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A Filmmaker's Attempt To Peel Off the Labels
'What Black Men Think' Tackles Stereotypes

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Quick. Pop quiz. And no cheating. No Googling. No calling the NAACP.

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. You who have been fed negative images of black men for so many years.

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 says, 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.

To prove his point, Morton poses the question while sitting at a table in Busboys and Poets restaurant seven hours before his movie, "What Black Men Think," premieres in the District.

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 thanks them, then 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 says. There are more black men in college than in jail.

In 2005, according to the Census Bureau, there were 864,000 black men in college. According to Justice Department statistics, there were 802,000 in federal and state prisons and jails, "even with the old heads holding on," Morton says.

Between the ages of 18 and 24, however, black men in college outnumber those incarcerated by 4 to 1.

Still, the idea that the reverse is true stems from an image that has been perpetuated, Morton says, by the government, the media and the black leadership, whoever they are.

So you ask him to ask the white men sitting behind him at the restaurant.

"I'm not worried about them," he says. "My point is I'm worried about us and what we think about ourselves."

That is the very point of Morton's documentary, which was also released on DVD yesterday. The film, which cost him $7,000 to produce, explores the stereotypes and statistics that label black men, black families, black women, black children. "This project, top to bottom, is all me," Morton says. "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 says 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 done in a style akin to Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," with interviews of black intellectuals. Moving from topic to topic, 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.

In an era when the Internet makes it possible for anybody with an opinion to publish, anybody with a keyboard to blog, anybody with a digital camera to make a movie, this film is an attempt by one man -- whether you believe him or not -- to rebut the stereotypes.

Morton appears on screen in dark shades, "Matrix"-like. "More than one hundred years ago," he says, "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 says, "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, grew up in Prince George's County -- where he still lives. He says he graduated from Largo High School and 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 says.

"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 wasn't aware of it. 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 journalist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, activist Jesse Lee Peterson, author Shelby Steele, columnist Darryl James, scholar John McWhorter, actor Joseph C. Phillips, journalist Juan Williams, author Steve Perry, professor Alvin Poussaint, columnist Armstrong Williams, former lieutenant governor of Maryland Michael Steele, professor Kellina Craig-Henderson and commentator Mychal Massie.

Though many of those interviewed have been called conservative, Morton says he tried to talk with people across the political spectrum. He says the film rises above the question of whether people are conservative or liberal. "Just give me 90 minutes and take the labels off," he says. "The message of the men begin to sound alike."

The film explores the issue of black marriage, the use of the N-word, academic achievement, crime. "There is a disconnect between perception and reality," Morton says.

Morton says 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 J. McIntire, national spokesman for the NAACP, says he remembers hearing the jail-college comparison a while back 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.

"I would dare anyone to say we have enough highly educated black males in America. . . .

"Regardless of the numbers," he says, "we still are not where we need to be, and that causes rifts in our community in a number of ways."

But here's the cold truth about numbers; they can be manipulated, made to support any perspective.

McIntire also notes that even Census Bureau numbers don't reflect as accurate a picture as possible because everyone doesn't participate in the process.

In the film, Morton and others, conservative and liberal, 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 says 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."

As the movie rolled at the recent one-time showing at the Avalon Theatre, there were knowing nods throughout the crowd, as if the movie confirmed theories.

"As black women, we've been led to believe there are no good men, that they are all in jail," Thembelani Smith, 32, an IT project manager, says after the film. "That isn't even true. Sometimes because the messages are imbedded in your head, you are quick to judge. That movie was long overdue. It's good to have these kinds of conversations."

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