Lies, Damn Lies

In “Hoodwinked,” Janks Morton takes on popular, lucrative misrepepresentations of black struggle

It made your heart sink. From behind his washed and shaky camera, the man hitting the streets asked: “Are there more black men in jail, or in college?” That these black students answered “jail” nigh unanimously wasn’t nearly as distressing as the quickness, vigorousness, and even gleefulness in their replies. A girl cocked her head and pursed her lips, as if it were absurd to ask. One whole group belted out their response in throaty unison, the vowel sound in “jail” trailing downwards. Janks Morton—filmmaker, author, and activist-statistician—wove these single cases into one long sheet of suffocating, self-effacing quick-takes. He asked his interviewees to name one positive stereotype about black people. The command echoed off the movie screen for long minutes. Two populations of educated young individuals from Bowie and Howard Universities repeated his words, grasping for answers or outright disbelieving the task. (“I don’t understand what you’re saying!”)

Morton cut away from the footage to a caricature-ish impersonation of Florida Evans, a character from the sitcom Good Times. Grieving over her husband’s death, she throws a ceramic punchbowl to the floor. She swellingly cries, clenching her hands, tremulous and bloodcurdlingly pained, “Damn, damn—damn!”

“That’s where I lost it,” Morton said. He turned to the Evans motif as an easy point of entry into the sheer exasperation that informed his “Hoodwinked,” a ninety-minute documentary on the misrepresentation of black society in the news media. Shown at the DuSable Museum, the last stop in a tour of screenings and post-film Q&As with the director himself, “Hoodwinked” takes apart examples in skewed reporting on black statistical studies. Morton argues that a persistent program of number-juggling has produced an exploitatively lucrative state of African-American emergency. It comes at the expense of an entire race’s worth, dignity and self-image.

“There’s a game going on,” he announced to the audience after the film, “to keep you side-barred and distracted from your own greatness.” Morton found it incredible that after over nearly 27,000 hours of television consumed in a black student’s teenaged years, his interviewees could only cite “running, jumping, dancing, and singing” as a black man’s proficiencies. His assertion that “you are what you eat” hits home in an era of information bloat. He unpacks the numbers he claims African Americans have so dangerously internalized, attempting a message of uplift through numerical fact checking.

What’s the ratio of black women to men on a college campus? What percent of black boys drop out of high school? Do states really use elementary school test scores to predict the number of new jails to build? Are there more black men in jail today than previously enslaved? Morton defeats the anticipated answers in detail. He asserts the status quo with his field research and then assaults it with expert interviews and sampled snatches of his classroom lectures. He proclaims the absurdity of headlines drawn from these and other questions with farcically staged newsroom sequences.

These scenes themselves are particularly effective and particularly dark comedy. The woman reporter, huffingly, takes off her hoop earrings as her male counterpart on-camera announces new findings on black women and obesity. We titter at her frantic arm flying into the shot, slamming down hasty and assumedly obscene notes in front of him. Yet as she gives the new numbers on the black male’s graduation, incarceration, and recidivism rates, it becomes grimly clear he has the shorter stick. His broodingly doubtful face sets the stakes.

“Your mismanagement leads to your division, and your division leads to their profit!” Morton insists. Within the film, his own blackboard sallies against the spreadsheet are particularly passionate. As he leans into a battle, his speech becomes reassuringly short, no-nonsense, and indignant. “So I’mma pull my numbers!” he says, his arm slashing out to point at the new slide. His candor is heartening. “I like the DoE! I’mma like these data sets!” They consider a full year of school, he says. But look at how the Justice Policy Institute tries to compare a full year of incarceration to a single Fall term! Look at how they determine the dropout rate! (“I’ve even talked to principals who don’t know the difference between graduation and dropout rate.”) Take four kids entering the 9th grade. One high-tails it the next year, the only one of the students to actually drop out. The other transfers to a different school the following. But if you only consider the number of kids remaining in that four-student cohort at graduation time, you obtain something much more much more sensational and marketable. “I’m a real estate agent who points out the crack in the wall and convinces you that this is the Grand Canyon,” Morton says. “And sells you the bridge!”

One of Morton’s contributors, Dr. Ivory Toldson, confesses the temptation to overstate the problems in black America whenever he’s writing a new grant proposal. “We need to take control of our own research,” he says. ‘Hoodwinked’ becomes a step in that direction. Less a film than a manifesto, Morton doesn’t camouflage his heavy-handed rhetorical approach. Scenes of a radio station airing and discussing his artist’s statement read as synecdoche for a grander plan to appropriate multiple modes of transmission and get this message out. “I’ve sat on this for five years,” Morton tells his students in the film, “but that game’s over.”

When the lights had risen and the Q&A had heated up, the audience rapidly resolved that they needed his scholarship in their classrooms and barbershops. Morton hurriedly clarified that he’d be leaving Illinois soon. “I’m not in Chicago—” “It’s our job!” a lone voice shouted, cutting him off. Morton paused and smiled. “Yeah,” he nodded, “I’ll take that.”

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