A contemporary take on the fairy tale genre exploring queer black boyhood
Justice Jamal Jones is a multidisciplinary artist based in New York City. Their debut narrative short How To Raise a Black Boy follows four boys as they journey through a fantastical world of black boyhood, queer identity, and fraternity in a modern reimagining of the fairy tale genre.
“How To Raise A Black Boy was originally an analysis of my childhood, that happened to be queer and black,” says the director, “but it grew beyond my childhood to become a collage of my academic career, current American politics, and the shared experience of childhood secrets that haunt our adulthoods.”
The film takes root in J. M. Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, mostly recognized for introducing the character and mythology of Peter Pan. The original story around the “boy who wouldn’t grow up” is a far cry from the subsequent adaptations—namely the 1904 play and 1953 Disney film—that sanitized, what some would describe as, a cautionary tale about pederasty, secrecy, and sexuality.
“Fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Peter Pan have perpetuated theories centered in whiteness and heterosexuality,” says Jones, whose film is as much a celebration of sexuality as it is of blackness. “The exclusion of POC and queer individuals in fairy tales also implies that only those who conform to normative ways of living are permitted to imagination.”
Fairy tales are a powerful tool as there is a lot one can learn from fear. Little Red Riding Hood should have been afraid of strangers and Hansel and Gretel should have feared dependency. But if cautionary tales are only for the purview of white, little children then what unprepared horrors await everyone else? “Police brutality, hypermasculinity, sexual abuse, and homophobia,” says Jones, listing the things that go bump in the night, “topics that have affected me in my development, have been reconstructed into an attainable fantastical narrative.”
The power of flight is a theme that runs throughout the narration and imagery of this film. A pantheon of melanin-rich, winged, mythological creatures such as Hermes, Pan, and biblical cherubs coalesce in a renaissance collage that bookmarks each chapter of the film. The four little boys—now grown men—are running proudly and wildly, as if their speed comes from the gift of flight.
As with all momentous projects, a wealth of creative partnerships went behind the making of How To Raise a Balck Boy; the product of what Jones described as an “intense brotherhood” between himself and artistic consultant Daddy Ramazani. With cinematographer Alex Wohlin, they set out to portray the multiplicity, beauty, and intimacy of black men.
“How To Raise A Black Boy is a once-upon-a-time story told from the past to the future,” says Jones. “In this film, I see myself, my brothers, my fathers, and my lovers. In this fairy tale, we can all coexist in our mutual experiences as black boys.”
June 18, 2021