Is There Mac-and-Cheese Rehab?

Byron Hurt's film Soul Food Junkies encourages blacks to eat cultural delicacies in moderation.

(The Root) — “Slave food.” I’ve referred that way many times to the genre of cuisine known as soul food without examining the deeper implications of the phrase. It’s a passing thought that many of my friends and I have had as we describe black-American cultural food staples like fried chicken, pork ribs and collard greens.

As these foods have become synonymous with the black community, so have illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. I’ve had friends jokingly say, “Time for some high blood pressure!” as we set out on a mission to grab some slow-cooked pork with a side of macaroni and cheese. We all have an inkling that this “slave food” may not be very good for us, but we partake anyway — and at times in massive portions. This very idea is what’s at the core of Byron Hurt‘s new documentary, Soul Food Junkies.

After Hurt’s father, an avid lover and indulger of soul food, passed away at the age of 63, the director decided to examine this legendary food genre and its effect on the black community. The director’s relationship with his father acts as the thread that weaves through Hurt’s journey of discovery. With tinges of Food, Inc., Super Size Me and other food-exploration documentaries, Soul Food Junkies distinguishes itself through its black perspective and focus on black American life.

The story behind the making of Soul Food Junkies is an interesting one. After the Beyond Beats and Rhymes director embarked on making the film, his funding — $100,000 — was pulled while the project was incomplete. Instead of shelving the film, Hurt and his team turned to Kickstarter — the popular fund-raising crowdsourcing platform — to raise $25,000. After they raised more than $30,000 the project moved forward, and the completed film will be broadcast on PBS in January 2013.

As someone who has often critiqued media and their representation of black people and blackness as a whole, I found it comforting to see a story such as this told by blacks through the lens of blackness while still having universal appeal.

“My intention,” Hurt explained at a Q&A session after the screening of the documentary for his Kickstarter backers, “is to have all of us walk away from this film thinking a little more critically about what we put on our plate; thinking a little more critically about the food we have access or do not have access to in our communities; and thinking about more ways that we can be more aware and more critical about our food environment — what’s out there, what we’re consuming – [so we can] start [making] connections about the people that we see in our neighborhoods and people in our families that may be struggling with nutritional-related diseases.”

Hurt’s loss of his father casts a long shadow over the documentary. The film attempts to celebrate the history and love of soul food within the black community, but it feels as if it’s creating a thesis to blame the food for the health ills within black America.