Winner of the 2012 Black Excellence Award for documentary film from the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, this documentary by Mary F. Morten focuses on youth as they confront life’s challenges and successes.
Woke Up Black focuses on five Black youth, along with their struggles and triumphs as they start their journey into adulthood. The documentary premiered on February 25, 2011 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago and has since screened twice on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, in addition to dozens of screenings at colleges, community centers and film festivals across the country.
The film places at its center the voices of Black youth – their ideas, attitudes and opinions that are often overlooked in society.
For two years, Morten and associate producers Keisha Farmer-Smith, Aparna Sharma, and Marisol Ybarra followed five youth from the Chicago area to explore their experiences when it comes to navigating the world they live in. As they move through their personal challenges, this documentary also mirrors the complexities of this often ignored group that are at the center of many socio-political issues including discrimination, political participation, sex and relationships, music, and the media portrayal of black youth.
This interview-driven film with wide-ranging footage provides context for young people who are often criticized and frequently misunderstood. Small group conversations punctuate the individual vignettes on each young person.
Morten, an activist, filmmaker and consultant, started work on “Woke Up Black” after reading a report by Dr. Cathy Cohen for the Black Youth Project. Cohen, a professor at the University of Chicago, was the principal investigator of this groundbreaking report. The report was a national research project launched in 2003 that examined the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth exploring how these factors and others influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior.
“At the end of the day what we see on the news are these 20-second sound bites, almost without fail, always bad news and very much stereotypes of young folks being projected into the larger culture,” stated Morten. “We wanted to tell real life stories that are indeed hopeful.”
Starting with interviews with youth in Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans in 2008, Morten brought the focus onto five Chicago youth. She said that with the attention the city was receiving that year with Barack Obama being nominated for U.S. President and an Olympics bid in the works, the eyes of the world were focusing on Chicago. “The reality is these stories are universal,” says Gordon Quinn, co-founder and executive producer of Kartemquin Films, and creative consultant for the film. “The breadth of individual stories in the film is quite remarkable.”
The film is available for community screenings at universities, K-12 schools, nonprofit organizations and other community groups. Programming options include talkbacks with the director and documentary subjects panel discussions and workshops and can be customized to meet your group’s needs. Please contact us for details.
Meet the Documentary Subjects, 2012
Carter, 16, was adopted by two African American gay men when he was 10. As the oldest of eight children, he was bounced around in foster care for several years. Carter is finishing up his last year of high school and is balancing his class studies, sports, and family life while trying to figure out his future. He was just made captain of his football team and is an honors student.
Ansheera, “Ace,” 17, is a self-identified gender queer youth who struggles to maintain relationships with members of zir family who do not understand and are not supportive of zir gender identity. Ze has found an outlet by becoming socially engaged in several non-profits in Chicago. Ze feels ze can go to the adult organizers in these agencies and just be zirself with out any pressure. Ze has received a full academic scholarship to a Midwestern university.
*Ze, zir and zirs are gender neutral pronouns. At the time of filming Woke Up Black, Ace did not yet use these pronouns, which is why you will hear “she/her/hers” in the voiceover.
Morgan, 19, lives in a western suburb of Chicago and is in her second year of college at an out of state university. She has an interest in biomedical engineering. Her father works in corporate America and her mother is a successful real estate agent. While being raised to be a strong Black woman by her parents, she has lived the majority of her life in situations where she is the only African American or one of a few.
Rosalee, 18, is a recent graduate of Lakeview High School, and is starting her first year of college at an in-state university. Rosalee is the first person in her family to attend college. She and her brothers and sisters were adopted by her aunt and uncle twelve years ago when her mother was unable to care for them. Rosalee struggles with life away from her family and with the college experience.
Sheldon, 20, is currently an organizer at a south side community organization. He was formerly incarcerated (at 17 years old) for his role in a felony crime. He is actively working to get his record expunged. After completing his time in jail, he graduated from high school, is attending college part-time, and is parenting his young daughter.
Why a Black Youth Documentary?
Arguably more than any other underrepresented group of Americans, African American youth reflect the challenges of inclusion and empowerment in the post-civil rights period. Whether the issue is the mass incarceration of African Americans, the controversy surrounding Affirmative Action as a policy to redress past discrimination, the increased use of high stakes testing to regulate standards of education, debates over appropriate and effective campaigns for HIV and AIDS testing and prevention programs, efforts to limit sex education in public schools, or initiatives to tie means-tested resources to family structure and marriage, most of these initiatives and controversies are focused on, structured around, and disproportionately impact young, often marginalized African Americans. However, in contrast to the centrality of African American youth to the politics and policies of the country, their perspectives and voice have generally been absent from not only public policy debates, but media and broadcast programs. Increasingly, researchers and policy-makers have been content to detail and measure the behavior of young African Americans with little concern for their attitudes, ideas, wants and desires. This documentary works to fill that void.
The Woke Up Black producing team followed five black youth aged 16-21 for over two years. During this time we witnessed their interactions with family members, educational institutions, and the legal and judicial system. This provided a rare opportunity to hear youth speak out on some important and potentially life-altering topics of the day. Although some of the youth profiled face extraordinary circumstances, they all remain hopeful and committed to building a successful future. Ultimately, the film underscores the humanity that we all share with each other regardless of race or age.