Philadelphia-based artist Shikeith Cathey has a new film out, and it’s one everyone in America needs to see.
The short film titled, “#Blackmendream,” consists of nine black men, nude to shirtless, sitting with their backs to the camera and answering a series of simple, yet piercing questions that help get to the root of the emotional realities of living as a black man in America today. Their faces are never shown, which lends a strong confessional integrity to the film, and their nakedness adds a tender vulnerability that compliments the confessional quality very nicely. Through that confessional vulnerability, a complex, enormous strength presents itself.
Shikeith, who prefers to go by his first name, told NPR’s Arun Rath:
That’s the response that I would get after wrapping the interview. The participants, the men, they would say, ‘I haven’t been able to express like this in so long and it feels like a weight was lifted off of my shoulder.’
You can listen to the NPR interview here.
Shikeith describes his work as revolving around cultural, political and social misconceptions regarding black men in the U.S. “#Blackmendream” dives into the emotional well beneath each of those misconceptions that black men live with on a daily basis.
In the 45-minute film, the men are asked questions such as, “When did you become a black man?” “When did you become a man?” “How were you raised to deal with your emotions?” “What makes you angry, sad, happy? and “Do you cry?”
Shikeiths stated in his interview with NPR that most of the men interviewed were strangers, but that it didn’t take much to get them to volunteer for the project. He said:
Honestly, I just asked – and that was the point. These questions, as simple as they are . . . they aren’t discussed. I couldn’t remember a time when someone asked me, ‘How do you feel?’
I think it’s just assumed that I’m angry as a black man. It’s assumed that I don’t possess these feelings that are part of my humanity.
The entirety of “#Blackmendream” is shot in black and white. Shikeith states the fact that it is shot in black and white, the nudity present, and that no one’s face is ever seen is intentional, and symbolic. He stated:
I wanted to expose what it was like to be dressed in assumptions, before even opening your mouth to say hello.
That’s a truly beautiful, vulnerable statement on its own considering the current national climate in the U.S. in the wake of the non-indictments for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, not to mention the murder of Tamir Rice and a slew of other black men who have lost their lives to the racist, white system. Naturally, Shikeith’s film really helps broaden the horizons for the national discussions taking place around race as of late, but he also states the timing of its release is really just coincidental. He’s been working on the film for the past two years, since the idea first came to mind.
My work is a reflection of that internal battle all black men have to face when you’re not necessarily seeing things in black and white, but rather in gray. . . .
I don’t look at what’s happening now as situational. It’s not trendy; it’s not something that just began. It’s something that has been ongoing in this country for a very long time.
Shikeith told NPR that the inspiration for the film really took root two years ago when he posted a question on his Facebook page:
What do black men run from?
Expecting a very different response from the public, Shikeith was instead bombarded by negative stereotypes regarding black men.
They were writing, ‘Black men run from the police, black men run from love, black men run from child support.’
Understandably disappointed by the responses he received, Shikeith became determined to shift the perspective, the dialogue, and if lucky, the understanding of our reality regarding black men in America and their own daily emotional realities.
Out of that yearning came “#Blackmendream.”
Shikeith’s work is savvy and gifted enough for him to have received a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation Advancing Black Arts initiative along the way, too. He’s hoping “#Blackmendream” will kick down some of the barriers that help propagate the numerous misconceptions about black identity and reality in America for so many U.S. citizens. The film is both a self-awakening and healing process for black men, but also a step toward understanding and unity across the entire racial spectrum. For that alone, the film is commendable, but its also apt and beautiful. Kudos to Shikeith for such a worthy project, and many thanks for him sharing it with all of us.
Shikeith closed out his interview saying:
We can be different. We can be ourselves. We can respect individuality within our own community. And as we project that, I think the community at large will understand more what it exactly is to be a black man. Overall there’ll be a healing.
Shikeith writes at the beginning of the film:
I encourage you to participate by responding to the questions via social media, or other public forums with the hashtag#blackmendream.