FabAfriq Magazine

Filmmaker Eli Steele On His New Documentary “How Jack Became Black” And Multi-Racial Issues In America

Born to a Jewish mother and a black father in 1974, Mr. Steele grew up in San Jose, California, in the United States, to where his parents moved as a result of his father’s new job at San Jose State University. Shortly after the move and right before his first birthday, it was discovered that Mr. Steele was born profoundly deaf. Thanks to a new program, Project IDEA, designed to train deaf children in the auditory method, he learned how to hear and speak. Mr. Steele was mainstreamed into classes with normal hearing children starting in first grade all the way through high school. He went on to graduate with a degree in English from Claremont McKenna College and later earned a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Pepperdine University. Today, Mr. Steele lives in Los Angeles, California, in the US, and works on various aspects of the film business. The recent births of Jack and June, the third multiracial generation in filmmaker Eli Steele’s family, coincided with a startling projection: by the year 2050, at least 20% of all Americans will self-identify as two or more races. What will this fate mean to a nation that has been tormented by race throughout its history?

Steele's belief in America’s promise of holding on to his individuality over being reduced to skin color was shaken when his son was denied entrance to a public school for refusing to name his "primary race." Why did race still matter so much? Had identity politics, with its promise of redeeming America from the old ethos of white supremacy, delivered us to a new racial order where skin color, once again, trumped character? To answer these questions, Steele journeyed out into the America of today. He interviewed countless Americans of two or more races and explored racial controversies in the headlines from the George Zimmerman trial to a conference on white privilege. Steele used undercover cameras and blunt man--on--the--street interviews to achieve an unvarnished look at race in America from the perspective of a man with no allegiance to a single tribe. In an explicit interview with FabAfriq Magazine’s Amabo Samyra, Eli Steele discusses his childhood, growing up as a deaf multi-racial boy, the future of young multi-racial children in America and above all his eye opening award winning documentary “How Jack Became Black”


FabAfriq Magazine: If you were to describe yourself in four words, what will they be?

Eli Steele: Gut-feeling. Persistent, Inquisitive. American.

FabAfriq Magazine: Why film? What drives you to tell diverse stories through the camera lens?

Eli Steele: I came to film through a unique experience. I was born profoundly deaf and whenever my parents took me to the movies it was torture since I could not understand what was being said. When I was about 13, my parents came to me excitedly and told me that a foreign film had come to town and it had subtitles. That film was “My Life as a Dog,” and for the first time I found myself laughing along with the audience. At that “late” age, I finally understood the power of film and how combining words with images could create powerful moments. I left the theater knowing that I wanted to make films as a career.

Years later, when I came upon the idea for “How Jack Became Black,” I knew that it could only be told through camera lens. Race is often written about or discussed in the abstract or without evidence. I could have wrote a book but I knew that if I could figure out how to capture race on camera those images combined with words would create a powerful effect. I believe this is what gives “How Jack Became Black” its undeniable viewpoint.


FabAfriq Magazine: Tell us about growing up as a deaf child with a black father and a Jewish mother? What did you have to learn about being different and how did that shape your life going forward? 

Eli Steele: There is no question that being born deaf and to an interracial couple in the 1970s marked me as an outsider. My parents were outsiders, too. My father grew up on Chicago’s segregated South Side and marched in Civil Rights protests in his youth. My mother was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and was a rebel to want to break out of the narrow Jewish commenting and embrace all that America had to offer. Both of them knew intimately what it meant to be outsiders and they stepped even further to the outside when they inter racially married in 1967.

So, when I got into fights nearly every week at my elementary school just for being deaf, I had two powerful role models at home. I knew that what my parents and ancestors went through was far greater than what I would ever endure as a deaf person. This gift of perspective allowed me to gain strength over my situation. This, in turn, gave me the strength to develop my sense of individuality. Others may see me only for my deafness, but I knew that was only one part of me and that I was far more than that. This perspective also influenced how I saw my racial heritage. Where I come from is an indelible part of me, but it is not the sum of who I am. To this day, I remain very much on the outside and if it were not for this outlook on life I would have never had the perspective needed to make “How Jack Became Black.”


FabAfriq Magazine: How Jack became Black is a documentary sparked up by your personal experience at your son’s Jack school. What does societal racial emphasis like this mean for the younger multi-racial generation?

Eli Steele: I think it is scary that we are emphasizing race at such a young age. It wasn’t this bad when I was a kid. Who in their right mind would think it right or justifiable to deny my son, Jack, his education for an unchecked race box? Why was his Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in America, willing to violate the California Constitution guaranteeing a child a free education at its public schools by denying him enrollment for an unchecked race box? Why was race more important and what does that teach our children that our government views us this way?

To complicate things further, why did the Los Angeles Unified School District ask us for Jack’s “Primary Race?” (There was no multiracial or check all that apply box.) Jack is black, Hispanic, Jewish, white, and Native American — what is his “Primary Race?” And what is his “Secondary Race?” Why make him choose his mother’s side over his father’s side or vice versa? It is important to keep in mind that young Jack sees his family as one and is loved by all its members who are of every shade. He values all parts of his heritage equally. Why would his school go against all of this and force him into one race box, an act that tells us virtually nothing about Jack? Isn’t this a step backwards?
  

FabAfriq Magazine: Why the title “How Jack became Black” 

Eli Steele: I was not willing to deny Jack his education so I marked “Black” as his “Primary Race.” It is my investigation into why this happened that forms the backbone for the documentary.


FabAfriq Magazine: It took five years, 200 interviews, several trips across the US and one trip abroad to complete principal photography for this documentary. Is it safe to say this is your hardest work yet?

Eli Steele: It is safe to say that. I operated on my gut-feeling the whole time. As a multiracial, I have often had to walk alone. I always questioned why my decision to embrace my full racial heritage gave the forces behind identity politics issues — why did they always want to put me into one box? Wasn’t my identity a symbol of progress, in a way? When my kids were born and when I saw that identity politics was becoming more entrenched, I knew I would have to go out into larger America and try to seek the answers to the many questions that had long bothered me. That is the reason why “How Jack Became Black” took so long — I had to cut out my own trail so I could show larger America what I’ve been through and, hopefully, give them a better understanding of what is going on today.


FabAfriq Magazine: It is a more common phenomenon for racial issues to be aligned with the black race. Your documentary opens up to other races and multi-racial people caught in the middle of societal stereotypes as well. In your opinion, why has racial focus been on the black race for so long?

Eli Steele: This is a great and complex question. I do know that one part of this issue lies in the one drop of black blood rule, which marked anyone with one drop of black blood as white. This is a rule created by White Supremacy and served as its backbone. If I had been born in 1940, I would have been marked by my government as black. Today, we still feel the effects of this rule. For example, I am often asked if I am ashamed of my black race because I identify as all of who I am. I am also asked if I pass for white. My response is to tell my questioner to really listen to what I am saying, which is that I am black and Jewish. I’m not denying anything or passing for anything. I am stating what I am. And by saying this, I am very aware that I am also saying something else: I refuse to be defined by the one drop of black blood rule. Why would I give this manmade, white supremacists’ construct any power over my life? If I did, wouldn’t I be betraying what my people fought for in the Civil Rights movement? More importantly, why would you, the reader, allow this construct to inform your judgement of me and not my individuality?


FabAfriq Magazine: What will happen to America if individuality and not race was at the forefront of who a person is or what they should be?

Eli Steele: Being born in America comes with the promise of individuality. It is a promise because it is largely up to us what we do with our lives. However, we now live in America where identity politics has become more entrenched than ever. We put politics before our individuality. We put our race before our individuality. This blinds us to one another. This separates us from one another. Most of all, this keeps us locked in race boxes and from the honest debates that is needed to achieve true and lasting justice. What power does all of this division serve? It is certainly not benefitting the most needy. After all, if identity politics derives its power from race, then what incentive does it have to move beyond race? Many of the Civil Rights leaders were right that we had to move beyond race — this does not mean to erase race, but to make it into one of the variables — to address inequities in our society. This was naïveté. They knew what it meant to be seen as only a race for centuries — what would they think of our backward slide into putting race before our individuality? Many people in my family have made tremendous progress since segregation and their stories are often told in the spirit of the individual triumphing over great odds. These Americans believed that strengthening the individual was key to a better society because the more an individual develops himself or herself, the more he or she can help others around them.

Social media links of the film ''How Jack Became Black''

Website: www.HowJackBecameBlack.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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