In 2010, when I set out to launch a national storytelling project that would employ the talents of our best and brightest Black male media makers, I envisioned a program that would extol the lesser-known virtues of men of African descent that are often ignored in mainstream media. That vision had to do with, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison, dismantling the shadow from the act.
Back in 1949, in a film critique of Birth of a Nation and Intruder in the Dust, Ellison observed that "in the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action, but illusion." Even then, Ellison knew that attacking Hollywood for negative portrayals of black folks would be a waste of time, because ultimately, the entertainment industry was not the creator of societal myths in the media. They were (are) the manipulators of these myths, the mass producers of distorted, carnival mirrors upon our society.
Last month, we announced the winning candidates who now are the class of 2012 Game Changers Fellows. Our focus remains to "catalyze a new generation of activist storytellers" who will re-frame the perceptions and portrayals of black males in the media but our game plan has become more offensive than defensive, more about the art of the story, the unique perspective of the individual versus the any attempt at broad definitions of black success. That is, we are more concerned with storytelling that unveils our full, unfettered humanity rather than reacting to negative media stereotypes.
I will resist the temptation here to recite a laundry list of negative statistics about portrayals of black males in the media or cite recent Nielson media research or list by name (and thereby give credence to) any current television shows, Hollywood films, or web-based media that continues to perpetuate negative beliefs about black men.
I am no longer concerned with providing a "counter-narrative" to prevailing biases in the media. A media stacked with squeaky clean, overwhelmingly positive stories about black men is not an accurate reflection either (although it might offer some temporary emotional relief from the onslaught) and won’t serve our purposes. I believe the route to a truly accurate and balanced media lies in unveiling the full spectrum of who we are as black men and boys. Herein lies the power of the unrestricted story.
Are ultimately redemptive or “positive” stories completely free of their share of contradictions or ugliness? Nope. Will the characters we profile be free of controversy? Unlikely. But the Game Changer brand of storytelling, whether in micro-documentary form, multi-part webisodes, or narrative, will be about telling universal stories of resiliency, truth, and rarely seen beauty. We will discover a "higher narrative" about black males in America.
True game changers cannot be categorized, branded, or marketed solely on their own merits. Who they are – is truly indivisible. Were Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X merely civil rights leaders? Were they not fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, preachers, hustlers, convicts, writers, scholars, etc.? Are their contributions limited to a single social movement or do their lives continue to find resonance with each new generation? Like all true game changers, they thought differently and represented ideas that were slightly ahead of their time.
Do you know black men who are working in relative obscurity but who get up each and every day and defy all expectations? Do you know brothers who are lifting as they climb? Do you know men who are shaking up the established order, charging the wall of current social, political, spiritual, cultural, economic convention? If they are part of a larger cause or an organization that is committed to societal good, they’re likely game changers. Some of the characters we will cover in 2012 may be celebrated public figures, celebrities, or professional athletes. But most likely, they will be lesser-known community leaders working to make a difference.
In cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, we’ll cover stories and organizations that lift up more inspiring reflections of black men and boys. But our intent in this second year is to really focus our lens on the compelling characters who never fail to rise despite the circumstances they’re up against.
Here are a few stories we’re working on: a formerly homeless teen who writes a widely-acclaimed novel; a pastor who puts a new twist on civil rights-style “sit-in protest” to stop the violence in his community; a formerly incarcerated man who built a successful business; a legendary hip hop artist who advocates for the homeless; an iconic Olympic champion who advocates for young black men; a group of single black fathers responsibly raising their children despite enormous obstacles; a group of black male mentors reforming high school education from the inside out; and many more.
By partnering with community-based organizations in specific cities across the country to produce socially-relevant short films, we hope to become a part of a larger movement in America to re-imagine brighter futures for black men and boys, and in doing so, add our little light toward what we know is an inevitable "tipping point" that will reveal new insight about who we really are.