CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 2 . . . . September 14, 2007
Given the current push for "diversity," Race is a Four Letter Word should be required viewing. As the title implies, this is an edgy film which looks at what it means to be "black." The film begins with a quotation by James Baldwin: "The value placed on the colour of skin is always and everywhere a delusion." The attempt to deal with the complexity of the issue of skin colour is given a varied treatment. No answers are provided, but there is much here for thought and discussion.
Film maker Sobaz Benjamin, born in England to Grenadian parents, now lives in Canada. At the start of the film, he is heard on his open forum radio show debating the issue of Canadian culture. The caller asks him, "How can you say there is a Canadian culture when 95% of the teachers in Canada are white teaching your kid who is black?" When Benjamin does not agree, the caller asks if he is indeed black. Benjamin responds that "visually I'm black." To which the caller retorts, "Well, mentally you are not."
Skin colour has been an issue for Sobaz Benjamin since he was born. He is darker skinned than either of his parents, and this fact was commented on by other family members. When he was younger, on the advice of a cousin, he began using bleaching creams to lighten his skin. He is not sure if his mother knew. Now, he thanks his parents for not making this into an issue at the time. He states that it "feels like everybody is focusing on your skin. We forgot that we were fighting for the right to be human, not the right to be black." When the family moved to Grenada, Benjamin's skin darkened even more under the tropical sun. His companions commented on his dark skin and could not reconcile this with his coming from England. So once again, skin colour became an issue.
In Canada, Benjamin connected with Tim Dunn, a white man who was raised by a black family. His birth parents were unable to raise him, and so Dunn was taken in by the Bailey family until he was 12. Dunn recounts the day when he was told that he was not black. This shocked him, and he ran home to be told that this was not true. When his birth parents came back to reclaim him, Dunn's life spiraled out of control. He quit school at 14 and spent the next years roaming. Now, middle aged, he is a model for artists. Clearly there are some things in his life that he needs to reconcile. In one scene, he is talking with one of his Bailey aunts, and she reassures him that, given the chance, her sister would have adopted Dunn as her own. This is something that Dunn has needed to know. The need to be accepted is something that he craves dearly.
Benjamin and Dunn are shown posing for a number of photo shoots which focus on the issue of their skin colour. This part of the film is very interesting artistically, but here is where a caution comes in. Much of the photo session displays full nudity. This part could cause a bit of a stir, but what is done by the photographer is too good to remove.
Also featured in the film, is Dianne Rutherford who moved to Canada from England. A black woman in a bi-racial marriage, she wanted to take her family away from England to an established black community. She decided on Halifax and admits she has no desire to go any further inland. The move to Canada has not turned out as she wanted: "the blacks expect me to be more black and the whites can't figure out what I am."
On a camping trip once, Camille Turner, an artist and curator in Toronto, was in a store in North Bay, Ontario and felt that there were many eyes on her. She came to the conclusion that people did not understand what being a black Canadian woman really means, and so she became "Miss Canadiana." Complete with tiara and sash, Turner travels around Canada and beyond, spreading her message to all. [an aside here, Ms Turner's website is www.misscanadiana.ca. She would be an interesting speaker for a school assembly] Turner shares her experiences with others and admits that she is learning a great deal from those she meets.
Race is a Four Letter Word is a very good film-especially in a multi-racial high school. The discussions and the people featured could be used in many classes: Civics, Ethics, Family Studies, Law, Photography, Art. The issue of skin colour is one that still requires much dialogue and this film would be a great place to start.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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