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MOVIES Mary Morten focuses her lens on Black youth
by Micki Leventhal
2010-11-01

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Woke Up Black, the first feature documentary by LGBT activist Mary F. Morten, chronicles the lives of five diverse African-American young people. There will be a preview Nov. 11 at a fundraiser hosted by community businessman and philanthropist Michael Leppen.

Known for her award-winning career on behalf of women, straight and gay, this focus on youth and race might not seem the obvious first choice. Morten, a 1996 inductee into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, was the first African-American president of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women. She chaired the Chicago Abortion Fund; served as board president and executive staff at the Chicago Foundation for Women; and has been involved in countless other social-justice initiatives at both the grassroots and government levels.

Ultimately, it was her friendship with University of Chicago professor Cathy Cohen, who served as principal investigator for the Black Youth Project, that inspired her to take on this topic.

"If somebody would have said my first full-length feature would be on Black youth I would have said, 'Oh, no. It will be something on the women's community, or something much more directly related to the lgbt community'," Morten said. "But, I was reading Cathy's report, which really shed a light on the reality of Black youth that we've not seen before. At the end of the day what we see on the news are these 20-second sound bites, just about without fail always bad news and very much stereotypes of these young folks being projected into the wider culture."

She realized another story needed to be told. Morten, who had completed a number of short documentaries, began pre-production on Woke Up Black in New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago, doing preliminary interviews with approximately 18 youth in the three cities. Morten wanted to represent a real diversity of socioeconomic and life experience within the Black community, and the subjects' willingness to "let the camera in" to their daily lives and interactions was critical. With so many compelling stories to tell, the decision on who to include was challenging. Kartemquin Films ( Hoop Dreams ) served as creative consultants and suggested that a first cut might focus on Chicago-area youth.

"This was in the fall of 2008. Obama was getting ready to get the nomination for president, Chicago was in the midst of an Olympic bid and, really, all eyes were on Chicago. The stories of the youth are universal and would resonate with people everywhere. We made the decision pretty early on to follow Chicago area youth," Morten said.

Throughout the two years of filming, Morten's associate producers—Aparna Sharma, Marisol Ybarra and Keisha Farmer Smith—worked closely with the young people, often developing a mentor relationship with their assignees.

The final cut, shot in high definition and running 60 minutes, focuses on the distinctive stories and shared concerns of three young women and two young men, now ages 18-22 and in college.

Morgan, a science student at the University of Iowa, grew up in an affluent predominately white suburb, the daughter of successful businesspeople. Sheldon graduated high school after serving time for a felony; he is now a community organizer parenting a young daughter and attending community college. Rosalee was adopted, along with her brothers and sisters, by an aunt and uncle when their mother couldn't care for them; she is the first of her family to attend college.

The stories of Carter and Ace are of particular interest to LGBT audiences. Carter, the oldest of eight children, was in foster care for a number of years before being adopted by an African-American gay male couple. "Carter was adopted when he was 10 years old," said Morten. That, she said, goes against the common "wisdom" that you don't adopt Black boys and you "certainly don't adopt older Black boys. In a matter of eight years the strides he's made with the love, encouragement, structure, resources, is incredible. He's the most valuable player of his football team and on the honor roll and also feels very deeply the family pressure to succeed. His story undercuts all those stereotypes about adoption."

Ace identifies as genderqueer, and is out and proud despite significant problems with her father and stepmother. Raised by her grandmother, Ace was a consistent honor-roll student at Chicago Freedom School, where she also "honed her activist skills." She is now on a full academic scholarship at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she's succeeding academically, but finds the dual otherness of queer identity and race to be more challenging than she anticipated, especially at a campus as white and midwestern as Madison. "She came out as genderqueer in a class of 120 students and the teacher didn't even know what that meant," said Morten. "Fellow students were asking her if she had both sets of genitals. She had a difficult first semester, there's no two ways about it." She was also dealing with rejection from her father and homesickness despite the rejection. "All these factors impacted her daily life, but she came out on the other side of it and she's stronger for it," said Morten. "What we wanted to show was that she is still a young woman who is vulnerable and who wants to belong. Everyone wants to belong. Yet she's very clear about her life and is unapologetic."

The five stories, which reflect the young peoples' personal struggles and dreams, are intercut with footage when the group got together to discuss issues of mutual concern. "They talk about discrimination, about violence, about media images, their futures, sex and relationships and gender roles within the African American community," said Morten.

Morten noted that when she mentioned Black youth "people automatically assumed I was talking about Black boys. That was very interesting. I had to make it clear to everyone from my designers on down that we were including young women. People have very set ideas about Black youth.

"I'm hoping that this film will be a message to the youth that they can accomplish anything. These kids did not all come from privileged homes. At the end of the day the message is, they had some struggles, the have some dreams, and they are moving on. They have ideas and views and they are going to be successful adults."

Throughout the film Morten has called on the perspective of a youth advisory panel, working with the panel members to assess interview questions and review footage. "Youth have been involved in the production of the film throughout. That was really important—to have someone under the age of 35 working on it," Morten laughed. "You can imagine, they don't hold back. If they don't like it, if they don't think it's real, they will tell you in a second. It's been very helpful to have their input."

Plans for the film include both broadcast and the festival circuit. "I've already had early interest from channel 11 [ WTTW ] to show it in the spring," Morten said. "I've had someone contact me from University of Arizona to show it there in the spring. We want it to be on the festival circuit and to be shown on PBS channels across the country, that's the most logical vehicle. We submitted the film to Sundance in September; we won't know if it will be part of the 2011 festival until the first week in December."

"It's been a labor of love," said Morten, who dedicated the film to her 4-year-old god daughter Ella. "Now that I have a rough cut—we're 99.9-percent done with post-production and in the process of building a website that will include extra footage and putting together a discussion guide. Now that I have a rough cut, I can go for more fund raising opportunities, but we've done a lot of individual fund raising, people have been very supportive," she explained. "We've had a lot of support from [ the nightspot ] Sidetrack and [ philanthropist ] Michael Leppen. I'm really happy to have Michael's support as he really gets issues around youth."

Much of the money raised to date has been through Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative projects. Projects are set with all-or-nothing fundraising goals with a self-imposed deadline.

Although the Kickstarter goal is $12,000, the productions "wants to go beyond that because there is no end to the money that is needed to make a film," explained Morten. "We probably need, conservatively, another $50,000 to do distribution, the guide and the website."

Individuals are also invited to attend the Woke Up Black preview; meet Morten; enjoy cocktails and appetizers; and learn how to become involved as contributors Thursday, Nov. 11, 6-8 p.m., at the Illinois Room of the Metropolitan Club, 233 S. Wacker. RSVPs are required; contact Jeff at JEFFHMC@GMAIL.COM or 847-835-3350. For additional information on the film and to view the trailer visit www.mortengroup.com .


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