By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett
University of The Bahamas
English Social Sciences organised a screening and panel discussion of the film I’s Man at the University of The Bahamas on Wednesday, November 6th, at 6:00 p.m. The room was packed as students and faculty from sociology, psychology, English and the general public came out to discuss the current ‘man crisis’. The film captures perspectives from multiple angles that discuss the imagery of black masculinity and its descriptors from objectifying women in batty riders to murder for glory because of ego issues: the intersections of sexuality and socio-cultural and economic pressures conflate to conform to roles society perceives as normal and in turn normalises. If men do not consume women like that, something must be wrong with them. Much is documented in the film of the ways black masculinities are defined and controlled by a capitalistic, hegemonic racialised system that seeks to disempower through weaponised messaging and stereotyping. Meanwhile, the documentary reveals this underside.
Documentary filmmaking provides a needed and much valued vision of what is usually missing from the headlines and news reports. It juxtaposes, through montage, disparate as well as related images of good, bad, ugly and somehow creates a nuanced reading of the situation that would not be so easily accessed when these visual queues are left on their own. It is a conversation that editing allows to happen that otherwise would remain silent. The director, film maker and writer intentionally aims a lens in a particular direction, shoots the action, in this case men telling their stories of feeling abandoned, unloved, pressured to fit in, as well as women discussing how they perceive their male counterparts. The shot then focuses on what men are told they should be seeing, consuming, internalising and performing as their masculine identity. This is what the society normalises. This visual language is significant as it is unperceived or undetected, though, as experts from Naomi Klein in No Logo to PBS’s Frontline Special (Aired Tuesday, November 5th) “In the age of AI” are now telling us that our world is being shaped by advertising and artificial intelligence.
This is a part of what I see as the programme presented in the Visual Life of Social Affliction: A Small Axe Project (VLOSA) that is currently on display at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. What is the visual life of social affliction? Strachan’s documentary answers this in part through a more artistic, also more accessible medium, film. Film is often seen as less threatening or intimidating when compared to painting or sculpture. Society tends to present an image of art as being aloof from the public or too distant from their experiences to allow familiarity with pieces of art that are often pegged as being elitist and hard to understand. This is an outdated image and idea of alterity and high art that allows those who are seen as too undeserving to continue to be sidelined from artistic expression. The converse is actually true: art is open to all people, we may simply have different tools and materials to use; the creativity flowing from this is no less art than a piece of marble sculpted into an abstract shape. Home-making and food ways as carried on in homes on Bahamian Islands are also artistic/creative expressions. These are visual and cultural languages that attest to humanity and lived experience.
Ricardo Edwards’ digital painting Pirate Bwoy (2018) is perhaps a good bridge to bring I’s Man into the same frame as VLOSA and allow crosspollination. The boy afloat on a dark sea is seen in Strachan’s documentary from a distinct, current socio-economic and cultural position through a frame that liberates the subject from a fixed hostile gaze. There can be no single message, just as there can be no single story. Pirate Bwoy’s story is more fully fleshed out when we ‘read’ the image along with documentary snippets from Strachan’s I’s Man. The conversation between the two works allows the viewer to see why he’s afloat, what has transpired to create isolation and how society has failed to prepare this young man, who is blamed for being violent and irresponsible, for the world. The single story is disrupted through interconnectivity and overlapping narratives.
The creation of a single story is a violence inflicted on all those stories excluded as well as on the official story; it takes a great deal of violence to subject and silence an entire group of people and their stories.
Disrupting the single story:
Students were very engaged in discussing the film and grappling with ideas around broken homes, as presented through the construct of Euro-American nuclear families that are not the norm in non-Anglo communities where extended families are far more common. Some wanted to know how we could change the ways Bahamian males see themselves and relate across gendered differences. Others argued against the idea that single-parent homes are broken. Dr Hall-Campbell-Dean spearheaded this discussion and offered that families are fluid structures, as opposed to rigidly defined structures. Strachan’s work facilitated what seemed to be a cathartic process. Only, we need far more of these. This kind of conversation discourages the need to rely on structures that promote toxic masculinity and misframed men from continuing to perform unsustainable masculine roles in society.
I’s Man, along with Pirate Bwoy, works with last’s week screening of Kareem Mortimer’s Cargo in that they contextualise lives that are otherwise decontextualised, they give voice to poverty and exploitation, disempowerment as well as disenfranchisement that are normalised through the power of the single story to represent those less powerful as paradoxically pathologised and ultimately responsible for their own poverty and social affliction.
Men are often misframed because there is an assumption that they all share in patriarchy and benefit from it, while many are equally disempowered by and fall victim to it.
Without these filmic versions, this other story would remain silent for the most part, except to those who have lived it and understand the workings of capitalist, hegemonic discursive practices that posit men as all the same and equally exploitative.