Eli Steele’s new documentary takes a position on identity politics you won’t find in most films.
And he’s pretty sure that’s working against him.
“People in the film business are afraid of it,” says Steele. ”I’m challenging the narrative at the table. It’s pissing people off.”
“I Am, or How Jack Became Black” lets the filmmaker use his own biography to explore the impact racial politics are having on the nation. It’s a fair but withering look at a system that puts the emphasis on ethnicity, not the content of one’s character.
And Steele should know. He’s part black, part Jewish and deaf. His two children also have Latina ancestry from his ex-wife.
The film opens with Steele trying to figure out which box, or boxes, to check on his children’s school forms. Sound easy? Not so fast. How should he identify his own mixed-race children? And why can’t he simply opt out and let them simply be … Jack and June?
It’s a starting point for a serious, and seriously personal, examination of race in America. The documentary follows Steele, who wrote, produced and directed the film, as he explores the ways identity politics shape our culture.
It’s hardly what you might find at Salon.com or The Huffington Post. It’s also a far cry from your average Michael Moore movie. Steele doesn’t preach to the choir here. He has a point of view, but he also talks with those who disagree with his statements. Case in point: a lengthy segment of the film finds him interviewing attendees at a White Privilege gathering.
No one is mocked along the way.
He says being multi-racial gives him a contextual advantage. He’s used to considering a variety of cultures … and opinions … on any given issue.
Identity Politics, The Movie
Steele had “I Am” in mind for a couple of years, gathering interviews to help flesh out the narrative.
Something was missing.
“I have a bunch of talking heads, but I would not watch this,” he confesses. That’s when he got directly involved in the narrative. Doing so “exposes you politically and personally,” he says. The subject matter meant a great deal to him, so he pushed forward.
FAST FACT: Eli Steele’s 2005 film “What’s Bugging Seth” won the Best Feature Film award at the Empire Film Festival as well as the Fargo Film Festival.
The aforementioned school forms sequence wasn’t supposed to get a role in the film. Reality intruded all the same. He was used to being asked, “what are you more of?” given his multi-racial makeup. He didn’t anticipate the question coming from his local schools.
“That was a shock to me,” he says, suggesting school footage that didn’t make the film was even more “absurd and hilarious.”
Trayvon Martin, Revisited
One of the film’s longest sequences involves the death of Trayvon Martin. The Florida teen killed by George Zimmerman following a scuffle riveted the nation. It also found reporters inventing new phrases to enhance the identity politics in play.
Enter White Hispanic.
Steele spent more than two weeks in Florida following the case. It gave him his first peek at a media circus in action. It wasn’t pretty, and that doesn’t count for the Florida humidity baking the region.
If It Bleeds, It Leads
The media exploited the tragedy, he says, turning a complicated case into another white vs. black narrative. Meanwhile, he kept asking a question few seemed to care about. “How is this making America better?”
Meanwhile, once the verdict in the case hit the press the media essentially scattered.
“Nobody was interested in staying. The community was back on its own, and the media got what it wanted,” he says.
Steele’s film doesn’t pull punches regarding race relations. Sections recall the country’s unequal past as well as more recent example of racism. His family tree offers proof of societal inequities.
You might think shooting “I Am” would leave Steele embittered about the state of American culture. Not even close.
“It made me much more positive, gave me more faith in the people,” he says. The strangers he met during the filmmaking journey proved more open-minded and fair than those showcased in press reports.
“The media goes for the lowest common denominator,” he says.
Paging the Rev. Al Sharpton
Steele isn’t so optimistic that identity politics will go the way of the 8-track tape.
“Racism will never go away … that’s part of the human condition,” he says. “What makes today different … is that people make a living off of it. That’s a huge issue. Once you make a living off of race, what’s your motivation for it to go away?”