Black Men

Yesterday morning, we went to see Hidden Figures with our youngest daughters. It was great. If you have not seen it, do.

The biggest take-away that lingers for me is not tied to the theme of the film or the historical details that it speaks to, even though I am moved by those and carry those now that I have seen it. I have to say that my favorite thing about this movie is the way that the black men fit into this story.

All too often, black men show up on the screen as angry figures. I felt myself cringe a little as they started in on the stories of these women’s home lives because I thought that I saw how it would unfold. So many strong, black female roles are shaped, in part, by a raging/narrow-minded/lazy characature-of-a-husband. I get why that works. I know that helps to show the strength of the female character and often deepens the heart-string-tugging as she wrestles with injustice in and out of her home. I also know, as with most art, there are some truths reflected in the way that black men are portrayed. This becomes problematic because it is too pervasive of a characterization. The lens that is framed on the black man in movies and on television is far too often framing them as negative characters. That lens builds a narrative. For folks who don’t encounter many black men in their personal lives, media is the place that fills in the blanks about them. Take a minute to look at these photos and see if they are the sorts of images that are in your head when you picture black men. As yourself if these are the sorts of images that you get on the news, in movies, in adds, etc. I can tell you that they were hard to come up with from a google search….it would have been a lot easier to find pictures that fit our cultural stereotypes.

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Lots has been written about the ways that the news has ill-informed the public from their unbalanced coverage of crime. Most of us have been exposed to the idea that they paint an unfair picture for us about our black neighbors in the choices that they make for news coverage. I am not talking about that right now…even though it is important.

I want to talk about the power of hollywood and the ways that they confirm that distorted vision of the black male.

I was all ready for the women of Hidden Figures to have to fight for respect at home in the same ways that they had to do that at work. I cringed at the thought of it. I don’t want to take away from the story of these remarkable women, but I do want to spend time lifting up their male supporting actors.

I am so grateful that we saw real, supportive, hardworking, dedicated, sensitive, caring, intelligent, kind, committed black men husbanding/fathering in this film. I am thrilled that they were some of the ‘hidden figures’ in the telling of this story. I am overjoyed to have these men on the big screen for all of us to see and to have our stereotypes challenged by.

So many people that I know, do not know black men. They don’t have them at their dinner tables, in their pews at church, on their boards of directors, as their doctors or lawyers, in their fantasy football teams, at their golf clubs, at their little-league sidelines, in their bible studies, at their bowling lanes….they just don’t know any black men. Truthfully. Not one. When you have no personal experience with a group of people, the blanks are filled in from other sources. Media is the primary way the holes of no-direct-experience are filled.

This happens to all of us!  For example, I have never been to the Great Wall of China….never…not once. But I can pull up a pretty clear image of it in my head. I can describe it to you. I can talk about what it looks like, what the area around it is like, etc. I have only put that story together from media-input: pictures, movies, articles, documentaries, on and on. I would probably assert that I have a pretty firm grasp on what that wall is like. I would speak with some confidence if I was asked about it. That is precisely what I am talking about!

Ask yourself, how many black men to you really know…I mean really…like you would invite them to your kid’s concert. You would stop in at their house if you were in the neighborhood. You would call them to share tickets that you just got from work for a play. You would automatically have them included on your surprise-birthday-party-list that your spouce was planning. You have their number in your cell-phone under favorites. Your family has met them.

I am going to bet that most people who read my stuff will have a really hard time coming up with even one black man that they could say fits into any of those scenarios. They are your Great Wall of China. You don’t know them but you think you know them. You have had enough input from media to have what you would call a pretty clear picture of them in your head. You would probably feel pretty comfortable talking about them and drawing assumptions about them. That is problematic…or it can be…if the media is portraying a skewed view of them…which I would assert that they are.

So…you can see why I was worried when I sat down to watch Hidden Figures. I knew that a wide slice of the population, in particular the white-american population, was going to sit in front of this movie. That gives the storyteller some real power. Minds are being shaped. Images are being imprinted. Blanks are being filled in.

Thankfully, these men were real guys. They were the fathers that we know. They were the lovers that we know. They were the neighbors that we know. They were not sources of film-conflict. They were not points of dramatic-tension. They were not foils to their women’s virtuous characters. They were just normal, loving, supportive, flipping-the-pancakes-on-a-Sunday-morning kind of men. We need more of that. We need it.

If you have not seen this movie yet, I definitely recommend it. Go for the story of these remarkable women who’s contribution has been muffled through years of prejudice and white-leaning historical accounts. Go to broaden your understanding of just who has built this country and how hard they had to work to offer their needed and specialized skills. Do that for sure! Take your kids, your friends, your neighbors…You will be glad you did.

While you are there, please just notice the black men who share the screen. Ask yourself it they match the images you have in your head. Notice. Take it in. Let it effect you.