What could be simpler than taking your child to register at a new school? Well, if you are the parent of a child from a third generation, multi-racial family, it might not be simple at all. For documentary filmmaker Eli Steele, it turned into the impetus to create I Am or How Jack Became Black, the winner of the Anthem Film Festival Best Libertarian Ideals Documentary Feature and Audience Choice Documentary Feature awards. The Anthem Film Festival, part of FreedomFest a libertarian political and financial conference, features liberty oriented films from around the world.
Steele’s film challenges current thinking and vested interests regarding America’s attitudes about race. After the film, Steele, his father Shelby Steele, author, columnist, television personality Deneen Borelli, and Anthem Film Festival director Jo Ann Skousen discussed the film.
What Are You?
The film begins with Steele attempting to register his son Jack for school. The school insisted that one of the standardized check boxes for race be selected. Steele felt that none of these applied to Jack since his grandparents and parents were both mixed race couples. There was no choice for “mixed” or “decline to state”. The school’s insistence that Steele declares his son one of the officially designated races led to the question, “Why?”
Steele’s kids, Jack and June, share an ancestry which includes Holocaust survivors, a descendant of original Mormon settler and a Mexican immigrant, and a son of slaves and a daughter of the American revolution.
Answering “Why” and “How has America become so obsessed with race?” sets Steele off on a wide-ranging investigation of many aspects of American history, identity politics, race relations and media manipulation. He talks with and interviews people from different parts of the country interspersing the one-on-ones with news clips and historical footage to create a documentary which is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally touching.
Who Are We?
After the screening, the panel shared observations on the film and answered questions from the audience.
Eli’s father Shelby got giggles from the audience when he said, “I’m proud of my son. I’ve seen this film sixteen times now. There are a few remarks about our family I’d like to edit, but I guess I’ll have to live with it.”
Then Shelby got serious: “America has had the horrible legacy of racism which turned people into objects, objectified them and kept them there no matter what. We admitted the horrible wrong of that, but now we put people into boxes and objectify them all over again.”
Eli pointed out, “Black, white and Hispanic in South Central LA have the same problems. The black person in South Central does not have the same problems as a black person in Beverly Hills. If I tell you I’m black, what does that really tell you?”
Deneen Borelli concurred and pointed out the importance of being an individual. “We need to allow individuals to prove themselves because skin color does not reveal what a person’s skills are. By proving who they are, then you really get at what the person is. People ask me, ‘How did you become conservative and what experience got you to where you are today?’ Thank God, I got on the right path. It’s about what you do for yourself. Your character speaks volumes about you. Be yourself and don’t follow the crowd. If I had followed the crowd, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
The panel agreed that part of the desire to put people into boxes was to control them and manipulate them politically.
Jo Ann Skousen, who when not running Anthem is an educator and writer, shared that she has been teaching about Langston Hughes for a long time. Hughes was a black American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. But, in the last three years, she has run into problems. “My white students,” she said, “have told me I don’t have a right to teach Langston Hughes.”
Shelby Steele commented, “Part of this is that the boxes are a spoils system. I’m a black man, so I’m moving you out so I can get the money for teaching this class. The black leadership has developed this spoils system to take advantage of people like you.” He added, “You know who would be most upset by that? Langston Hughes.”
Borelli praised the film. “We’ve been through a range of emotions. We need to get past the propaganda about race.” She said she thought this film would help reach people. “I feel hopeful that we can have an impact if we remember this line from Gladiator. ‘Win the crowd and you win your freedom.’”
I Am, or How Jack Became Black is available in a variety of ways, including purchase, streaming, fundraisers, or academic licensing. For ease of use in the classroom, it is divided into chapters such as politics, Travon Martin, and media and race. More information is available on the film’s website.
The trailer is linked below.
(Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)