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Message In The Medium: Black Film's Potential Role In The Discussion On Sexual Abuse And Our Children

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by Emmanuel Akitobi
November 28, 2011 10:15 AM
7 Comments
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Something Is Killing Tate (2008)
Something Is Killing Tate (2008)

As the year 2011 draws to a close, and as I reflect on the past year’s offering of cinema of the African diaspora, I can’t help but wonder if there is anything of true value and importance to take away from it all.  I wonder which film’s message or theme will resonate with viewers the next time they experience a personal or societal tragedy.  When I think of the recent tragic allegations of unreported sexual abuse at Penn State University, and hear the yet-to-be-substantiated reports that many of the alleged victims were young black children, the importance of the messages of past films such as Something Is Killing Tate (2008), Precious (2009), and Mississippi Damned (2009), become very clear.

Being black, and knowing many black people whose experiences mirror my own, it may be safe to say that frank discussions about sex are not particularly commonplace within black families.  I remember my parents signing my Sexual Education permission-slip in the 5th grade, without so much as a word regarding what I would be learning about.  And I didn’t ask any questions, either.  I guess there was a mutual understanding that everything I needed to know would be discussed in class, by someone who wouldn’t feel uneasy discussing it.  Many of us, no doubt, have heard the ubiquitous follow-up parental command of, “You better not bring any babies into this house, because I’m not raising another one.”  I would imagine that our parents were thinking, “You’ve had the class, so I don’t have to go into what not to do to prevent that from happening.”

Mississippi Damned (2009)
Mississippi Damned (2009)
To be fair, I’m quite sure there are plenty of black parents who don’t have any qualms about talking to their kids about sex.  But for those who do, I’m sure discussions with their kids about sex are frightening enough, let alone discussions about sexual abuse.  However, when it comes to protecting our children, we absolutely must get over our own fears and give them the information they need to understand, prevent and, if unfortunately necessary, deal with occurrences of sexual abuse.

One thing the Penn State case has shown me is that there is much to be learned by our children about inappropriate behavior and how to talk about it.  I am a huge proponent of using artistic media such as film and literature to convey important messages to our young people.  Not only does it help them stay tuned in to the lessons that we hope they take away, but it also makes for an easier transition into the (sometimes) uncomfortable conversations that are necessary to have.

When I first heard about the Penn State case, I immediately thought about the films I mentioned above.  I also remembered reading comments from some Shadow and Act readers who vehemently opposed the depiction of sexual abuse of black characters in film.  Some commenters felt that there was enough sadness and despair in the history of black cinematic themes that we just didn’t need anymore.

Precious (2009)
Precious (2009)

I respectfully disagree with that notion.  I think that directors Leon Lozano (Something Is Killing Tate), Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned), and Lee Daniels (Precious) all bring something usefully important to the discussion of sexual abuse for black families, however flawed some might believe their respective films to be.  The fact that their films could serve as intermediaries to communication within black families regarding sexual abuse should be enough reason for even the most stringent armchair film critic to look past any personal bias and see the works for the potential good they may produce.

The thing to remember is that these films tell stories meant to entertain us.  The fact that they also can be used as tools of education is an appreciated bonus.  I totally understand that the issues of sex and sexual abuse are not the easiest for parents to talk to their kids about.  But I think most of us are now aware of how important it is that we do have those conversations.  And if black cinema helps us do that, then I think it's imperative that we support these types of films and share them with those we care about.

I implore any parents interested in using the films to begin conversations with their own children, to first view the films without their kids, and determine whether the material is age appropriate.  You know your kids better than anybody else, so decide wisely as to when you believe they will be ready for such serious themes.

All of these films should be easily available for purchase or rental online.

S&A readers should be familiar with these three films, but for those who are not, consider this an introduction:

Something Is Killing Tate

Days before his birthday and weeks before his wedding, Tate Bradley, a twenty-five year old, African-American man attempts to commit suicide. He survives the ordeal, but from his actions, it is obvious that "Something is Killing Tate." The question is: "What?" Tate attempts to isolate himself to his apartment - hiding from the world. To his dismay, one by one the significant players in his troubled life come to check on him. With each visit, more is revealed about how each family member, friend, and enemy played a role in Tate's attempted suicide - forcing Tate to face his demons.

Mississippi Damned

Three poor Black kids in rural Mississippi reap the consequences of their family's cycle of abuse, addiction, and violence.

Precious

Set in Harlem in 1987, it is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones, a sixteen-year-old African-American girl born into a life no one would want. She’s pregnant for the second time by her absent father; at home, she m...ust wait hand and foot on her mother, a poisonously angry woman who abuses her emotionally and physically.

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7 Comments

  • PD | November 29, 2011 3:36 AMReply

    We can't allow our discomfort with the subject matter to put our children in harms way. As a survivor and advocate I applaud your effort. Excellent post!

  • mf | November 28, 2011 10:53 PMReply

    Great post! I have often argued, sometimes to no avail, that it's important for black film and black filmmakers to tackle difficult subject matter, such as sexual abuse. In fact, it is vital. Because of the material there is always the risk of falling into (bad) melodrama however I believe the risk is well worth taking. I definitely keep this in mind in the films I watch and make. I have seen "Precious", plan to see 'Mississippi Damned" however I had not heard of "Something is Killing Tate". Thanks for making me aware of this film (as well as this complete article) and I definitely plan to go see it.

  • JMac | November 28, 2011 8:24 PMReply

    Good picks (read the script to Precious but don't think I'll ever watch that) but I'd disagree with the statement that readers don't want to see ANY sexual abuse in black movies. I think it's overdone a bit - like ever drama needs that or the obligatory drug abuser - almost to the point you get desensitized and care less and less about the story or the character. Variety is the word.

  • JMac | November 28, 2011 8:44 PM

    Yeah, I kind of got that from the script but you know some things are easier to read than to see - esp. if delves into emotions and experiences you'd rather not visit (or revisit), not even vicariously. That's the only reason I haven't watched it. Maybe one day. But not anytime soon.

  • CareyCarey | November 28, 2011 8:36 PM

    JMAC, I am telling you, check out Precious, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised. It's not what you might expect. There are no graphic sex scenes and the acting is superb. The movie is not all doom and gloom. It simply is not that kind of party.
    It is however sort of a story of redeemption and faith.

  • Tamara | November 28, 2011 11:34 AMReply

    All three features are on my to-watch list. I read the novel for Precious years ago. I know the story. Definitely a tough one. Eventually I'll watch them all. I think these type films are a tough pill to swallow, but I think documentaries and newscasts highlighting abuse are even tougher. The artistic makes the viewing of these type stories a little easier. I think film should explore the gamut of the human experience, both the good and the bad, the cowardly and the herioc, the truth and non-truth, all of it and from all viewpoints and to all viewpoints; the whole of the black experience needs to be cultivated to further enrich all of us...

    Have I waxed poetic enough? LOL I'll hush now.

  • B | November 28, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    Great and NECESSARY post! (Though I'm sad to see that there are not comments...yet)

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