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The Story of 'How Jack Became Black'

As the new school year gets underway, a new documentary explores the story of a father’s struggle when his son's school asked him to check a box to identify his son’s race. 

The film, "How Jack Became Black," is part of the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, which begins Thursday.

Los Angeles filmmaker and father Eli Steele is African-American, Native American, Jewish and deaf.  He married a woman of Mexican heritage so his children are even more mixed race than he is.  Steele began the film as a way to ask the question – What will America be like for his kids growing up?

Filmmaker Elie Steele in "How Jack Became Black"

When it was time for his son Jack to start school, Steele was asked to check a box on the application designating his son's "primary race." 

"The thing that startled me the most was if I left that blank, Jack, my kid, would not be allowed to enroll.  Why was race more important than his education?" Steele said.

Eli Steele's children June and Jack

Steele chose to check the box for African-American as his son's "primary race," but he wondered if he made the right decision or if he succumbed to "identity politics" by choosing one race over another as primary.

Clay Cane from "How Jack Became Black"

"Today we have, through identity politics, backed ourselves back into those boxes. So somebody like me who is multiracial or my children who are even more mixed than me, we don't fit into these boxes anymore," he said.

Recognizing there are more multi-racial Americans like his son in America today, Steele traveled the country to speak to some of them.

Angie McKee from "How Jack Became Black"

"I probably did about 200 interviews over five years.  While I did not use 90 percent of it, it was a very rare and fascinating experience to talk to that many people and these people are literally at the vanguard," he said.

Steele says the film challenges the notion of identity politics, where checking one race over another might lead to certain benefits.

Eric Jaskolski from "How Jack Became Black"

"It's much easier to rely on the stereotype, much easier to look at these boxes.  We really don't understand the dangers of identity politics. It's how much credibility we give these boxes and how much these boxes inform the way we see the world," he said.

The film touches a nerve in today's world, particularly surrounding events like what happened last year in Charlottesville.

Animated scene from "How Jack Became Black"

"White supremacy was the very first form of identity politics and the worst thing we could do today is bring that back, and so that's why this film raises the question of 'let's look at the world today and do we want to keep going down this path?'" he said.

Steele says the media plays a big part in our perception of race today.

"You read your CNN,  your Drudge Report, all these things and you just see negativity, negativity, negativity. But from my experience just traveling across America interviewing all these people, we really are much more united than we think we are," he said.

For Steele, America is much more than a negative soundbyte on cable news.

Jack, Eli and June Steele from "How Jack Became Black"

"I think the most important thing I learned making this film is that when you go out your front door and you interact with people of all colors, shapes, sizes...just think about how amazing and organized our country is," he said.

"How Jack Became Black" screens Friday and Monday at Shaker Square Cinemas and Tuesday at Akron's Night Light Cinema.

How Jack Became Black - Official Trailer from How Jack Became Black on Vimeo.


View this post on Instagram #EliSteele #documentary @howjackbecameblackdocumentary onscreen @urbanfilmcle For more visit Applause.ideastream.org A post shared by ideastream (@ideastreamneo) on Sep 19, 2018 at 8:52am PDT

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