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In 'Hoodwinked,' Laurel filmmaker challenges statistics on black men

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On Capitol Hill, in African-American churches and at historically black colleges and universities, people are talking about a documentary film that challenges negative reports and statistics regarding blacks, especially black men.

"Hoodwinked," produced by former Laurel resident Janks Morton, debuted in fall 2012 during the Congressional Black Caucus' annual legislative weekend, and is now being shown at special screenings around the country. Earlier this month, Janks moved from Laurel to Atlanta with his family.

The 87-minute documentary explores recent data released by numerous federal agencies that emphasize African-American achievements. In addition, "Hoodwinked" includes interviews with noted African-American scholars, researchers, authors and activists, who support Morton's contention that the results of many studies that focus on various aspects of black life are inaccurate.

"People think less of African Americans due to images and reports in the media, and I have taken on this topic to show that the data doesn't match up to what's real," Morton said.

For example, he said, "Because of some reports, most people think 50 percent of African-American men drop out of high school, when it's only 12.1 percent. According to the (U.S.) Department of Education, the (overall) dropout rate for African-American men in 2010 was 9.5 percent."

In the film, Morton and others point out that U.S. Census figures show that nearly 84 percent of African-American men over 18 years old have high school diplomas or GEDs. They said much lower numbers are reported sometimes by various organizations and researchers due to how the numbers are calculated.

"The graduation rate for African American men is usually reported for those who graduate within a four-year period. Many African-American males repeat grades and graduate a year (or more) later, but that's not factored into the graduation rates," he said.

The film highlights several studies Morton and other researchers challenge, such as a well-publicized 2002 Justice Policy Institute report, "Cellblocks or Classrooms?," which concluded that more black men were in jail (791,600) than in college (603,032). Morton refutes the report in "Hoodwinked." He said one flaw is that JPI used only college enrollment figures for African-American men for one semester instead of the whole year.

"The U.S. Census and other federal agencies said that more than 1.2 million African (American) men were in college then and (more than) 700,000 were in jail," Morton said at the premiere of the film during the CBC conference. "Today, more than 1.4 million are in college and about 830,000 are incarcerated."

JPI officials issued a press release when the film debuted this fall, standing by their report. However, the release did state that only partial enrollment figures for African Americans were used in the report and one-day statistics for incarcerations.

Negative effect

In addition to being a filmmaker and founder of the iYAGO Entertainment Group, Morton is an author and teaches film at the Richard Wright Public Charter School in Washington. He started the national, non-profit organization Men to Boys in 2009, which reconnects fathers with sons, and mentors and mentees. He also lectures, is a motivational speaker and frequently gives keynote addresses at colleges, prisons and conferences worldwide.

Morton said African Americans needed a film like "Hoodwinked," a sequel to his 2007 documentary film, "What Black Men Think," because he believes there are too many negative reports produced on a regular basis that are adversely affecting African Americans, especially the younger generation.

"You are what you eat. In (newspaper) headlines they're saying in 32 years, a third of you will go to jail," Morton said in "Hoodwinked. "The focus needs to be on the positive because this constant bombardment of negative information is reflected in African American's sense of self," he said later in the interview."

That assertion is reflected in "Hoodwinked" when Morton asked black students at Bowie State and Howard University to name a positive stereotype about African Americans. Some of the students looked into the camera blankly for several seconds while trying to think of a response while others gave answers that proved Janks' point.

"There aren't any positive stereotypes about black people," one student said in the film. "I have to think about it and that's pretty sad," another said. "Blacks are athletic, yeah, we can jump high, run fast," two male students added after mulling over the question for a couple of minutes.

When "Hoodwinked" was shown at Baltimore City Community College, many African-American students said they were embarrassed by the responses of students in the film. Business administration major Jamil Shabazz agreed with Janks' premise that negative reports and portrayals of Africans Americans in the media are having a detrimental effect on some blacks.

"I believe if you are shown something all the time, unconsciously, you will pick up on it," Shabazz said. "If you're told you're not intelligent, you won't achieve anything, if you are weak-minded, you'll eventually believe that if you don't have positive reinforcement."

Challenging inaccurate statistics

Janks, 49, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but he's lived in Prince George's County most of his life. His family moved to Palmer Park when he was 6 years old, and he graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt. When his family moved to Arizona, he attended college for three years at Arizona State, but when the family moved back to Prince George's County, he came back with them and graduated from Bowie State.

"I moved to Laurel after I got married because it was central to everything with a lower cost of living," Morton said.

Morton moved to Atlanta in January after his wife got a new job there. He's continuing to work on film projects and hopes to find a position in the new film department at Morehouse in Atlanta, once his tour of "Hoodwinked" ends.

"I'll have viewings of the film in Wichita, Philadelphia, Chicago, at the Silver Spring film festival, Bowie State, Sioux City, Iowa and lots of other places," Morton said. "I'll be on tour with "Hoodwinked" for 21 days in February before ending the tour the first week of April."

Morton said he hopes "Hoodwinked" will alert people that some studies that reveal negative information about African Americans are inaccurate and should be challenged.

"The overall message of "Hoodwinked" is to say things are not as bad as you would believe. There are millions of African Americans who are hard-working and pursuing excellence, especially men in the 18 to 25 age range, who are making phenomenal strides," Morton said. "Too often we start from black inadequacies and inferiority and expand that to denigrate the entire group of black people. So the next time you hear data, check it out closely for yourself."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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