“I would define the ‘black man’ in today’s society as…unvalued.” ~ Derwin Payton
“A black man is defined these days as…it’s kind of…in a limbo…” ~ Colin Cody
What is it like to be a young, black male in America today? What struggles will a young black man face that his brothers of a lighter color most likely will not? How do we advance as a society if we continue to judge people based on shallow and superficial precepts such as the color of their skin? How do we change these things for the better?
From an outstanding Ole Miss alumnus named Mike Fant, Jr. comes another great addition to the Southern Documentaries Project—the brilliant and poignant short film The Black Definition. Fant holds a double major from the University of Mississippi—a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a B.A. in Theater. Now working as a film editor at the Birmingham, Alabama, NBC affiliate WVTM, Fant has thus far created an impressive portfolio of thought-provoking short documentary films exploring the reality of life for ethnic groups and the struggles they face in today’s society because of their ethnicity.
Selected to show in the category of “Mississippi Narrative” at the Thirteenth Annual Oxford Film Festival, this film takes the viewer on a journey exploring the definition of “blackness” through the eyes of those who know it best—seven young black males attending the University of Mississippi—each providing an inside look into their own respective views and life experiences. These bright and insightful young men bravely share their personal stories and feelings, painting a portrait of a life that is sometimes shocking and sometimes heartbreaking, but always filled with sincerity and hope.
As Fant guides us through these individual perspectives, we are periodically reminded of the stigmas and stereotypes that have been traditionally associated with “blackness” in America. Fant’s deft use of artistic imagery aids in framing the context of the subject matter, solidly proving the point that in the not-so-distant past it was not only completely socially acceptable to treat black people in America as second-class citizens, it was the norm—and even sometimes considered to be high entertainment. Clips from the early days of film displaying glaring cases of racial stereotyping are placed strategically throughout The Black Definition—reminding the viewer that racism was and still is a very real thing, and that these images prove that the masses can easily be taught to believe and accept negative, erroneous and hateful stereotypes defining a group of people based purely on conjecture and false assumptions.
According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture published January 1, 2000, the “Minstrel Show” was the, “…first indigenous form of American pop culture… [which had] a profound impact on nineteenth-century Americans.” These shows featured white actors dressed in “blackface,” their faces crudely slathered with black grease paint, putting on performances that created a mockery of the entire black race—solidifying and perpetuating false stereotypes for generations to come.
Once thought to be an outrageously comedic act and wildly popular from the early 1800’s to the late fifties, this offensive form of theater was deemed socially acceptable in America for most of its existence. The popularity of this negative stereotyping included even the famous author Mark Twain, who in 1907 wrote the following musing in his autobiography, Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review: “If I could have the nigger show back again … I should have but little further use for opera.”
So embedded in the culture of racism was the art of blackface comedy, the very term “Jim Crow” finds its origins there. “Jim Crow” was the stage name of the man attributed to creating the blackface genre—a white American actor named Thomas D. Rice. It is said that around 1830 “…[Rice] saw an elderly black man performing a strange dance while singing ‘Weel about and turn around and do jus so;/Ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.’ He copied the dance, borrowed the man’s clothes, blacked up and soon launched a successful tour in New York City with an act that included his new ‘Jim Crow’ dance…,” as reported in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. The book goes on to add, “…[t]he blackface minstrel stands alongside the Yankee (indepen-dent [sic], patriotic, and honest) and the backwoodsman (such as the uneducated and robust Davy Crockett) as early expressions of American identity, in defiance of European aristocracy.”
“Jim Crow” laws were in effect beginning in 1890 (officially enforced in that year with the Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Fergesun, but unofficially in existence yet and openly enforced well after the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution) until 1954, when the landmark decision of Brown vs. The Board of Education was handed down by the Supreme Court, abolishing Jim Crow laws and paving the way for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally made it illegal in America to be discriminated against based upon race, color, sexual orientation, disability, national birth origin, religion (creed), or age. Here we see strong proof of the power of art and its ability to effectively influence and effectuate perceptions that become generally accepted and held to be true by society —in this case, beliefs shaped solely on the basis of erroneous, vast generalizations and falsehoods imposed upon the black race—no matter how ludicrous or harmful these falsehoods may be.
The theme of “definition” is depicted both figuratively and literally throughout The Black Definition, periodically displayed onscreen as images of words that tend to recur when discussing the idea of “blackness” in today’s society—appropriately appearing onscreen in traditional Dictionary style. Words such as “stereotype,” “police brutality,” “stigma,” “progression”–all of these images juxtaposed with clips from movies of days past where stereotyping black people was not only the accepted norm, it was considered one of the most entertaining forms of humor.
The irony Fant creates is palpable, and shocking to the modern viewer—as well it should be—achieving its desired effect as Fant weaves these images artfully among the individual personal testimonies to produce a film that accurately reveals an honest look into what it means—and how it feels—to be a young, black male in America today.
We are shown a scene from the 1951 film Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, featuring “Cotton Watts”—a white actor from the era of black and white films who performed in blackface—presenting demeaning, stereotypical depictions of black people as a comedy act. His character displays a naive stupidity—this lazy, subjugated black man being mockingly domineered and humiliated by a blonde-headed white woman, “Chick,” who belittles the black-faced character to roaring crowds of laughter.
There are also animated film clips from the same era depicting a plump, placidly compliant version of the “Aunt Jemima” stereotype—washing babies in buckets to a catchy tune, do-rag and all; the farm-hand chowing down goofily on a watermelon—stereotypes applied openly and unapologetically to black people in America’s recent past and seemingly with complete social acceptance. We are also shown actual footage of police brutality in action and to its fullest extent…with both instances ultimately ending in the death of a young black male—neither of which was resisting arrest, both being arrested on mere suspicion of non-violent crimes strictly because they fit a broad description, and both cut down by police officers exhibiting unnecessarily excessive force.
Have we forgotten how easily these harmful and false stereotypes were accepted and spread, and the harm created as a result of them? Does there still exist an “unspoken” truth about racism in America…that it is still a major problem affecting a large majority of the American population in an extremely negative way? Are we still excusing, forgiving or just plain ignoring the bad behavior of racist people committing racially-motivated acts right out in the open and allowing them to get away with it, when we should be striving to root out all instances of this type of behavior and eradicate it once and for all?
I spoke with Mike Fant, Jr., about this very important and brilliant film and why he felt it necessary to create The Black Definition:
SS: What was your main motivation behind making The Black Definition?
MF: My main motivation was being a young black man in America. The feelings and emotions these men are expressing in the film are things I sympathize with; I feel these emotions on a daily basis. Also, seeing how the mainstream media portrays black men is the reason why I felt this film should set the record straight and shed light on the truth.
SS: Do you feel that we (in Mississippi) are going through a revolutionary period in our way of thinking when it comes to race?
MF: Mississippi is a place known for tradition, and young Mississippians are breaking that. There are some Mississippi millennials who are okay with the condition of the state, but some want change; they want to live in a state where race relations are strengthened… they want to live in a place where hatred and oppression are a thing of the past. I truly applaud the students at the University of Mississippi for wanting change and taking action and doing something about these issues…such as the removal of the confederate flag… and actually taking a stand for diversity, and diversity not just being something on an Ole Miss pamphlet.
SS: The flag campaign being led by students at the University is just one example of the recent grass-roots activism seen on the Ole Miss campus. Why do you think this is happening now?
MF: I don’t know why it’s happening now. I mean, the students have always had it in them to want change…to do something about it and to see that change reflected. But I am glad that they saw a problem and stood up and did something about it. I find that remarkable and truly amazing; it exhibits how the University is changing and the students being admitted are on this new wave of change and acceptance in Mississippi, in the South and in this country. I just hope it doesn’t stop with the flag campaign.
SS: Opening a dialogue concerning these issues seems to be a main theme of The Black Definition. Is it safe to assume that this film is sending America the message that the young African-American male does not feel like he is understood in this country, and that his voice is still not heard?
MF: Yes, I feel that young black men are very misunderstood, because most peoples’ opinion of black men is skewed. The only view America really gets of black men are what they see on T.V. or hear on the radio, and most of the time those examples are very wrong. We’re all different, and see the world differently; that’s the main point of the film—seeing young black men in a new light.
Please visit Mike Fant, Jr.’s Portfolio on Vimeo to see more examples of his brilliant, important and socially conscious short films.
The Black Definition is showing at the Malco Theater on Jackson Avenue in Oxford, on Friday, February 19 at 5:15 p.m., and on Sunday, February 21 at 1:00 p.m. See you there!
For the full schedule of all films showing at this year’s festival, please visit the Oxford Film Festival’s Official Film Schedule here.
Suanne Strider is a writer, editor, photographer, promoter and paralegal from Tallahatchie County, in the Mississippi Delta. She also serves as a booking agent and philanthropist. Suanne lives in Oxford and has three beautiful children–daughter Mimi (the oldest); and Drake and Jess, who are twins (Drake being older by one minute). She may be contacted at email@example.com.