Boys to Men: 5 Films Exploring Black Masculinity
In response to Black Lives Matter, I wanted to do a series of posts giving examples of Black people on screen that either play characters that can act as positive role models — or are in films with life lessons for the up and coming Black male youth.
As a Black man in Britain, or the West in general, I seldom see positive portrayals of Black men on screen. In addition, there are few films I have watched that depict people that look like me with the dignity we deserve, often falling into the negative stereotypes the white elite made for us. This is talked to about in Orientalism by the late Professor Edward Said in relation to the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Yet, over 40 years after the book was released, it feels like his arguments have not aged a day. Moreover, they can also be stretched to include all peoples and cultures that do not fit into the comfortable box of white English-speaking privilege.
Whilst many of the dominant figures I had growing up were women, my father and grandfathers in my life lived in a way that rejected stereotypes of Black men abandoning their children. They are still self-sacrificing individuals.
At thirteen, my late auntie introduced me to rap group NWA, who themselves were stereotyped as “gangsters” because of the way they dressed and the historic stereotypes tying young Black males to criminality. This is also shown through disproportionate stop and searches against Black people, in addition to the tasering of Black men, and how 41% of inmates in youth offenders coming from Black and other minority backgrounds (Lammy, 2017) and that has now increased to 51% since Tottenham MP David Lammy did his review.
Here are examples that challenge how society sees Black men —not as: thugs, killers, rapists, criminals a threat to all that is good in the world — but as human beings that do and enjoy the same things as white men; and sometimes, we don’t even have to talk about race to validate our existence in society.
The Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes (2019), Rt. Honourable David Lammy MP
I don’t bring your attention to this film for the incredibly thought-provoking content but because of its presenter, MP David Lammy. When people go about recognising good films to me, seldom am I recommended documentaries. David Lammy’s The Unremembered seeks to raise awareness on the inclusion and recognition of Black soldiers during World War One (1914 to 1918). Documentaries have a place in the conversations when we talk about anti-racist film and TV. They are ever so important when we talk about decolonising the camera and filmmaking. This film shows us a side to World War One that escapes national memory because British history has been whitewashed. MP David Lammy opens up a narrative so rife in racism, no one with conscience could deny it. Though, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission tried to, and very loudly. Indeed.
I also want to highlight a depiction of Black men that isn’t shouted about loudly enough. David Lammy MP: clearly educated and passionate about what he does, as he’s been an MP for the place that he grew up for 20 years, replacing the legendary Bernie Grant at his death. What drew me to Lammy first off, was his passion and relentless fight for victims of the hostile environment, which resulted in The Windrush Scandal coming into fruition in the prologue of 2018. Moreover, the great work he did with The Lammy Review (2017) — his investigation into racial disparities in UK prisons.
The documentary aside, this is a man that is clearly passionate about what he does, and he’s always suited and booted. That is not something I am accustomed to seeing in Black men in popular memory (other than in photos of the Windrush). When we think about Black masculinity in film and in life, it is often one that comes with stereotypes of violence. Not a man that is racially-abused online (daily) and still comes out on top. Through his fight for the Windrush and his work in the criminal justice system with the Lammy Review, I think he is an excellent role model for the Black youth to aspire to.
Availability: All 4 (On Demand)
Moonlight (2017), Dir. Barry Jenkins
Whilst this film is has negative tropes against Black people, what I also took from Moonlight is how the world forces Black males in certain societies to rely on violence to express themselves. It’s a prime example of gender performance. This film is about the life of Chiron through the three stages of his life. He’s “semi-adopted” by a well-intentioned Teresa (the epic Janelle Monáe) and Juan (Mahershala Ali). As he gets older, he becomes more isolated, experiencing all levels of abuse from his mother (Naomi Harris), and classmates, who say his dress-sense denotes homosexuality. Chiron responds with a performative masculinity in order to fit into Black, straight norms.
Throughout this film, predominantly, Black maleness is unflinchingly aggressive… and even a violent sliding scale of ambiguous emotional performance of what is acceptable among the Black youth of Chiron’s school colleagues. With Kevin, Chiron explores the exceptions to the rule that “he must perform his masculinity” — and to “fit in”, Kevin derogates women using misogynistic language, I assume to hide his gay identity from his classmates. In this expoloration of gender via a wonderful colour palet, this is one of the most beautiful films ever made. We are pushed to confront the gender and sexuality politics of Chiron enjoying dance lessons, admiring himself in the mirror as he dances — inviting viewers to examine body language and movement, and the political implications of that.
Above all, this film is about Black people; and by Black I don’t mean me (see my profile picture), I mean dark-skinned people. That’s also worth talking about. Whilst we know Chiron is gay, we are told to assume the others are straight. Which begs the question: can we know someone is gay by their looks? It allows discourse on unconscious bias and the challenges of living in a heteronormative society, forcing us to examine our own bias in the process.
Availability: Amazon Prime (Rent)
Boyz n the Hood (1991), Dir. John Singleton
It’s ironic that I bring in this film, as I was named for the character Tre. Whilst, like Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, many of the young characters embody gender performance, (just in different ways), the character I want to focus on here is Jason (Laurence Fishburne). From asking vengeful Tre for the gun to talking to him about unprotected sex, he is a great example of the spectrum of Black fatherhood. Above all, it’s the sequence on gentrification that stayed with me. Fishburne as Jason is not only an embodiment of Black fathers running amock the white stereotypes that Black men abandon their children, but he also shows the power of Black intellect.
This idea that Black people are dumb runs back to the days of Old Hollywood with actors like Willie Best, where “Black inferiority” was entwined with “the lack of intellect” — which was also a concept used to justify The Slave Trade.
With the characters Willie Best played you begin to see how stereotypes become stereotypes. These images of Black people didn’t start in cinema but film is propaganda and they go all around the world. Characters such as Jason Styles in Boyz n the Hood and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) in The Great Debaters contradict stereotypes perpetuated by the white establishment, including the hypersexualisation of Black women that donned them as prostitutes (for example) — very much tied into “misogynoir” (Bailey, 2010).
When you realise that Willie Best in these films is playing a character that white writers wrote for people like him, the penny drops. White directors directed the Willie Bests of that world to act like that just like how white directors and white board executives only wanted to make blaxploitation films. These images not only emasculates Black men, but also tell the world there is only certain types of Black people — illiterate basketball players, slaves, criminals — without the space to express all facets of their humanity.
To Sir, with Love (1967), Dir. James Clavell
It was only after I went to university it dawned on me the importance of Black teachers in education as role models to Black students. This was a privilege I did not have as a youth growing up in Britain, very much reflected in the deficit of Black and brown teachers in the British school system. Universities follow suit in the lack of representation of their workforce. It goes to the very top. Sidney Poitier in this film is playing a schoolteacher. His race has very little to do with his character but it is because of his race that I think the Black youth coming up now need to engage with this film, including university students. To me, who was once a Black boy, Mark Thackeray is a foreign language.
Sidney Poitier is famous for playing positive, empowering roles and Mark Thackeray is also symbolic of what Black men can represent in popular media and memory, something that runs contrary to stereotypes of the “mental inferiority” of the Black race, especially Black men.
Watching To Sir, with Love makes me think about how all teachers could be if they were given more freedom in what they taught; not plumping students up for exams but setting them up for life. More positively, it draws my memory to supplementary school initiatives. The way Mark Thackeray teaches more about life than curriculum takes me back to my time at Saturday School where I could ask Black teachers about life, including life while Black.
Availability: DVD, Amazon (Rent)
Fire in Babylon (2011), Dir. Stevan Riley
Stevan Riley’s British documentary film Fire in Babylon is the true-to-life story of how the West Indies cricket team (1974–1995) rose above their colonial masters through becoming one of the greatest sporting teams in the history of team sports. In the unsettling era of apartheid in South Africa, race riots in England and civil unrest in the Caribbean, the West Indies led by the softly spoken Clive Lloyd, and Viv Richards, dealt a critical blow at the white world, defeating racism on the field of play. For anyone looking to understand more about Black politics as well as the cultural and sociopolitical context of the game during the 1970s and 1980s, this is a must watch.
What gets me the most is how these islands have their own politics and disagreements with each other and within this team they united in spite of that. The islands have many different attitudes towards different things. Yet, they stood together under the banner of the West Indies cricket team. Watching this documentary, you see educated, intellectual Black men talking about the politics and history of the game they love, which they devoted their lives to, truly embodying in name and in act… anti-racist activism.