Rosalee, 18, is the first person in her family to go to college. Carter, 16, was adopted by two gay men at age 10, a veteran of foster care. Ansheera, called “Ace,” 17, identifies as “gender-queer” and is confronting the anguish of her faith-focused family. Morgan, 19, comes from affluence and attends a Midwest university. Sheldon, 20, has been in prison, fathered a child and works at a community-based nonprofit organization.
Slices of American youth? You bet. Every day, all five of these young folks wake up black, as Mary Morten’s penetrating documentary, Woke Up Black, tells us.
In the space of roughly an hour, Morten’s film offers illuminating and often surprising portraits of each subject, but she never condescends to overtly pull at our heartstrings. You can sense that Morten values her unique and deep access to the lives of these five, but she just as palpably values the coin of the documentarian-objectivity-and so allows each subject to influence us directly.
And subtly, for at the same time, Woke Up Black underscores the fact that no documentary is purely objective; what is seen in the film, as opposed to what must have remained on cutting-room floor, certainly speaks volumes about Morten’s soul, tastes, sensibilities and viewpoints.
This paradox produces a lot of beauty. Take, for example, Sheldon’s trip through the American judicial system. Rather than listen to him (or anyone else who appears in his section of the film) prattle on about young African-American men represent an alarmingly disproportionate percentage of our national incarcerations, the very fact of it is treated as a given, as something understood, statistically routine-which is why it starts to creep under our skin. Watching the Sheldon segment, you start to ask yourself: Why is this so? Why do we accept such a state of affairs? Watching a scene in which Sheldon learns what he must do to expunge his record, we are forced, albeit subtly, to come to grips with just how much of this young man’s life has been inexorably shaped by socioeconomic forces, by classicism and racism, that white people cannot conceive. Having been forced into a zone of uncomfortable thinking, we fathom the gracefully understated power of Morten’s film.
Sheldon’s story arrives relatively late in Woke Up Black, and it serves as back-to-reality shock therapy after such sunnier profiles as the one of Morgan, a serene, confident, poised young woman who transcends, without proclaiming it, yet another paradox: being upwardly mobile and black. By ordering the subjects as she does, Morten proves keenly calculating.
Take a look at this clip:
And now, five questions Mary Morten has never been asked-and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why are you here?” While in preproduction for this film and interviewing perilously housed youth from a drop-in program in New Orleans, a staff person asked why I would pick this location, this time — essentially, why did I care about what these young people thought or felt. That experience reinforced why it was so important to make this film.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
In this world of never-ending reality TV someone asked, “Do you orchestrate or ‘make up’ any of the footage in the film?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
People have asked if I have a “favorite” subject in the film. Often they think it is Morgan, asking if I identify with her more than others and saying that her story is the longest. The reality is that no one subject’s story is longer than another, and I identify with each person in the film in different ways. My connection to each of them is distinct.
4) What criteria or process did you use to find the five subjects for the film and was there ever a moment in which you questioned whether you’d get the footage you need? Similarly, which subject was easiest to work with and most forthcoming personally? Which subject required more delicacy or creativity to work with?
We found all the subjects through some type of referral or connection with youth-development programs. We wanted to touch on a broad range of backgrounds, life circumstances and family types to address this idea that black youth are monolithic. It is also not about vilifying the young people who are not like the five in Woke Up Black; it’s about acknowledging the systems that institutionalize and perpetuate a racist, classist system that puts people of color, and in particular black youth, at a disadvantage.
I had difficulty getting footage from the City Colleges of Chicago administration to follow Sheldon. We successfully made connections at three other large universities, but could not crack the code at city colleges. When we eventually were granted access it was just too late for the production schedule.
It took an entire year to get the interview with Ace’s parents. We knew we had to hear from them, but there was great reservation from Ace for quite some time. Once she agreed that we could interview her parents, it took several more months to actually conduct the interview.
5) As a documentarian, we understand your responsibility is to present subjects as you find them. Still, being a documentarian doesn’t mean you’re no longer a person, a woman, or African American. Were you ever tempted to engage subjects in discourse, on- or off-camera, where you had a viewpoint that differed from the one being filmed? (We’re thinking specifically of Ace’s story.)
When interviewing Ace’s parents, it was extremely difficult to listen to their comments about her and what being gay meant to them. However, in my role as the director, I kept my personal feelings out of the conversation. We have a lot more footage from their interview but felt it was completely unnecessary to have them repeat the same points over and over again.
6) Woke Up Black — your title — prompts us to pose a hypothetical situation. Let’s say you found an ancient lamp, rubbed it and a genie materialized. The genie gives you two choices: tomorrow morning, you can determine that all white people wake up black, or, tomorrow morning, you can determine that all black people wake up white. Which do you choose? (If “neither,” what is your reaction to the question?)
I would make all the white people black. It would be lovely to be part of the majority population. I’m also a big believer in walking in some one else’s shoes. Nothing like it. White people could learn a lot.