In The Loop With: Documentary Filmmaker Janks Morton
An activist and social critic takes to the big screen to challenge commonly held beliefs about the black experience.
Pop quiz! Are there more black men in (a) prison or (b) college? Be careful how you answer that question, especially if the person asking is independent documentary filmmaker, Janks Morton.
(I'll give you a hint. The answer is: college.)
If you picked A -- like an anticipated majority of readers --Morton, 49, might attribute that to your having been "hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray" by the "lamestream media" regarding black culture. But Morton isn’t out to shame African Americans for the views they hold of their own racial group. His work is entirely a reflection of his aim to enlighten and educate, he stresses.
Churches, urban community center groups and college students make up the bulk of his audience. But it’s journalists and black pundits, often called on by cable news networks to talk about negative and misleading stereotypes regarding black achievement and social status, who he really hopes to reach (and teach) with his latest film, a follow up to his much-buzzed-about film, “What Black Men Think.”
We caught up with Morton to discuss “Hoodwinked,” his relatively new career as a social documentarian – having previously been a small record company executive and a medical field salesman, and why he thinks his timely message will fly over Steve Harvey's head.
Loop 21: What inspired your mission to debunk black stereotypes?
Janks Morton: He’s become a friend, but at the time [that I was inspired to do this work] I didn’t really know the dude. He just ticked me off. His name is Tim Alexander. He did a movie called “Diary of A Tired Black Man.” What the media does is take these frayed or fragmented representations of black male identity, throw it in your face enough to where you believe that it’s the normal social behaviors of black men. I’m absolutely invested in the uplift and elevation of black identity and reconciliation and restoration of black relationships.
See a trailer of "Hoodwinked" below:
Loop 21: In the most concise way you can, describe what 'Hoodwinked' is about and what people should take away from it?
JM: 'Hoodwinked' is the exploration of the symbiotic relationship between government, media and special interests, who are all invested in the degradation of black identity. There are entities that represent black imagery in a very negative way for profit.
Loop 21: In 'Hoodwinked,' you seemed to almost ambush some of the leading thinkers in the media about their perceptions of black males, black achievement, black culture and the black experience.
JM: I’ll take that I was challenging them on their beliefs, but I won’t take that I ambushed them. Steve Perry, Marc Lamont Hill and I are dear friends. What I did before the interviews is I sent them the data. I sent them the Ebony article [I was featured in]. I said, 'Look, I’m getting ready to shoot this movie. I want you in it because I need some thought leaders and we’re friends.' They agreed to contribute, but I know we’re all busy. And my perception was that, once we sat down, it was like, 'Dude, did you even read the article?' My data does not represent their perception of what the black experience is. They are invested in a lot of the more negative data points about black people. My perception was that they were not well versed in what I was attempting to do. It wasn’t an ambush. I’m not that 'shock and awe' kind of dude.
Loop 21: Wait, you mean you’re not the black version of the late Andrew Breitbart?
JM: I’m not Michael Moore either. I’ve had an interesting relationship with [leading black thinkers] over the years. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the extra letters behind my name? I don’t have enough credibility with those guys [laughs]. But I challenge anyone to validate, refute or discredit any of the numbers that I’ve put out there. I know that because what I’m talking about is controversial, the numbers have to be absolutely accurate. Someone is waiting to trip me up and discredit everything.
Loop 21: Seems like what you’re talking about here -- this exaggerated hype over negative statistics in black life -- may put some people out of work.
JM: I’m from around the way, so let me put it in the simplest terms: I’m not trying to mess with nobody’s money [laughs]! That’s not what I’m trying to do. What I am trying to accomplish is that we rethink what our focal points are in our advocacy. Right now, the big three focal points of black male advocacy are: the high school drop out rate, which I don’t agree with; the incarceration rate, which has flat-lined for the past few years; and 'fatherlessness,' a term which I hate.
Loop 21: What do you mean by that? Isn’t fatherlessness a problem in the black community?
JM: Most men do not walk away from their children’s lives. They are pushed away. There’s a difference. We’re not talking about the castigation and denigration of men. This is just a problem between adults. What I’m saying overall is that we’re missing the point. This conversation around where we need to put our efforts and where the funding needs to go, I think, needs to be refocused.
Loop 21: Tavis Smiley, Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey were called out in this film for peddling the information you are trying to debunk. Have you been able to get a response from them?
JM: One of the most amazing relationships that I have had has been with Roland Martin. He finally got it – just the simple question, “Are there more black men in jail than in college?” He thought it was jail at the time I asked him. He has just been a wonderful advocate on this film and on this issue over the past seven or eight months. This film was shot before that relationship with Roland, where you see me call out Tom, Tavis and Steve Harvey. I’d never done the Tom Joyner Morning Show until Roland Martin picked this up. [Roland’s show] aired on Sunday, I was on Tom’s show on Tuesday. That’s how quick it [got] picked up.
Loop 21: Do you hope to have that breakthrough with more African American figures in the media and what does that breakthrough look like?
JM: It’s an understanding that, in our conversations, we’ve got to be more guarded in how we release information and how we repeat information about black people in general. The other guys I haven’t heard from. I’ll probably never get a call from Steve Harvey because he’s just made too many mistakes with this. And I don’t hold him personally accountable for this stuff. I think it’s more a reflection of the producers and the people around him just reiterating what they’ve heard. I’ve really challenged the premise on his whole “Think Like A Man” franchise. I think it’s manipulative and it’s flawed. I think it appealed to this notion of the unavailability of black men and pandered to the single black women who are not armed with the proper evidence to understand what black relationships look like.
Loop 21: A good portion of 'Hoodwinked' includes man on the street interviews with students at historically black colleges (HBCUs). Was that deliberate?
JM: It wasn’t purposeful at the time. It was more convenience. I have real great relationships with the schools – Howard University, Bowie State University, where I graduated, and Sojourner-Douglass College. It was just easy for me to get all the clearances to come on campus with a camera. I wanted to show that this is a reflection of what our future leaders are thinking about black people right now. The section in the film, 'name a positive stereotype about black people,' was a heartbreaking segment for me to film and to edit. It was gut wrenching at times. I felt like I was drowning. I literally could not breath watching my people not being able to voice something positive about us.
Loop 21: Should there be stereotypes of black people, whether positive or negative? Are you saying that because these young people couldn’t name a positive stereotype about blacks, even if it would be as superficial as saying Hispanics are hard workers or Asians are smart, that it’s a problem?
JM: Stereotypes are dangerous, positive or negative. The only stereotype that you can say about black people is that they are… black. And that doesn’t even work all the time [laughs]! What I’m doing with that section of the film is saying, 'Stereotypes exist and I can’t do anything to put those things out of business.' I'm asking the students, 'What do you think about yourself?'
Loop 21: A lot of them said you caught them off guard. Did you ever get the impression that they were saying what they thought you wanted to hear?
JM: What you’re asking about is the Hawthorne effect – catering to what an authority figure is appealing you for. I get that. But, no. I don’t walk around in an FBI outfit and I don’t walk around in a doctor’s gown. I’m just a regular dude with a camera. I encourage people to duplicate what I did. Go to your barbershop and ask if there are more black men in jail or college. And then ask them to name a positive stereotype about black people. Outside of singing, dancing, running and jumping – which I don’t think are positives – what do you get? Nothing. Again, I’m not an ambush journalist. I am capturing what I believe is an authentic representation of [the] heart, mind and soul of a people at this turn of the 21st century.
Loop 21: Is it too late for them -- the students that you interviewed?
JM: My faith will not allow me to embrace that it’s too late. I just can’t. One of the things that I try to do is give them the answer to the question after I turn the camera off. I don’t leave them with nothing. And not just the answer, I’ll give them the evidence. I do that everywhere I go, from Applebee’s to the grocery store. With these young college kids, they’re still at a juncture where they’re still green. They’re absorbing everything. And they’re grateful because they’ve heard the negative all their lives. I’m like the only guy walking up to them and saying, 'You know what? Black people aren’t doing so bad.'