Film captures life lessons

The Baltimore Sun

Brandon Whitney straightened his tie, cleared his throat and looked straight into the camera's lens.

"You should know how to do a budget, save, and give some away," said Whitney, a 27-year-old graduate student. "You should know when to have a child, and when not to."

Behind the camera, Janks Morton murmured, "That's good, that's good."

Morton, the director of the documentary Men II Boys, which he began shooting yesterday at Bluford Drew Jemison Science Technology Engineering Math Academy in East Baltimore, was looking for just that kind of advice as he asked dozens of African-American men, one after the other, for shards of wisdom that might improve their collective standing in society.

It was all very well, Morton said during a break, to wax eloquent about larger philosophical goals such as equality, integrity and responsibility, but what many black men need is practical "nuts and bolts" advice about living smart.

"I need to hear how to shake a hand," he said. "What about passing physics?"

LaMarr Darnell Shields agreed. Addressing a group of prospective interviewees in a hallway at the school, he said black men need to know how to fill out an application form, use a screwdriver and repair a flat tire on a bicycle.

Shields, co-founder of the Urban Leadership Institute in Baltimore and author of the book 101 Things Every Boy of Color Should Know - set for release in February and the inspiration for Morton's documentary - said that one of the most crucial rules should be "not to use your race as an excuse to fail."

Many parents - and especially fathers - in the African-American community fall short, Shields said, in teaching their sons not only values such as commitment and ambition but everyday skills that will make them feel useful and productive. "If someone didn't get it right for you," he said, "this is your opportunity to get it right for somebody else."

Each man sitting before Shields held a sheet of paper bearing the headline, "To become a man you should ..." followed by several blank lines that the men were encouraged to fill in. Once in front of the camera, the responses became the basis for Morton's interviews.

Despite Shields' advice, some of the men still tended to speak in abstractions. "You should know how to tap the power within," said Tchaka Sapp, 45, founder of the Athletic Leadership Institute in Washington. In the same vein, 29-year-old Jesmond Riggins, a second-year law student at Rutgers University, advised knowing "how to invoke strength in times of weakness" and, more concretely, being able to "defuse tense or even dangerous situations."

Then Henry Franklin Beard III walked in. A man of girth and gravity, he carried under one arm his 3-year-old son, Hank, to whom he clearly intended to bequeath his no-nonsense attitude toward life.

"He should always be able to talk to me about any issues - drugs, sex, education, fighting," Beard said to the camera as his son, sitting on his lap, toyed with his dad's graying goatee.

Beard, a 49-year-old computer engineer, said he would teach his son respect for others, for himself and for women. He had learned the value of respect from his own mother, Beard said, even though, as he acknowledged, he saw her "shoot at my dad a couple of times when I was a kid."

"We have too many issues with crime, with poverty," Beard went on. "It's easy to choose the wrong avenue."

Beard's answer appeared to encapsulate Morton's driving theme in the documentary, a project that came together in just over a week, after Shields had sought Morton's help in promoting the book.

Morton, an Upper Marlboro resident and music producer who last year directed the documentary What Black Men Think, cited a 69.7 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate among African-Americans as well as a divorce rate of more than 50 percent as primary causes of a dearth of "father-to-son interaction" in the black community.

Yesterday, Morton intended to use the short preliminary interviews as a casting session for longer narratives from about 20 of the men. Once chosen, their stories will frame the documentary, which will be cut to 42 minutes for - it is hoped - a television network. Morton said he might get everything he needs from the Baltimore sessions; if he does not, he will film more conversations in Washington, Philadelphia and perhaps New York.

One of Morton's producers, Anthony Truitt, suggested that many of his fellow blacks appeared to have become inured to the crime around them and the destruction of their communities. "If you drive through certain parts of Baltimore or Detroit, they look like war zones," he said. "Where's the outrage?"

In response, Charles Randolph, who works for a Falls Church, Va., company that provides translators in Iraq, said black communities have "lost morality."

"That really hurts us, from the elementary schools on up," he said. "You can't blame it all on rap."

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