(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.
Hurt acknowledged that some viewers thought — and still do — that he was attacking the institution of soul food. He said that there were critiques levied against him that the documentary was an indictment of a staple of the community. He argued, though, that his message is one of understanding and moderation. And while, yes, he does make this argument toward the latter part of the movie, it feels tacked on. The movie feels as if it's building to a crescendo in its case against soul food and then makes an abrupt left turn.
Experts, scholars and other pillars of the black community itself are peppered throughout the film; Dick Gregory, Michaela Angela Davis and others give context and perspective on the subject. Gregory explains that the soul food from his day is completely different from that of today. With homegrown animals and vegetables, the food — which wasn't exactly healthy even then — was at least lacking in the chemicals and hormones that our current food contains.
The conversation that Hurt desires to spark within the black community is valid, and one that's desperately needed. And while the film creates an amazing starting point, it leaves a little too much behind. Many topics are touched on — from historical facts such as the type of nutrition slaves needed, based on the calories they burned in the fields, to the effects of different types of food on the body — but needed to be presented in more detail.
While I strongly recommend that people see Soul Food Junkies, I'm actually more excited about the possibilities this film creates for future exploration of the topic. I'm excited about the young filmmakers who will see the space that Hurt has created and will desire to pick up the ball and keep running, examining in greater depth the health disparities within communities of color in America.
Soul Food Junkies is a love letter from a black son to his black father, with the backdrop of a discussion of black health and food justice. The documentary is less heady than some, but its more palatable presentation will hopefully engage, entertain and educate.
Soul Food Junkies will be screened on Thurs., Aug. 30, at 7 p.m. in New York City at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. There will be a live performance by Dead Prez and a panel that includes Sonia Sanchez, Marc Lamont Hill, Byron Hurt and others.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at TWIB.FM and subscribe on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.