“It’s not just a movie, it’s a movement.” Janks Morton’s What Black Men Think works hard to make good on its claim, first (in 2007) by assembling a remarkable line-up of interview subjects for the movie part. From Shelby Steele, Alvin Poussaint, and Armstrong Williams to Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, John McWhorter, and Earl Ofari Hutchinson, not to mention an actual activist, James Dupree Sr. The situation is dire, and it has to do not only with what black men think—about themselves, each other, and the world around them—abut also what other people think about black men, for instance, that there are more black men in jail than in college. Though, as Morton points out, numbers don’t bear out this myth, its persistence is pernicious, in particular with regard to expectations, the reinforcement of stereotypes that oppress individuals and communities as surely as economic and educational conditions. The film traces this “mental slavery” through US history, the many institutional steps taken after slavery, including the effects of 1935’s Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax (FICA), the 1965 Moynihan Report, and the War 1960s’ War on Poverty on black incomes and families, and the ways that seeming resistance—in the form of hiphop or “so-called” black leaders who fill all the space of mainstream airwaves—have encouraged ineffective responses to racism and injustice.
Indeed, the movie—which premieres on the Documentary Channel on 29 May—makes the case that ignorance, in too many forms, helps to sustain intractable systems of power and money, such that generations of black children are “mis-socialized,” trained to believe that detrimental behavior is resistance and that celebrity (sports, music, movies) is a means to success (for individuals, if not communities). Speakers including Michael Steele and high school principal Steve Perry cite Bill Cosby’s efforts to shake up angry or complacent young people and their parents too, urging self-reflection and self-education, not to mention challenging received wisdom of the sort doled out by popular culture, from Tupac (revered as a nearly religious icon) to Tyler Perry and Wesley Snipes (men dressing up as women is troubling) While the film offers helpful correctives to any number of myths (how many men are on the DL, how many men have multiple children out of wedlock, how many men are high school graduates), it’s alarming how relevant it seems still, five years after its release… and just a couple of months after the release of the movie version of Think Like a Man.