Beyond the sanctity of the neighborhood barbershop, there aren't many places black men hold open and truthful discussions. But even in this hallowed space, some issues can't be thoroughly discussed in the time it takes to get a haircut or a beard trimmed.
The documentary "Question Bridge: Black Males" – showing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Friday – confronts the social and economic barriers that divide black men by allowing them question each other, frankly and honestly, and providing a chance to listen.
"Question Bridge" began as an art project in 1996 led by Chris Johnson, a professor of photography at California College of the Arts. After its initial presentation, the project, which then featured black men and women, lay dormant until an old VHS copy was found by Hank Willis Thomas, who contacted Johnson and became the co-director of a new Question Bridge. The new version features appearances from actors Delroy Lindo and Malik Yoba, as well as black men from across the country.
Style Weekly spoke with Johnson about his hopes for the film, how it all started and what kind of backlash he's gotten for putting the issues into a public forum.
Style: How did you come into the original idea for this project in 1996?
Johnson: I just thought that people might be willing to look into a camera, and simply ask a question that they have always wanted to ask some other black person. So I did that. I went down there and I found professional suburban blacks, you know, who of course, in different parts of their lives had family, you know, from or in the 'hood. I said, "If you were to ask this black person – who lives a very different lifestyle – a question, what would it be?" Imagine you're talking to this person, look into the camera and ask a question. I talked enough people into doing this, on both sides of the divide. So I got questions like, "Have you given any thought to where the money for welfare comes from and do you even care?" "Why do you live your life in the 'hood? Why don't you work hard and leave?" The questions I got from blacks in the 'hood [were]: "Why do you talk like a white person?" "Do you really think you can escape racism by moving out from the 'hood?" So I took the questions that I recorded to people on other side of the divide and just played the question for them, and they were willing to answer the question as if they were speaking to that person.
Have your heard criticism that these are conversations between black men and that you're airing dirty laundry in public?
I've heard that comment before, but not from the participants. The reception from black women, from white people and nonblacks, has been overwhelmingly positive. As an artist, we're just doing what we think feels the most aesthetically true and effective. It's really up to commentators like yourself to interpret what that means. We just put it out there.
But surely you have some things that you hope will happen?
Certainly! Our intention, very implicitly, is to change the way black male consciousness is perceived in this country. When I created the project I had a very specific intention. One was to make it possible for blacks who are divided by class, and by neighborhoods, by education and by profession to talk to each other. It's a very strategic and very intentional design. The whole thing is designed to make it possible for people who have these questions in their mind and in their hearts to express them and to get answers. We want people to come in with their own biases and prejudices against black men and come away transformed. S
The film "Question Bridge: Black Males" will be shown at VMFA's Leslie Cheek Theater on Friday, July 25, from 6:30-9 p.m. Creator Chris Johnson will lead discussion with Virginia filmmaker Tim Reid.