as Jesse Jackson, but explains: "I was not going to just chase these folks down. The best way to make a referendum on the issue is to take it to the people."
Richard McIntire, national spokesman for the NAACP, said he remembers hearing the jail-college comparison but hasn't seen the latest figures.
"But my general response to the whole idea is, African-American males are disproportionately represented in higher education. They are disproportionately represented in jails. There aren't as many African-American males receiving higher levels of education, and it is having a direct impact on our community in a number of ways," he said. "I would dare anyone to say we have enough highly educated black males in America.
"Regardless of the numbers," he said, "we still are not where we need to be, and that causes rifts in our community in a number of ways."
In the film, Morton and others concede there are real difficulties in the black community. "The real, real deal with black people right now — we have the highest divorce rates, we have the highest over-40-year-old single rates," Morton said on screen. "We have the lowest marriage rates. The highest out-of-wedlock birth rates. What I'm saying to you is ... one generation ago, we didn't look like this."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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