Directed by: Eli Steele
Documentary Film Review by: Jack Bottomley
Race is an issue that has persisted through human history and one that America is built upon in many ways. Many films, books and other artforms have addressed the violent, tragic and controversial conflicts stemming from racial tensions, prejudices and uneven positions of power over the generations. However, in filmmaker Eli Steele’s most refreshing documentary How Jack Became Black, we see the identity politics of race compellingly debated.
At the film’s core is Eli himself, a proud multi-racial individual, with a family history that is filled with the stories of the past injustices of racism and bigotry in human history, from his relatives who experienced the Jewish extermination camps of Nazi Germany, to parental figures that lived through the persecution of black people in the 1960s. This wide and interesting heritage makes up the fabric of his film, which touches on the hardship his family have faced in the past to highlight the need for change in the future. Steele constructs his gripping debate around his children Jack and June and how he had to fill out a form to get his son into education but found that his mixed race heritage was smoothened out, to aid a system that opts to define people in the broadest ways, ignoring entirely who they are as a person. This is the crux of a story that tackles how things change and yet stay the same.
Whether you agree or disagree with Steele’s individual stance on his subject, his film is passionately argued and compassionate at heart. Taking no side in recent political tensions where racial prejudice continues to be a hot topic (this is, after all, Trump’s America), Steele opts instead to speak of us as human beings rather than designated racial definitions and his film is illuminating, stimulating and a constantly thought provoking watch, which shatters the dogmatic system of turning race into box ticking.
Above: the official movie trailer for How Jack Became Black.
Steele interviews a wide range of people across America from a plethora of different backgrounds and never confronts or lectures, he only listens to their opinions. As he takes us on a journey that dissects racial history and modern American identity, we hear varied thoughts on a multitude of debates, including issues of white privilege, media construction and the perceptions of the political system and how race is used within it.
How Jack Became Black is a paradigm shift in how such important and heated issues are handled in documentary film, I can safely say that I was transfixed throughout by this fresh, understanding and heartfelt approach. There is no hate, no anger, only questions as Steele fully explores his subject. From fun well-animated sequences by J.M. Bartelt to the undercover cameras capturing a raw sense of America today, this documentary showcases a wide sense of human emotion and experience. The film reminded me of the work of Mark Cousins, in how analytical and poetically minded it was in its looks at race in the past, present and future.
The gentle narration by Justin Gordon, alongside Steele’s distinctive voice makes for an illuminating watch that is not too long or too short and which gives no easy answers just the viewpoints of people who are at the very heart of this subject and of a gentleman who has witnessed prejudice first hand and through the eyes of his family. How Jack Became Black leaves one with many questions and many thoughts on humanity and the films closing statement of a world where people cease asking, “What are you” and start inquiring ”Who are you” is one that lingers most strongly. Whatever your thoughts on may be, we can all agree that – in spite of the constantly changing rules of this often confusing world – things can and must get better.
An enlightening documentary from a truly powerful voice.