Inspired by J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, which introduced the world to Peter Pan, writer-director Justice Jamal Jones’ lyrical debut short film, How To Raise A Black Boy, reframes that tale of childhood and adulthood within a queer Black narrative. Following its inclusion in April’s Outfest Fusion QTBIPOC Film Festival, How To Raise A Black Boy went on to screen at the Atlanta Film Festival where Justice won the Filmmaker-To-Watch award. The self-described “non-binary pansexual alchemist” was also recently named a 2021 Sundance Ignite x Adobe Fellow.
At Outfest LA 2021 How To Raise A Black Boy will precede a screening of Nathan Hale Williams’s All Boys Aren’t Blue—which brings the words of journalist and activist George Matthew Johnson’s memoir about growing up Black and queer in New Jersey to life—at Harmony Gold on Saturday August 14th at 6:15pm, screening virtually August 15th to 17th.
Ahead of the 39th edition of the world’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival, which opens on Friday August 13th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Justice Jamal Jones about the draw of film as a medium for their creative expression, their queer influences, and the kind of work they want to make with their production company Rainbow Farm.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: where did you grow up?
Justice Jamal Jones: “I grew up in Boys Town, a historic town in Nebraska, where my parents worked as in-home counselors for troubled boys.”
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
“Well, I guess in colloquial terms I would be described as an actor, filmmaker, and writer, but I define my artistic practice as one of alchemy. Conventionally, alchemy is the physical act of transforming lead to gold, but it can can also be used as a metaphor for transforming our mundane level of consciousness to one of magical realism.”
“As an artist, I believe that I have the ability to take everyday, mundane occurrences and conjure serendipitous collisions within storylines. By thinking of my work as a creative act of alchemy, I’m able to create intentionally disruptive and progressive visuals and narratives that center the marginalized, and make cultural fairytales a reality.”
What is the draw for you of filmmaking as a creative outlet?
“Although there are still many forms of gatekeeping within the industry itself, the accessibility to watch films is more abundant than ever. Within my filmmaking process I integrate Black feminist and queer theory into my art alongside Black diasporic spiritual practices such as Ifá, Vodun, and Santería that contrast with restrictive western traditions. My Black film alchemy is an avenue for the accessibility of academia and spirituality.”
“I strive to push past the need for marginalized representation in the gaze of a normalized center. By using film as my generative medium, I want to create works of nuance and growth for people of color, femmes, and queer folks, people who live outside the binaries of the margins and the center; art that looks at the complex intersectionality of their human condition.”
Did you have any formal film training?
“Actually, no I didn’t. At the beginning of my academic career I was a drama student at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. After wanting a new perspective and more control over my artistry, I transferred to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where I majored in Art Therapy through multimedia for “marginalized” groups.”
How would you describe How to Raise a Black Boy to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?
“How To Raise A Black Boy is an experimental fairytale dedicated to Black boyhood.”
What initially inspired you to write the film and how did it evolve?
“Originally the film was an analysis of my childhood, that happened to be queer and Black. It grew beyond my childhood to become a collage of my academic career, of current American politics, my love life, and of the shared experience of childhood secrets that haunt our adulthoods.”
What do you think this work says about you as an individual and as an artist?
“By finding the beauty in the horrors of our lives I am trying to find space for healing.”
What dialogue does the film have with traditional Western fairytales?
“How To Raise A Black Boy is based on the fantastical and literary journey of Peter Pan. It is a continuation of what happened to the children of Peter and Wendy. I believe that fairytales are innately queer. They allow for creativity and a reimagining of our everyday lives. I also believe that within fairytales oppressive forces such as patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, and compulsive heteronormativity don’t have to exist. In the case of How To Raise A Black Boy, queer Blackness can dissociate and navigate outside of the gaze of these elitist structures.”
How would you describe the film’s relationship with linear time?
“The film lives outside of Western timelines and its construction of linear time. Within both Black and queer spaces linear time can be very confining. Phenomena such as Black history in America are often focused on slavery and civil rights in relation to white violence, and for queer people timelines are often related to heteronormative and cisgender assimilation, and moments like marriage equality overshadow our continued struggle and the violence against queer people.”
Collage is central to the film, why were you drawn to that as a medium for this work and what imagery do the collages incorporate?
“Collage allows for the complexity of “marginalized” people, for them to be centered in a scrambling of power and privilege. The collages allow for Blackness and queerness to be cut and pasted back into narratives where they have been hidden, such as the Victorian art used within the film. Personally, from a perspective of healing, I had to cut out experiences from my past that didn’t serve me and fill them in with something much more beautiful.”
We see queer Black love and Black joy all too infreqently on screen and in mainstream media, why was it important for you to celebrate it with this film?
“For me it’s not about representation in the mainstream, it’s about healing the margins so that we can centralize without relation to mainstream culture.”
What does it mean to you to have this particular work be shown at Outfest, knowing that LGBTQIA+ audiences will get to see it?
“Screening at Outfest is extremely fulfilling because I know the film will be seen by the community it was meant for.”
Who are some of the filmmakers or artists who inspire you?
“I joke that I want to be the queer love child of Barry Jenkins and Ari Aster. I am really inspired by Jenkins, his blend of embellished set design with uncomfortable themes, creating a fantastical cinematic experience rooted in realistic situations. I’m also inspired by the writers bell hooks, Langston Hughes, Octavia Butler, and James Baldwin.”
Why did you name your production company Rainbow Farm and what kind of work would you like to create?
“The company’s name speaks to my roots in Nebraska, and its mission to cultivate a rainbow spectrum of work with a focus on communal art agriculture that nourishes the mind and soul.”
What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“My favorite piece of queer art is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. I’m a huge fan of gothic literature and that work really spoke to me as I was disrupting my identity as a gay man and allowing myself to be a non-binary, pansexual, Alchemist.”
By James Kleinmann
How To Raise A Black Boy will precede All Boys Aren’t Blue at Outfest LA 2021 at Harmony Gold on Saturday August 14th at 6:15pm, and screens virtually August 15th – 17th 2021. For passes, tickets, and the full festival lineup head to OutfestLA2021.com.