The news seems saturated with stories of young black men and boys whose lives were cut short — often because they were perceived as a threat.
Moved to action by the trend, one director has set out to investigate the images and myths around black males that feed those negative perceptions.
With Afraid of Dark, documentary filmmaker Mya B. says she hopes to make real the lives of everyday black men onscreen in hopes it could “make them harder to kill.”
theGrio talked to Mya B about her upcoming film and the image of black men in the popular imagination.
theGrio: What inspired you to make this documentary? Was it some of the high-profile cases in the news or was the inspiration more personal?
Mya B: My first film was Silence: In Search of Black Female Sexuality and that film dealt with analyzing different stereotypes of black women from the Tragic Mulatto, down to the emasculating Sapphire and Jezebel. Going on college tours and just showing it, men would always ask, “Well, when are you gonna do a piece about us?” That was the reason why I started filming for it in 2007.
Beyond the demand to see this topic on screen, why is the issue important?
Today, we have modern lynching. When you look at the cases of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, there’s a line through those stories that connects to the history of black men being demonized in this country. For me, it’s about fear, controlling black men and putting them down. I felt like I had to do this for my community because people need to see an alternative.
I have a son, a black male son that I’m raising alone. He’s going to be 16 in June, so it became a very personal story. I had to make this film. I’m scared. I’m really scared, and I talk about that in the film. I have a black son and, even though he’s a good kid, not everyone sees that.
And you interviewed your son in the documentary, what was that like?
Yes, my son is in the film. In some of the scenes, I ask him about his experience and his views on topics like the death Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial. I asked him, “What do you think is going to happen?” He said, “He gonna get off.” Now what makes a 15-year-old say that? He said, “All you have to do is look at the history.” He started naming Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo…all of these people. I had no idea that he was walking around with that awareness.
What are the most prevalent myths about black men? What do you think people see when they see a black man?
In making the film and examining the history, I found that the two damaging stereotypes of black men are that of the “Brute” and the “Mandingo. There are other archetypes: the “Uncle Tom’” and the “Sambo” but those are viewed as more passive, thus more acceptable. The Mandingo, however, is over-sexualized. The Brute is considered angry and violent.
And, once I started really going in depth to what those two stereotypes mean for black men, how they’ve evolved and permeated the culture, it became clear how we’ve ended up with a society that condones the criminalization and murder of black men.
To what degree does the black community subscribe to myths about black men?
I think we play into them as well. I mean, if we didn’t I don’t think there would be such a high black-on-black crime rate. And with black men particularly I see a disconnection between generations. For instance, you have so many young brothers walking around with their pants sagging and older people do not want to be bothered with them. They will cross the street, they don’t want to have dialog with them. But, we, as adults, we have to talk to the youth. Why are we fearful of our own children? I don’t get that. How are you scared of a 16-year-old and you’re an adult?
We have to make those relationships work again because we should be the ones that guide them. My son has his friends over all the time, and I try to give them lessons, not so much where it’s overbearing, but just to tell them about the real world. My interest in protecting them is more powerful than any fear.
Finally, what do you hope to achieve with the documentary if anything? What do you want viewers to learn about black men?
I just want them to see black men in a different light, to get past their ideas of black men as angry and violent. There are so many black men doing great things. And the majority of black men are just living their lives like everyone else. In the film, we talk to men like Dr. Cornell West, Tom Burrell and Malik Yoba. Those are black men that people know. But I also have everyday brothers in the film who speak openly about their life experiences and who they are.
We constantly see the worst. Now let’s see black men in all their humanity, in their glory.
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR