"Afraid of Dark" begins with the audio recording of a 911 call, with a terrified woman providing voiceover for a scene unfolding before her, and another person can be heard crying out “Help….Help” in the background. This is most likely the voice of Trayvon Martin, just before the sound of gunshots fired into his body by George Zimmerman. This is an effective introduction, raising two important questions. Do #blacklivesmatter, and if the answer is “sometimes” or “it depends,” when and why do they not matter? And, “Why are people afraid of dark?” Dark in this context means black, or African-American. Viewers next see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extolling how the definition of black usually involves something evil or negative. Then he says: “Well, I want to get the language right tonight.”
And there are many things that Mya Baker gets right in her documentary examining masculinity and how black men are misconceived in American society: how a young black man can walk into a predominantly white community, holding his Arizona Tea and bag of Skittles, and be seen as a threat, as not belonging there, and as requiring expulsion, removal, even elimination. The film is replete with ideas about why black men are frequently constructed so negatively. Male artists, actors, and family members share their views of stereotypes of black men. Baker invests time looking at polygenic theory, a pseudoscientific notion that the blacks (see the virulent “The Negro A Beast”, 1905) were not the same species as the white race, but were violent, aggressive beasts, and therefore could be treated like animals or property, as in the institution of slavery. She also presents the story of Ota Benga, who was displayed in a zoo as evidence of this “theory.”
What I was hoping to see more of in the documentary was how the stereotypes can be deconstructed, unpacked, and effectively challenged. How might we move forward, and raise consciousness around racism and discrimination? The film lacks flow during the interviews, because the material was grouped according to theme rather than specific questions, and the questions do not always dovetail with the earlier stated objectives earlier. It engages the roots of racial stereotypes and misconceptions, but does not suggest a path forward. Films, such as “Black Is, Black Ain’t” (Marlon Riggs, 1994), have covered much of this ground before, and successfully challenge narrow understandings and misconceptions about black identity quite effectively, and Cornel West’s recent 2015 Ware Address to the UUA General Assembly is also recommended viewing on this important topic. In sum, I recommend “Afraid of Dark” as a conversation starter about the racist, white supremacist notions that black males contend with on a daily basis. Viewers then must ponder the question, "What is to be done?"
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.