Cut and dried. Black and white. Right and wrong. Phrases we've adopted over time to simplify things, attitudes and actions. By the same token, you can blur the lines or have something fall into a grey area - these things happen all the time. Even though we try and avoid those confusing aspects of life at all cost. As human beings, we're all hard wired to try and quantify and justify. Anything outside of that neat little box is considered messy, above our standards as people. But life is messy. In all things and regards - and speaking of boxes, what does one do when they themselves, are of mixed lineage and their children even more-so? That's the question is it not?
Being of mixed lineage, how does someone cope with a small box on a piece of school enrollment paper, that asks to check off the dominant race of their children? How can a person be expected to favor one piece of who they are over another? This is what happened to Eli Steele as he attempted to enroll his son Jack. Making things all the worse was when he asked if he could leave the race box blank. No. He could not. Failure to pick a dominant racial attribute meant no enrollment for his son. So in an attempt to showcase how ridiculous this tiny square check box was, Eli decided Jack was black. In doing so this film, "How Jack Became Black" was born.
Attempting to get answers to the school racial issue, is the heartbeat and driving force of this film. The returning theme - asking why a person shouldn't be judged based on character rather than race. However, if you think "How Jack Became Black" plants itself firmly within the school system issue - think again. Eli's film is like a bus stop. Each location leads to another or, to be more cut and dried about the movie, every segment may be rooted in the original question but branches off into different aspects of racial division. "How Jack Became Black" is a powerful commentary showing us Eli Steele's views on racism, stereotypes and the privilege of skin color. You may not agree with everything - but you'll surely be awakened to some real issues in today's quickly growing racially fluid world.
What did this film mean to me? That's a complicated question. I'm white. Very white. When I get a suntan, I finally look the part of an average Caucasian male - even though I'm actually eighty percent native American. My whole life, without even thinking, I would always describe myself as white. It's not that I'm any less proud of being native, it just felt easier. Perhaps it even helped with my perceived ability to fit in. I've never really given it a second thought - until now. With one figurative check mark through a box, I've embodied everything Eli Steele questions in this film. It's a really disturbing way to look at things and yet...
... that's the way it is. Racism, race politics, identity... "How Jack Became Black" is disturbing simply by the fact that so many of us are doing this, or not seeing the harm. And it really is silly when you consider the amount of people that are mixed - and that number is growing exponentially. There have always been hard core racists around, but as a society we like to think that number is decreasing. We like to think our government is helping pave the way but in reality? That same government is still a big chunk of the problem.
In the film, Steele brings up the possible good intentions of some of these policies that divide. Rewarding people, companies and industries, that hire/include a certain percent of the perceived minority. It's a great way for any person of color or mix to get those great jobs, by gaming the system to their benefit. It also feels true that the intentions are good but in reality - it's just another aspect that divides. It now becomes an issue of including those of different skin color, instead of what it should be about - giving the right job to the right man or woman. This racially adopted standard is also talked about in the film. How even on paper, a checked box indicating white skin, allows an easier route through the path of life. Let me repeat that. On paper, without so much as one visual reference to the person checking the box. Really makes you wonder doesn't it?
I could go on and on about this movie but I feel I'm going to stop here. The short of this write-up? "How Jack Became Black" is a documentary for the thinking person. It paves the way for an army of questions - and even answers some of them - in it's own way. I can't promise everything Eli Steele discusses will be agreed with by it's viewers. Yet it will ask some hard questions and force you to come up with some harder answers. I'll leave what happens with Jack, and Eli's forced decision on his racial identity, for you to see for yourself. Maybe some progress was made before his daughter June had to go through the same thing? Possibly. I guess you'll just have to find out by watching.