By Emily J. Weitz
Janks Morton is a man with a mission. A self-described social and political activist, he uses film as his medium to get through to the public. Through iYago Entertainment Group, he has produced a number of films about the African-American experience that hold a single theme at heart: the restoration of a family.
“The films fall into different lanes,” says Morton, “but they track that central theme. ‘Dear Daddy,’ for example, looks at young women with fractured relationships with their fathers, and how it affects them. ‘Hoodwinked’ is about stereotypes and myths.”
“Hoodwinked” is the most recent film from Morton, and he’ll be sharing it this weekend at the new Parrish Art Museum as part of the 7th annual Black Film Festival sponsored by the African American Museum of the East End. It’s a documentary film in which he interviews people on the streets about their perceptions of African-American males and juxtaposes them with interviews with leading social experts as a way of dispelling the misinformation so pervasive in the media.
“There are so many myths and stereotypes that affect the African American community,” says Morton. “A lot of this misinformation comes from mediums like film. So what better way to counteract that than by meeting people in the same space?”
For example, Morton approaches people in public and asks a question, like “Are there more black men between 18 and 24 in jail or in college?” The answer is college — but 19 out of 20 people on the street will say “jail,” says the filmmaker.
“Then I ask an expert to affirm or refute the messages from the street,” says Morton. “A psychologist will talk about the consequences of that perception.”
Morton’s central argument is that if people knew the truth about their groups and their own identities, they would change their expectations for themselves.
“If I told you that your group has the highest SAT scores,” Morton says, “that drives expectations.”
The reverse, unfortunately, is also true — which is why Morton hopes to set the record straight in the movie.
“These great and powerful sets of data are highlighted in the film,” Morton says. “I would wager to say the average American has no idea of the great strides being made by the 18 to 24-year-old African American. If you listen to the average media personality, 18 to 24 is supposed to be the most at-risk group. But it’s not true.”
Morton attributes many of these fallacies to the media’s attraction towards the negative, and towards catastrophe.
“The social challenges are elevated and highlighted through advocacy that hyper-saturates our identity,” he says.
Morton has looked at data sets since 2000, and since that time, there have never been more black men in jail than in college. It was 4 to 1, college to jail, back then. Now, it is 4.79 to 1 in the 18 to 24 range. Of course it’s not an ideal statistic, but Morton believes that credit should be given where credit is due.
It is this kind of affirmation of cultural values that the Black Film Festival looks to achieve. Brenda Simmons, who organizes the festival, raised her children in Southampton and felt she had to go elsewhere to give them a taste of their own culture.
“I had to take them to Harlem and to Brooklyn to expose them to our culture,” Simmons says. “I wondered, ‘Why couldn’t we do this here?’ Plus, I think it’s good for all the community. Not just the African American community. When it comes to our history, we have a rich history and it’s great for everyone to share it.”
The 7th annual Black Film Festival, sponsored by the African American Museum of the East End, is an all day event on Saturday, November 17, beginning at 12:30 p.m. with “Raising Izzie.” Five films addressing a range of themes and styles will be screened through the course of the day at the new Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill).
“We like to get a family film, a classic, a couple of shorts, and a feature film,” says Simmons. The cost is $20 for an all-day pass, and “Hoodwinked” will be the final film of the evening, screening at 7:15 p.m. followed by a conversation with Janks Morton at 8 p.m. This is the third year Morton will take part in the festival, and he noted that he really enjoys coming to the East End to share his work.
“I have a nice niche with documentary filmmaking,” Morton says. “There isn’t much production out there along these lines. This gives me a chance to highlight something I care about, and to see it shine a little more brightly.”