‘Black Boys’ Dir. Sonia Lowman On The Urgency Of Racial Justice & Documentary Being A Vehicle For Change

Still image from BLACK BOYS

With 2020 bringing conversations about systemic racial injustice to the forefront of America’s collective consciousness in a very startling way, in light of the heinous murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there has never been a more urgent time to get off the sidelines and start paying attention.

As activists, organizations and movements have been sounding the alarm for decades, allies everywhere have been finding ways to get educated, listen, learn and join those who are leading the way for change. Film and TV has become an especially prescient learning tool, given the increased amount of time we are spending at home watching our screens due to Pandemic lockdowns and quarantine periods.

With a plethora of media focusing on Black Lives Matter available to help viewers get familiar with important history, a film we are excited to highlight and to have watched ourselves is BLACK BOYS, by director Sonia Lowman, available now on NBC Universal’s Peacock TV. Deeply moving, profoundly beautiful, BLACK BOYS illuminates and celebrates the full humanity of Black men and boys in America. It is a love story exploring body, mind, voice, and heart through intimate, intergenerational conversations and stories.

At the intersection of education, criminal justice and sports, BLACK BOYS reveals the emotional landscape of racism—of how it feels to walk through the world seen as something to be feared. Filmmaker Sonia Lowman follows Greg Scruggs, a two-time Super Bowl champion and young father who recently returned to his hometown of Cincinnati to impress upon young Black athletes the importance of education first, as well as Sharif El Mekki, a principal at a nearly all Black charter school in West Philadelphia.

Also lending their stories and insights are key activists in their respective fields: Super Bowl Champion Malcolm Jenkins, who also serves as executive producer on the project; rapper Vic Mensa, NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, NFL Hall of Fame inductee Cris Carter, Super Bowl champion Chris Long, award-winning sports journalist Jemele Hill Key, and former U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. John King.  

We had an opportunity to speak with Sonia Lowman, whose past work includes ‘Teach Us All’, a feature-length documentary and national social justice campaign on educational inequality and school segregation in the U.S., which was picked up by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Now company and available on Netflix. Read below to learn more about what Sonia had to say about BLACK BOYS:

Director Sonia Lowman (L) interviewing poet, organizer, and educator Malcolm London (R). Image via the BLACK BOYS Facebook Page.

How are you feeling about the release of ‘Black Boys’ in light of what the country (and the world) is currently reckoning with in terms of systemic racism? 

For us, the urgency of BLACK BOYS has always been there—it’s why we poured our hearts and souls into making this film. But we’re certainly grateful that, with the support of Peacock, the film is being released at such a historical moment in our nation’s history—and hopeful that there will be more receptivity now among audiences to the film’s messages of love, healing and unity. 

What are you hoping audiences will learn about black men and boys through the lives of football champion Greg Scruggs and teacher Sharif El Mekki?

We hope that audiences will recognize and celebrate the full humanity of Black men and boys by seeing them as more than bodies to profit from, or something to be feared—and instead deeply appreciating their minds, voices and hearts. 

There is a powerful quote in the film from Conan Harris, “they’re not looking for saviors, they’re looking for believers”. What would you say this means in the context of the film and what we see happening across the country right now?

Being a savior perpetuates white privilege by assuming a power advantage that’s built on a lie. In truth, there’s nothing wrong with Black boys—what’s wrong is the racism that has marginalized, demonized and dehumanized them. Being a believer means that you recognize the inherent beauty and potential of Black boys and become an active co-creator in building a world that affords them limitless possibilities and a true sense of belonging. 

Still image from BLACK BOYS

How has your work through this film, as well as ‘Teach Us All’ informed you personally as a filmmaker and an individual about what black men and boys face in America on a daily basis?

Making both “Black Boys” and “Teach Us All” gave me the opportunity to confront my own biases, fears, and social conditioning as a white woman in America. Simultaneously, it was a privilege to listen deeply as Black men and boys shared their nuanced perspectives and raw emotions. For me, one of the biggest tragedies of racism is how the burden of responsibility has been shifted onto Black men and boys to make white people feel comfortable—how they have to walk through the world seen as something to be feared for no other reason than the color of their skin.

This is a heavy weight to carry. If we as white Americans could take responsibility for de-conditioning our own fears and discomforts, while listening more deeply to the experiences of Black Americans (and ALL Americans), we would begin to build bridges in our deeply fractured society—and this would lead us towards a more equitable, just and loving country. 

What are some key conversations you are hoping audiences will have after watching ‘Black Boys’? 

Because racism is so deeply embedded in this country in both visible and invisible ways, we are all contributing to it, even if unconsciously and unwillingly. In one of my favorite lines from the film, Shawn Dove says, “It’s not Black boys who need to change or be responsible for changing this nation. This nation needs to hold the mirror up and do that changing.” My hope is that everyone who sees this film will hold up that mirror and ask themselves how they are participating in racism—and how they can instead be part of the healing and unifying this country desperately needs.  

Do you have plans to have any impact screenings or panel conversations once the film is released? And can you share any info about these?

We will absolutely have impact screenings and panel conversations, starting with some film festivals in the fall. We encourage anyone who wants to hold a screening to contact us through www.blackboysfilm.com. We also highly encourage watch parties in this time of social distancing—we can still have critical, consciousness social justice shifting conversations, even virtually! 

Still image from BLACK BOYS

What were some of the stories that personally impacted you the most in the making of this film, and why? 

Early in the making of the film, I consulted with an elderly Black man who has been fighting for racial justice his whole life, since growing up under Jim Crow in the south. He told me, “We who fought in the Civil Rights Movement took it for granted that those who came after us would automatically benefit from the gains. As a result, we lost two to three generations of Black men. Now we’re fighting for the babies being born.” This stuck with me throughout the film, reminding me of the urgency—for the boys and men who were lost; for the babies being born. I bookended the film with a father and his two-year-old son as a reminder: babies are taught who they are and who they can become by the world they are born in to—and it’s all of our responsibility to change that world for the better. 

How do you hope filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking, can play a role in shaping the future of this country especially for vulnerable populations like young black men and women?

When it comes to educational equity, criminal justice reform, healthcare access and many more urgent social issues in this country, the policy solutions are not rocket science. What’s lacking is the political will and the sustained demand for change. My hope is that filmmaking can contribute to a collective, undeniable demand for change by humanizing and personalizing the stories of those who need it most and connecting all of us to our shared humanity. 

There are many conversations about bodily autonomy in terms of politics and reproductive rights. But what does it mean for the Black men and boys in your film? 

In making this film, I was very conscious of the parallels between Black men/boys and women of all colors. Black men and boys are often reduced to their bodies—whether their bodies are being exploited for white entertainment and profit, or whether their lives are being devalued through police brutality and mass incarceration. This lack of bodily autonomy and integrity is an attack on their humanity—something that every woman knows intimately due to the pervasiveness of sexual violence and the precariousness of reproductive rights. 

You can watch ‘Black Boys’ on NBC Universal’s Peacock TV, streaming now.