Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 10th, 2020
Black Boys (Sonia Lowman, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In a documentary filled with moments of genuine heartbreak and tragedy, perhaps one of the most moving scenes involves a college student breaking down in tears as he explains how he feels when white women react in fear to his presence, simply because he is African American. What makes those situations even more confusing to the young man is that he is biracial, raised by a white mother who has always been a source of love and affection, caring for him unreservedly. Why, then, do these other white women shrink away? Adding yet another layer of complexity to the sequence is that the person (gently) pressing him to discuss his feelings is the director, Sonia Lowman (Teach Us All), herself a white woman, whose face and posture show great compassion. Of such emotionally raw segments is Black Boys made, the truths within simultaneously enlightening and uncomfortable. There is hope, too, for the many strong Black male figures within its frames testify to the fact that survival and success are possible. The question asked, however, is why are both so much harder for Black boys than their white counterparts?
Densely packed with experts in systemic racism and people, from all ages and walks of life, who have experienced it, the film offers evidence and first-hand anecdotes to support its history of the dehumanization of the Black male body. It opens with a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage.” That sets the appropriate tone for the searing examination of the many ways in which our present-day world of continuing racism is rooted in the past. Perhaps most striking are the comparisons of today’s professional-football drafts to former slave auctions, the historic images of the old and the new juxtaposed to emphasize the similarities in treatment of human chattel in both situations. Many of the central interview subjects – including one who is also an executive producer of the film, Malcolm Jenkins – are themselves sports stars, so know of what they speak. In addition, they lament how for so many young Black males, the only perceived way out of dead-end situations created by a society determined to keep them down are via these kinds of outlets (sports, hip hop), where only a few can ever succeed, rather than through a more diverse array of professional choices.
The list of interview subjects is long, including The Atlantic‘s Jemele Hill, former NFL player (and current coach) Greg Scruggs, current NFL player Quan Cosby, ESPN and NPR’s Howard Bryant, NBA star Carmelo Anthony, Philadelphia school principal Sharif El-Mekki, the Emerson Collective’s Russlyn Ali, Equitable Schools’ Akiea Gross, Chicago poet and activist Malcolm London and UC Berkeley’s Dr. Harry Edwards, among a larger ensemble. They speak to their own trauma and resilience, their voices spread across sections labeled “Body,” “Mind,” “Voice” and “Heart.” Though the future can often look bleak, it’s heartening to see the strength of personality in many of the younger additional subjects in the movie, who hold great promise … if only they are allowed to keep it. Watching three adolescent boys discuss how they cried watching Disney’s Coco is a hallmark of one of the lighter passages, though the conversations usually wax more significant.
And though there remains the question, at the end, of whether someone like Lowman, a white woman, is the right director for such material, she is ably supported by Black producers (and an editor), so there is no doubt the work was made with ample input from the community represented. Ultimately, Black Boys showcases, with great sensitivity and respect, its onscreen subjects, allowing them to speak and be heard. Let us listen and learn.