Metaphor As Message in BODY AND SON
What do a young boy and a dead body have to tell us about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome in today's world?
I have had what I consider to be a pretty privileged life. I was born in New York City, but my folks decided to move from our apartment in Queens to Athol, Massachusetts before I was two years old. There we first lived in a multi-family home as renters before my parents were able to buy a single-family home when I was in the fourth grade. Something they very well may not have been able to do as quickly or even at all had they stayed in New York City at that time. I still remember moving into our house on Halloween day. I was raised in a predominantly white town of 11,000 people where I was the only black kid in my class nearly every year. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a lot of weekends back in New York City where my grandparents still lived, which allowed me to have access to the kind of diversity--both of people and of experiences--that I could not have had in my small town. I also visited Barbados where my mom is from every so often, which further expanded my worldview. It wasn't until I returned to New York City after film school that I realized more fully what the experience of growing up in that small town had caused me to either avoid or miss out on depending on your point of view.
"There was a lingering sense of being caged in wherever you went as well as the subtle threat of violence"
Looking out the window of my Bedford Stuyvesant apartment onto the street below, I saw young kids who looked like me when I was small playing out in the street in front of their stoops often with their single moms watching and yelling at them, serving stoop discipline. In some of those moms I saw what appeared to me to be deep frustration and exhaustion, a general sense of disquiet. It was a sensation that was familiar and yet very foreign to me having spent my formative years living in a single family home with my two parents and younger brother. In Bed Stuy, unlike where I grew up, police cruisers and beat cops on foot were a common sight on the streets of Brooklyn, which made me feel paradoxically more and less safe at the same time. That police presence certainly didn't stop me from being held up at gunpoint late one night walking home from work. But it did show me how starkly different the experience was between suburban White America and urban Black America. There was a lingering sense of being caged in wherever you went as well as the subtle threat of violence that came from frequent news reports of violent incidents and the persistent sounds of gunshots and sirens at night. It was that feeling that started to spark my imagination about what my life might have looked like had my parents not decided to leave New York when they did.
The city is full of neglected spaces often littered with trash and refuse where it feels like you could find literally anything, including a dead body. Seeing so many young Black boys walking through those environments and seeing the types of potential role models they were being exposed to both in the media and in real life as part of the cycle of poverty and toxic masculinity, I was suddenly inspired to merge those ideas and so I began writing Body and Son.
"To me the power of film is in its ability to use metaphors to convey powerful messages."
The idea of a "thuggish" male corpse standing in for the missing father figures within urban Black America struck me as a visually captivating and thought-provoking way to enter into the larger conversation around what I would learn much later can be defined as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The thought that such profound, generational trauma could lead a young boy to identify with and idolize a dead body somehow crystalized the concept. It was an image that lingered and haunted and felt oddly familiar and melancholic and painful all at once. To me the power of film is in its ability to use metaphors to convey powerful messages. To convert an image into an idea larger than what you see in any one frame and offer a unique perspective on that idea. The body (played by Kashmir Satchel-Jarrett) that DeShawn (played by DJ Watts) discovers is not the only such metaphor in the film.
DeShawn has his first brief encounter with a police officer (Gerrit Bult) patrolling his neighborhood who drives by staring him down like a potential suspect. Here the officer can stand in for white culture and white supremacy constantly casting its diminutive gaze on Black people, particularly young Black males, making them feel like a potential threat in the eyes of white society while also making them feel threatened at the same time. The scene ultimately foreshadows DeShawn's fate and is a visual, wordless representation of the kind of pressure and tension that exists in neighborhoods like DeShawn's around the country.
DeShawn's encounters with the bully Jamir (Zylin Nixon) can be taken at face value, but can more powerfully speak to the divisions engrained in the Black community over generations of slavery and its aftermath. The idea of one subjugated person exerting what little power they have over another more vulnerable subjugated person is what white supremacy counts on in order to keep those people in subjugation and prevent them from realizing and administering their true value and power. DeShawn and Jamir stand in here as a microcosm of this vicious cycle affording us a door into the conversation around how to break it and pave a path toward unity and collective healing within our community.
Later we meet DeShawn's real father, Alex (Keith Douglas) who we come to understand walked away from his role as a father in order to fully explore his sexuality leaving DeShawn's mother Janet (Teea Loreal) to do the parenting alone. Again, on the surface this can be interpreted literally as a straight forward representation of one person's journey of self-discovery. But more profound would be to see Alex as representative of the broader journey of the Black man in American society attempting to navigate the pressures of taking care of his family while simultaneously struggling to simply survive in a society that doesn't accept him. Within this household dynamic often comes a tension wrought, again, over generations of psychological terrorism where Black men have been systematically and publicly emasculated--both literally and figuratively--infecting them with a pervasive, deep-rooted sense of shame and impotence. Today this often manifests in behavior subconsciously aimed at overcompensating for those feelings feeding into a cycle of toxic masculinity and homophobia. For queer Black men these feelings can be even more insidious as the pressure to never project any signs of what could be perceived as weakness or frailty within the Black community add to the already emotionally fraught journey to just be themselves. This can lead to depression and even suicide.
My hope is that viewers find Body and Son to be a layered, thought-provoking example of how powerful film can be to spark rich conversations and provide new perspectives on the world around us, in this case about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and the Black experience. In my experience as a cinephile I've always found the most gratifying viewing experiences to be the ones where the filmmakers used metaphors to convey powerful ideas, often with little or no dialogue, compelling me to think more deeply on the subject and connect the film's story and characters with the larger world. And as a filmmaker myself, I love the challenge of building metaphors into my stories to create the most engaging experience for the audience and challenging them to be an active participant in the story by putting the pieces together to see a fuller picture of an aspect of the real world. In this way, too, you end up creating a profound connection between you and the viewer, which is really what it's all about.
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