Colour Me: A documentary that expands the roundtable on race & identity

Over the years our private discussions of race and racial identity have steadily moved into public spaces–a phenomenon that has transformed our kitchen table talks  into roundtables and panel discussions caught on film.  Pontificating on race matters is nothing new. What is new is flipping the script on who participates in these explorations of race.  Introducing different voices makes the topic of my recent article for Sway Magazine, in which we  look at the success of the award-winning, documentary feature film, Colour Me.

Group discussion on race. A scene from the documentary Colour Me. Photo:TAZA Media

Colour Me offers a new dimension to roundtables on race, where thoughts on bi-racial identity are expanded and young students who are not usually heard can voice opinions about their own feelings of what it means to be black.

First-time filmmaker, Sherien Barsoum,  documents Anthony McLean, a bi-racial motivational speak and actor.  McLean spends time with six African-Canadian students to purposely explore ideas and thoughts about race.  Before race fatigue has you tuning out, know this well-shot film is not a stereotypical portrayal of race and poverty.  See the trailer. These students live in Brampton, Ontario the ethnically diverse, middle-class suburb west of Toronto. They wouldn’t know ghetto life if they fell into it.

Yet, from their sit-downs with McLean come questions and statements about “blackness”–stuff which makes many people shift uncomfortably or angrily avert their eyes. Others not so much. As director Barsoum tells me for our Sway interview, “When you meet Anthony and talk to him, he doesn’t preach and he’s definitely not angry. That’s what puts people off,” says Barsoum. “Once we get past the anger and  the discomfort, then we can speak out honestly, and openly have conversations.”

In February I spoke to a black friend who saw Colour Me. In passing, I mentioned that the film landed a spot in the line-up of screenings at the Bell Tiff Lightbox. That’s high praise indeed for Barsoum, who’s first foray into feature filmmaking had her trekking from Halifax to Montreal and to Edmonton for Colour Me screenings and panel discussions. My friend responded with an interesting remark about McLean’s own admitted struggles with his bi-racial identities.  “I look at him and I accept him,” he said.

Still the question remains: why does this well-documented search to feel accepted resonate with people across socially constructed lines? Who or what has us believing we’re not affirmed as we are?  In watching the film and hearing the students explain ideas around “blackness”  it becomes clear which popular identities are more readily accepted and which ones are rejected by their peers and larger society.

Most telling is the fact that there is no clear definition or resolution on questions of race, but stereotypes and prejudgment are easily identifiable–they walk among us with their followers.

Barsoum and McLean took the lead by looking to different places for voices. In the process they’ve pushed open the door even further, allowing for new ideas and other experiences to move from the periphery, no matter the background or age.

A couple of days ago I watched a civil rights roundtable discussion that starred some heavyweights in American arts and entertainment.  Writer James Baldwin held court with his peers,  Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and actors Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

James Baldwin (centre) stands with actors Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando on August 28, 1963, the day of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It was August 28, 1963 and these famous participants were inspired by the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which happened that same day. Their 30-minute discussion on race was a defining moment captured by CBS television.

By 1968, Baldwin’s novel, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, was published. His book describes a complicated crisis of identity rooted in race (and sexuality) during an era when America was threatened by notions of civil rights and equality.

In watching Colour Me and listening to students of Fletcher’s Meadow High School discuss race with McLean, it’s clear that their introspection is also a provocative exercise. So long as the socially constructed idea of race exists, so will the crisis of knowing where to fit in. But give people the space and they’ll run outside ill-conceived boundaries. Perhaps by starring in a documentary that challenges ideas on identity, their on-the-record exploration might help them get to a place of self acceptance. Faster.

The Colour Me DVD is available for sale at http://www.colourmethefilm.com. Click on Store for pricing on Home or Educational  use.

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