Sonia Lowman is an activist. She’s also a filmmaker. For her latest film, the most notable characteristic might be that Sonia Lowman is a white woman. After her first film “Teach Us All,” which examined segregation and the racial inequities in America’s education system, Lowman felt compelled to examine how society views Black men, as well as her own blindspots and prejudices.
The result is “Black Boys,” a documentary that premiered on the Peacock on Thursday. The film, as Lowman likes to say, is a love story to young Black men, exploring the body, mind, voice and heart through vulnerable and intergenerational conversations and stories with Black men and women in America.
The film delves into the intersection of education, criminal justice and sports, revealing the emotional landscape of racism, and how it feels for young men to live everyday in a world that fears them, most of the time for no other reason than the color of their skin.
“I remember when I went to South L.A. (for ‘Teach Us All’) and I spoke to a group of young Black men, and I was sitting there and realized I never ever spoke to young Black men when I was growing up,” Lowman said. “It was really starting to recognize for me as liberal and progressive as I am and enlightened and educated as I think I am, even I had to look in the mirror and say, like, ‘Am I afraid of Black men?’ And the answer was, honestly, yeah, a little bit.
“That was something that I really wanted to unpack in ‘Black Boys,’ this fear that’s very pervasive, but we kind of pretend isn’t there. And I think if we don’t talk about that, we can’t we’re not gonna break it down. And we’re not gonna be able to get to the other side of that, which is love and compassion and understanding and really hearing each other,” Loman continued. “I think this country is never going to move forward unless we really start to talk honestly, and white people particularly start to take responsibility for deconditioning themselves.”
The work Lowman is attempting to do to confront those prejudices in “Black Boys” looms in the background, while she squarely focuses on the subjects in the film. “Black Boys” isn’t about her journey toward self discovery.
It was always her intention, she said, to keep herself out of the film as much as possible — to avoid becoming the subject of the documentary herself. Lowman said that during her interviews educators said she should consider getting from behind the camera, and she tried, but it never felt right.
“We kind of wrestled with this question of having like a little bit of a sort of testimonial from me at the end. And I think because the project wasn’t designed with that in mind, the project really was designed to fit feel very intimate,” Lowman said. “What I wanted to do was to go into what I call sort of the interior landscape of the Black male experience, like, because I feel, especially as white people, we get very flattened sort of two dimensional, at best, versions of Black men in media.”
The film focuses heavily on the expectation that Black boys play sports and how they’re treated as professional athletes — making connections between football fields and cotton fields, the combine and the trading block.
Malcolm Jenkins, who plays safety for the New Orleans Saints, serves as an executive producer on “Black Boys” through his production company, Listen Up Media. “Black Boys” is the company’s first major feature-length project. He also lends his voice to the film in an interview, alongside the likes of Jemelle Hill, NFL Hall of Famer Chris Carter and Carmelo Anthony.
“Oftentimes we commodify the body but completely ignore the minds of Black men, and the film does a great job of really putting that on display, but also showing people how, especially in the education system, as early as kindergarten, our kids are receiving messages about who they are, specifically Black boys,” Jenkins told The New Orleans Advocate. “That humanity has been under attack, starting at that early age all the way through adulthood.”
Jenkins has been vocal about racial injustice and police brutality both on and off the football field. In 2016 he began protesting with a raised fist during the National Anthem following a series of Black men and women who were shot and killed by police, including Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher.
The film was shot and finished over a year ago, partly sparked by that previous wave of killings, but now “Black Boys” is coming out during a period in which America and the world at large is reckoning with racism and its relationship to Blackness.
“There’s that undeniable exploitation, the parallels there and the commodification of Black bodies and the use of Black bodies for white entertainment and white profit, like, those parallels are very obvious,” Lowman said. “But the other thing is this idea of Black aggression. We love like this violent, physical, blah, blah, blah if you’re on the football field, and you’ve got white fans cheering for you. You’re telling Black men you’re supposed to be aggressive and violent and hard and angry. And we’re going to cheer for you when you do it there, but then we’re going to shoot you if you do it anywhere else.
“That, to me, is why we have to talk about this the sports piece,” Lowman continued. “In terms of, you know, the fear and the perception of Black males and all that stuff, I think so much of that is shaped also by sports now in our modern era.”