Camden, N.J. is one of those small, forgotten American cities that never makes national news but needs to. For a city its size—just under 80,000 mostly black and Latino residents jammed into nine square miles—Camden consistently ranks first or second in the United States for homicides and overall violent crime. Perhaps that’s why it’s the first place that the 10-film series, ”Little Brother” chose in 2010 to start asking black boys ages 9 to 13 about love. On shoot day, the camera crew got attacked. But they continued anyway and viewers of the resulting 18-minute film are the better for it. With four of 10 cities under her belt, longtime producer and series co-director Nicole Franklin talked to Colorlines about what “Little Brother” is trying to accomplish, the impact of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative on her work and, which city “Little Brother” is heading to next.
First up, what happened in Camden?
Camden was really our first attempt at this experiment to have black boys talk about love. [As you can imagine] it was a very upsetting shoot because of what happened. But as a journalist I also understand. I know people in the neighborhood feel like they’re in a fish bowl all the time because [in the media] it’s the same narrative. “Camden is dangerous. It’s filled with unemployment. It’s destructive. There’s no hope for Camden.” And here we come [with our cameras]. We put that detail [about the attack] in the film though because it also demonstrated what the boys have to go through.
“Little Brother,” is described on the site as, “a one-on-one conversation demystifying what society tends to rob black boys of: LOVE.” What do you mean?
A lot of boys may or may not be aware of the world they’re born into as young black men in the U.S. It’s glaringly obvious that it is dangerous. I mean, where do you start? Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and so many others. I just can’t stand to see it anymore. Why can’t you go 20 people deep without knowing a black man who has been arrested before? That’s ridiculous. There’s definitely a way we are perceived. For me working in media, it’s about imagery and so many images are negative. I’ve always wanted to present a different narrative when it comes to black people. And when it comes to black men, if we approach this idea of when and how they learn about love, you start a different conversation.
Is that why “Little Brother” only features boys in the 9 to 13 age range?
That’s part of it. Also, we don’t see them. In the media we see black teens but you gotta get there first, right? And I knew that around age 10, something was happening to black boys—and we weren’t seeing anything on it. It’s popular to hear that when young black boys enter the 4th grade that’s when “they” start planning how many prison beds to account for. I don’t know who said that but what I do know is that Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu has said that the 4th grade is when boys emotionally drop out of school. Also, as you’re approaching the teen years and puberty, it’s a very special time and I thought that it would be cool to learn about when boys learn about their emotional, nurturing sides. Our approach is very direct. We focus on their emotional side, love, their love lives and what they project them to be. They teach us a lot.
The interviews are refreshingly intimate. Tell me more about the questions you asked them and why.
I wanted to know, what they thought they’d grow up to be. Were they planning on getting married or starting a family? If they were or were not born into traditional nuclear families, what did they think their own family was supposed to look like?
And what did you find?
These young black boys still carry very idealistic beliefs. They’re going to be grown men with partners and they’re going to have children—many children! They’re going to have a good life, be financially stable, have a good job and be alive. They haven’t projected anything other than that—and they include God in that plan.
Was it difficult finding young boys willing to speak so intimately about love on camera?
Oh, it was very easy. I can walk outside my door right now in New Jersey and say, “I want to interview young black men about love,” and I’ll get 20 people signed up. There’s such a dearth of this conversation! You never hear or see positive images of black boys in media so when you come to them with this premise, people jump on board. Their parents weren’t allowed into the interview room and they were all fine with that. You get the red carpet rolled out.
Were you surprised by the boys’ candor?
I knew they’d be honest but I was afraid they wouldn’t talk once they got in front of the camera. They’re definitely not used to being on camera in a positive light. But what happens is that you hear the boys having complete thoughts and speaking in paragraphs and novels when you ask them about their lives. That was very surprising. I didn’t think they’d hide things but I wasn’t sure what we’d get. But we got honesty and innocence. That was very cool.
So far you’ve filmed in Camden, Chicago, St. Petersburg and Muskogee, Okla. Did you always plan to do a series over time or did the project evolve that way?
We wanted this to be in the nation’s libraries so it definitely couldn’t have been one film. If we’d just done Camden in 2010, it would’ve been an afterthought in 2014. We have so many negative images to deflect and combat that have already saturated the public consciousness that we needed 10 films, at least, to make a dent in the armor. Also, just with the four films we’ve already put out, we’re showing that black boys aren’t a monolith. It’s so great to see what love means in their communities, families and in their own lives.
You’ve done about 50 small screenings since 2010 all around the country. Who’s coming to see black boys talk about love and what’s audience reaction like?
They’re pretty popular with churches, grandmothers and fraternities. As far as audience reaction, I get shock a lot. They’re surprised that we got such sweetness and innocence and loving feelings on camera from black boys. We’ve had audience members say, “You should talk to boys around the drug scene and who’re on drugs.” And I would say, “You don’t even know that we didn’t.” We the filmmakers know the situations that these young men are in but we don’t necessarily show that on camera. We have one boy in there who can’t read or write, for example, but you can’t tell that.
What other prejudices about young black boys are you seeing?
At a recent screening in New York City, one of the teen girls in the audience said she thought the boys were going to be materialistic and talk about their kicks or what kind of jeans they wore. She was expecting them to play up their material possessions. You get all these pre-judgments about young black boys that really need to be left at the door. But I also like that they’re not because then we can have an honest conversation about what people expect to see from young black boys and what they actually see.
So folks come into the screening with one idea. How do they leave?
I think these films prompt people, especially those in our own communities, to clear their heads. After, some of them realize, Wow, we haven’t given our own boys a chance because we bought the hype.
How much do you think the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative will accomplish?
I think it already has accomplished, well, not a lot but it has accomplished something. The president has made this a personal mission. We’re seeing a lack of initiative from black boys because of how adults in this society are treating them. We’ve really set obstacles for them that we shouldn’t have—and the president has pointed that out. No one else can bring attention better than him.
Where’s “Little Brother” heading next?
We’ll be filming chapters five and six in Los Angeles and Greenwich, Conn. respectively. And Third World Newsreel is releasing chapter four this month.