Sunday, July 19, 2009

Janks Morton: The “Men II Boys” Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: One Man, One Camera, One Mission

Born August 18th, 1963 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Janks Morton, Jr. is a documentary filmmaker and founder of iYAGO Entertainment Group, a company he created to reflect both the conscious and unconscious soul of Black America. Mr. Morton is a 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry whose services are much in demand as a lecturer, commentator and motivational speaker. In those capacities, he has convened workshops, seminars and served as a panelist and keynote speaker at numerous universities, prisons, conferences, churches and community centers all around the world.
Janks made his directorial debut with the groundbreaking feature-length documentary, What Black Men Think, for which he also assumed the duties of producer, cameraman, editor and narrator. The thought-provoking expose’ challenged everyone to rethink the negative misinformation about black men generally circulated in pop culture by asking one simple question, “Are there more black men in jail or college?”
Here, he talks about his new documentary, Men II Boys.
KW: Hi Janks, thanks for the time. How are Ava and the baby?
JM: Thanks for asking, Kam. Ava sends her regards. Mother and son are doing extremely well. L.J., Janks III, is a whopping 22 lbs at 4 months, so I’m already looking for a good NFL agent.
KW: Getting any sleep yet?
JM: Rice and solids are the key to a somewhat normal sleep pattern. But with the enthusiasm and excitement around Men II Boys, I’m finding that 4 to 6 hours per day is going to have to suffice.
KW: In 2007, I named you the Best Director of the year in my annual Blacktrospective for your first film, What Black Men Think. How did the success of the movie change your life?
JM: What Black Men Think was, and still is, this amazing journey. Even 2 years following its release, I have received calls from London, Toronto, and the University of Alabama over the past week. Because the film was never picked up by a major studio or network, I have had to rely solely on the strength of the film as well as word of mouth to continue advancing the message of the film. For me personally, it has been so satisfying to be able to travel to colleges, community groups and churches throughout the world, spreading the concept of the restoration of black relationships, through dismantling too often quoted myths about black men.
KW: How would you describe people’s response to the film as you showed it around the country?
JM: I began incorporating the phrase “Life Changing Event” early on, as I toured the country and even abroad. As you recall, there was so much data, statistics, history, politics and commentary, wherever I was, when the lights came up in the room at film’s end, there was always this 2 to 3 minute pause with audiences, when I would ask for questions. People were almost overwhelmed, as the film attempts to bridge the gap between what is real and what is perceived.
KW: Did you feel any pressure that your second film had to be just as good as your impressive directorial debut?
JM: [Laughs] The sophomore jinx? And my nickname is Jinx! Oh, the pressure was intense. The expectations I put on myself were enormous. What Black Men Think was my first feature length doculogue. Any artist knows with their first work, it’s like you’re pouring a lifetime of thoughts, creativity, energy, and your soul onto a canvas, or into a record or film. So, after you leave it all on the table with your initial effort, where do you go? Where you go is back to “our” story, and while they may differ, there are intriguing aspects about dynamics in the black community today. I think the greatest advantage the modern era documentarians have is that audiences have grown accustomed to the format, embracing the non-sterile imperfections of independent expression. Just surf YouTube and you’ll find the next wave of brilliant filmmakers hungry to seek out this alternative to mainstream media, Hollywood, and networks. And because too often we see a more skewed representation of Black America, and biases in “our” story, there is an excellent niche’ for black filmmakers to capture the true representation of the status of our community.
KW: How did you come up with the idea for this new project, Men II Boys?
JM: Men II Boys was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine named LaMarr Darnell Shields. He called me on the phone asking me to contribute to his book “101 Things Every Boy of Color Should Know,” conceptually a set of lessons for young men affected by the lack of positive fathers and mentors giving them “pearls of wisdom” as they try to ascend to adulthood. As the conversation evolved I stopped him and said, “You know, a book is competing with the iPod, the internet, text messaging and 572 cable stations. If I can put these tidbits on camera from a mosaic of men, a DVD might just get popped in the player.”
KW: Was your approach to making it the same as What Black Men Think?
JM: Not at all. What Black Men Think took 9 months to film, edit and produce Men II Boys took 40 days. I learned so much in the process of making What Black Men Think that my processes have been streamlined, my editing technique is faster, and my overall ability to deliver a finished product to market is much easier.
KW: How did you decide who to interview for Men II Boys? It seems to have less of you as a narrator and fewer African-American icons as commentators. Why so?
JM: I got some pushback from several of my dearest friends as I began cutting this film. As you view the respective projects side by side, making What Black Men Think is a social and political analysis, while Men II Boys is completely social. The challenge with people who are familiar with making What Black Men Think is, I spent so much time bouncing around on camera, in front of whiteboards, in front of the US Capitol and such, people were expecting to see me all over the screen once again. I decided early on that Men II Boys was not about me. Men II Boys is a testament to the men who are willing to roll their sleeves up, pitch in, and fill the gap where this tremendous void is in young boys’ lives.
KW: What’s Men II Boys’ intended audience, and what effect do you want it to have on them?
JM: Men II Boys is an extension of my initial efforts though What Black Men Think. Who does Janks want? As you recall, black Americans have the highest divorce rate, the lowest marriage rates and highest out-of-wedlock birth rates. My goal is to try to close this great divide and bring reclamation to the black family. This film is an attempt from multiple to angles to first reach young boys to give them urgent and necessary messages in order to help them along their way to adulthood. Secondly to quote Marian Wright Edelman “We don’t have a youth problem in this country, we have an adult problem.” We have got to address the fact that too many people are not wearing the title of “parent” correctly, and to challenge us all to be the best caregivers and providers we can be. So the messages of the film are for young and old, men and women.
KW: What has the early feedback to the film been?
JM: Another “Life Changing Event.” The movie is cut to 44 minutes for a very specific reason. So that audiences can engage in debate around the subject-matter afterward. As the film and lecture tour moves across the country, audiences will be able to tap into Lamarr and myself to get valuable information around the central thesis of the book and DVD. Plus, for the first time in the history of black cinema, a film is being utilized as the centerpiece of a Congressional initiative. Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, at this year’s Congressional Black Caucus, will be launching Men II Boys as part of his annual legislative agenda. Susan Taylor of Essence Magazine, Steve Perry of Capitol Prep, Leon Harris from CNN, 100 Black Men of America, and more churches than I can name have witnessed the effect this tour is having on audiences everywhere, and have endorsed it as a starting point around the issue of young boys.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
JM: LaMarr made an interesting comment as we spoke at a church last night. “Jesus didn’t have the internet, and he’s got the best-selling book of all time,” I would love for fans to use the power of social networking, blogging, YouTube and email to ensure that the tour comes to your city.
KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome in life?
JM: Without giving away the film, it is the last scene of Men II Boys. The message of forgiveness and reconciliation happened for me recently, and I believe it is the key to ensuring that young men do not replicate the behaviors of their parents. The sins of the father, maybe?
KW: Teri Emerson asks, when was the last time you had a good belly laugh?
JM: Wow, I have so much joy in my life with my family and career it’s hard to remember the last time I had tears in my eyes laughing. Oh yeah! While I was filming a basketball player for the film, he said, “Know how to wash your clothes, separate the whites from the darks…Real easy, but your woman will love you for it.”
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
JM: Overjoyed! Now Stevie Wonder will be in my head the rest of the day.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
JM: A regular guy who wants the best for his people, and who has been given extraordinary blessings to help facilitate a renaissance in the hearts minds and souls of the black community.
KW: How do you feel about the death of Michael Jackson?
JM: Michael was brilliant. I was always a Prince fan so while I recognized his genius, I was more appreciative of the purple one. With that said, what saddens me most about his passing is the apparent struggle he had with challenges from a marginalized childhood, and how that affected him throughout his life. Men II Boys is drawing on the same narrative. Michael publically professed the traumas of Joe Jackson, but do you think we would have heard of Michael Jackson had there been no Joe? My point being, there is a generation of young men of color, who can’t even understand what it means to have a father in the home, and that trauma is probably the wellspring of most of the social ills we see in this country.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
JM: I’m reading a book called The Doomsday Key as we speak.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
JM: That’s as tough as the belly laughing question. I think I have a normal fear of living, taking care of the family, paying the rent, but the crippling inability to move fear only happens when I get stuck in an elevator. I’m claustrophobic.
KW: What is your favorite meal to cook?
JM: Breakfast. It’s like heart disease on a plate. And I only do it on weekends. Waffles, cheese, eggs, smoked ham, taters…yummy.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
JM: The never asked question, I alluded to earlier. What does Janks want? Again the goal is to bring about the restoration of the black family.
KW: When did you know you knew you wanted to be a director?
JM: When you named me the best of 2007! [Laughs], I really don’t consider myself a director or even a filmmaker. I say that I am a social/political activist documenting 21st century black America for the analysis of posterity. I just happen to do it through celluloid.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
JM: That doggone Soundscapes is all over my house and car. The baby loves that serenity music and gets fussy when you try to change the station. Let’s see, peace and quiet or the new Maxwell album. At this juncture, it’s peace and quiet.
KW: How do you feel about Barack Obama’s becoming President of the United States?
JM: I’m careful to differentiate the persona from the politics. His achievement is to be celebrated by all Americans and the world. But if I see one more stimulus coming across the crawl, I’m going to lose what little hair I have left.
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
JM: My father, Janks Morton, Sr. And I challenge every young boy in this country and every father, to make the answer the same as mine. I like to be able to talk with have contact with and see my heroes.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
JM: Know the difference between persistence and perseverance. And work your craft for the benefit of others and not yourself.
KW: What movie will you be making next, another documentary?
JM: Red Tape and Brick Walls. Here’s a sneak peek into the concept.
By the numbers: 67.9% of black men pay their child support. Guess what percent have joint custody? I can drive a mile radius in any urban area and find a black man who has been incarcerated for past due child support. 90,000 black men have sole custody with court-ordered child support. There’s a 72.8% delinquency-rate among the women. But I can’t find a woman who has been incarcerated for a past due child support bill. Does that sound a little biased?
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
JM: Who started the Harlem Renaissance? Who knows? I would like that my works are the beginnings of a restoration. A man from the film told me, “If you do not care who gets credit, a movement can never be stopped.”
KW: Thanks again for the interview, and best of luck with all your endeavors.
JM: Thank you, Kam.

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