Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and activist Byron Hurt presented a talk called “Deconstructing Images of African Americans in the Media,” in which he analyzed and critiqued common media representations of African Americans, at the MultiCultural Center Theater last night.
During the two-hour lecture, Hurt played video clips from his many documentaries, including his first nationally broadcasted piece on PBS, “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” as well as “Barack & Curtis” and “Soul Food Junkies.” While exploring and speaking about the gender and class representations shown in these works, Hurt also spoke about how his childhood and early life have influenced his present-day work. Students packed the MCC Lounge, where the lecture was originally planned for, and the event’s popularity led to it being transferred to the MCC Theater.
Hurt attended Northeastern University, majoring in journalism and minoring in African American studies, while also playing quarterback for the school’s football team. It was during his academic career at Northeastern that he formed many of the ideas and beliefs he currently expresses in his filmmaking and activism, he said.
“I took a couple of classes that really transformed me, in terms of my understanding … of the history and legacy of the Civil Rights Movement,” Hurt said.
During his talk, Hurt touched on some stereotypical images of African Americans in media, including “Mammy,” an obese black woman who belonged to a white family, “Sapphire,” a rude and overbearing black woman, “Brute,” an animalistic, criminal black man, “Jezebel,” a beguiling black woman, as well as “Pimp” and the “Welfare Queen.” Being exposed to these images and their social construction, as a college student, changed some of Hurt’s perspectives of race.
“Of course, I watched television, and I’d sometimes feel uncomfortable with the ways men were being depicted,” Hurt said. “But I didn’t have the language to articulate in a way that would make sense so that I could express it to myself and to other people.”
After seeing the ways African Americans are stereotyped in popular U.S. media, Hurt later learned about documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs and began looking to him as a major influence.
“He was a great documentary filmmaker, a cutting-edge filmmaker who made incredible works that were completely challenging to the status quo,” Hurt said.
Riggs’ filmmaking challenged many popular ideas and stereotypes about race at the time, according to Hurt, who said different social ideals were formed in these works.
“They were transforming; they were quite threatening, in terms of his depictions of race, gender and sexuality,” Hurt said.
Keeping to the title of his talk, Hurt said his goal as a filmmaker was to deconstruct images of African Americans as portrayed in the media. While speaking about various stereotypical images of African Americans, such as that “African-American men are still seen as threats,” Hurt said he intended to “challenge these images” by breaking them down for audience members.
One video clip that Hurt showed, “Barack vs. Curtis,” alluded to the similarities and differences in the ways prominent African Americans like Barack Obama and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson are portrayed in the media.
Esther Armah, a radio host and playwright who was interviewed in the film, said that while Barack Obama’s background and upbringing often depicts him as weaker than 50 Cent, his emergence as a leader actually benefitted black women all around.
“Barack equaled Harvard, 50 Cent equaled hood. Hood equaled virility, Harvard equaled impotence,” Armah said. “The beauty of the presence and emergence of Barack Obama isn’t Barack Obama. It’s Michelle Obama because in Michelle, for black women, there was an affirmation of their strength.”
According to Matt Birkhold, a writer and educator who was also interviewed for Hurt’s film, there are many resemblances between the ways powerful “thug” black men are stereotyped and the way powerful white men act.
“50 Cent, the ultimate gangster, recognized George Bush as gangster,” Birkhold said. “I think it becomes really clear that there are some strong parallels between this ‘black thug’ masculinity and successful ‘white’ masculinity.”
The constant theme throughout the talk was Hurt’s commitment to understanding and breaking down media, which he said is his obligation as an artist, filmmaker and activist.
“[I’m] taking on the responsibility of using my skill sets as a documentary filmmaker to use them in a responsible way of understanding the power of representation, understanding the power of images and really trying to be … transformative to young people,” Hurt said.
The event was co-sponsored by American Cultures & Global Contexts, AntiRacism, Inc., the Black Student Union and the Center for Black Studies Research.
A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, April 16, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.