Published on: 22nd February, 2011
“Woke up Black,” is the first feature length documentary by activist Mary F. Morten. The film follows the lives of five African-American youth. “Moviegoers will see a glimpse of the lives of 5 black youth, their ideas, attitudes, and opinions,” says Morten. “They will see the youth in many situations that range from sad to educational or just hanging out and talking with each other. I hope moviegoers will have a better idea of what these youth are experiencing and what their hopes are for the future.”
For two years, Morten and associate producers Aparna Sharma, Keisha Farmer-Smith, and Marisol Ybarra followed five youth from the Chicago area. The documentary subjects are:
Roslaee, 18, a recent graduate of Lakeview High School. Rosalee will be the first person in her family to attend college. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle twelve years ago when her mother was unable to care for her. Rosie lives with her 7 brothers and sisters.
Carter, 16, was adopted by two African American gay men when he was 10. As the oldest of eight children he was bounced around in foster care for several years. He dispels the stereotype about adopting older children and the ability to have an impact on children of this age. He was just made captain of his football team and is an honors student. His junior year in high school promises to be filled with the joy of self discovery and a future that has been supported with love and encouragement from his parents.
Ansheera, “Ace,” 17, is a self-identified gender queer youth who has struggled in her family with her sexual orientation and gender identity issues. She has found an outlet by becoming socially engaged in several non-profits in Chicago. She feels she can go to the adult organizers in these agencies and just be herself without any pressure. She has received a full academic scholarship to a Midwestern university.
Morgan, 19, lives in a south suburb of Chicago and is in her second year of college at an out of state university. She has an interest in biomedical engineering. Her father works in corporate America and her mother is a successful real estate agent.
Sheldon, 20, is currently an organizer at a south side community organization. He was formerly incarcerated (at 17 years old) for his role in a felony crime. He is actively working to get his record expunged. After completing his time in jail he graduated from high school is attending college part-time and is parenting his young daughter.
“Woke up Black,” will premiere on Friday February 25, 2011 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State Street at 8:00 PM. Mary Morten, the producer/director had this to say about the film.
PrideIndex.com: I understand that you profiled several youth. How did you decide which stories to focus on for this film?
MORTEN: We did film pre-production in 3 cities, New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago, and did interviews with 25 youth. Initially I thought I might pick a couple of youth from each city. After consultation with my creative consultant Gordon Quinn, the Artistic Director at Kartemquin Films, we looked at the depth and breadth of the youth and it was clear the stories of Chicago youth in particular were universal. All eyes were on the city at that time back in the fall of 2008. Senator Barack Obama was getting ready to get the Democrats’ nomination for President of the United States and the city was going through the 2016 Olympic bid process. It was a key time for Chicago. And I feel that Chicago is often overlooked by the Coasts. We thought this film would uplift the youth of the city. Again, we understood that Chicago’s youth stories are universal, their stories are similar to the stories I’d heard of the youth of New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis and other cities, so we figured that it would be easier to follow local youth because they would be more accessible.
PrideIndex: How did you decide which five youth to focus on?
MORTEN: With regard to speaking with these specific youth, it is by happenstance these youth stories were diverse. They had different stories, academic backgrounds and so forth. One young lady identifies as gender queer so it was one of those things that fit together nicely. When I looked at the five, they complement each other in terms of their differences. One thing we to make wanted sure of is that we made clear to the viewing audience that Black Youth are not monolithic, they‘re all very different. I had a couple of people say to me that I simply picked five exceptional youth and I would say that’s not true. I think the key is there are far more stories than these 5 stories. We don’t generally see them in the news. What we see in the news on youth is mostly 20-second sound bites, so I ask “when do we go below the surface, when do we go in depth to see the circumstances that have put the youth in a particular situation?” We often do not get that access. And that was one of the things we were trying to do with this film.
PrideIndex: In terms of the experience of bringing this film to big screen, could you tell us what was it like, would you do if again (if so, what would you do differently) if you had the chance to do it all over again?
MORTEN: I would definitely do it again. I have an idea of what my needs are for my next film. For someone like me who has had a successful career in executive management in non-profits (I have had my own consulting business for ten years), this was without a doubt extraordinarily challenging. When I went up for my first round of grant awards in a diversity development fund for people of color, I was one of 3,600 people vying for funds. It was overwhelming because at this time I had only completed short films, not a full length feature film. It was rough going up against people who had a full length film whereas I only had a ten minute clip to show. It was a huge learning curve. I don’t anticipate that it will be as difficult the next time around. I have to tell you that at this early stage of promotion for the film, I’ve had some initial indication that this doesn’t fit into pathology of how we think of black youth, meaning the youth we focused on for the film are not out robbing, raping or pillaging; black youth are shown in a more positive light that conflicts with the stereotypes. It’s going to be a learning curve for others.
PrideIndex: Where do you plan on showing the film next?
MORTEN: We’re going to enter some film festivals as we are able to. As you know, we’re going to have the film’s world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, February 25. By premiering the film in Chicago, which I think is the most appropriate venue, I have in some cases knocked the film out of being entered in other film festivals because a number of film festivals require that your film premiere at their festival. I just wasn’t willing to wait because these festivals weren’t happening until the spring and fall and I just couldn’t wait. I wanted to take advantage of Black History Month. In terms of other cities, I’m in discussions with organizations in Tucson, Memphis, Charleston, South Carolina and New York. There will also be screenings in the Chicagoland area. There will be screenings at community based organizations. As you may know, there are two Chicago community based organizations featured in the film; Alternatives Inc. on the north side and MAGIC, which is based on the south side. There will be an interest in showing the film in South Africa. There is an incredible amount of opportunity and we’re going to take advantage of all of them. And we’re going to show the film in the spring on the local public broadcasting station WTTW in Chicago.
PrideIndex: Tell me a little bit about your background and your filmmaking background.
MORTEN: I am a lifelong Chicagoan. I went to school for radio and television production at Loyola University Chicago. I’ve had a number of radio programs and done a lot a work with independent producers before I started producing and directing film shorts on women, the LGBT community, and some on national policy initiatives that I was involved with. I have always been interested in using video and film as a way to look at issues to do some form of advocacy in some cases and as a tool as for community organizing. In the meantime, I have been moving up the ladder in non-profit management. I have been an executive VP in organizations, program director, policy director and I have worked for the Chicago mayor’s office at the office of the liaison to the LGBT community. I‘ve often found myself as the first African-American woman doing something or sometimes the first out lesbian doing something. I have chaired a number of organizations and boards and have been active in the women’s and LGBT communities.
PrideIndex: What was it like to work with the youth, how did you keep up with them?
MORTEN: It has been an ongoing dream of mine to do a film that I was completely in charge of and that meant raising all the funds for it. I started in the summer of 2008. I went out for grants and started to get the word out and by the end of 2008 and 2009, we knew who we were going to follow. My three associate producers, Aparna Sharma, Keisha Farmer-Smith, and Marisol Ybarra, had the arduous task of keeping up with the youth whose ages ranged from 16 to 21years of age. And while they may have said “yes I’ll be involved,” they really didn’t know what that meant until we started the process. We needed to know about their family gatherings or if something real big was going on at school. So nailing them down, getting calls back and getting all five of them in a room was short of a miracle. We really needed to know about everything so that if we could hang out with them, we would know it was okay to bring cameras along to film them.
I recall the week when we were supposed to shoot Carter, the youngest in the group. He needed to be in a special meeting for his advanced placement classes at school, so even after all that advanced planning we barely had him for two hours. We knew that we had to be flexible and go with the flow and really just take whatever time we had to get him. It has been interesting to watch the youth over the years and see how they have developed and how their lives have unfolded.
PrideIndex: How much did it cost to produce this film?
MORTEN: I had to go to family and friends and acquaintances to help support this film. Funds were raised primarily through individual donors. I have received one grant. The budget was initially a little over $300,000, but when it is all said and done it will cost $500,000 when distribution costs and the cost of all other materials that will have to be produced are added. It’s a lot of money and I am hoping during the outreach and engagement phase we will get money from more traditional funding sources. We’re producing a reading guide because we want this film to be used in a variety of audiences and one of them is an afterschool program. We’re going to provide some tools for educators to use in school systems to talk to youth about different subjects.
PRIDEINDEX: Name 3 mentors (or influences) that have influenced your own artistic style?
MORTEN: Debra Castoff, Senior Producer of Spark, a youth afterschool apprenticeship program in San Francisco. I started working with Debra while I was working for the mayor’s office. One of the major projects I had while working at the mayor’s office was to get a film distributed to all Chicago Public Schools that would teach teachers as staff development about how to talk about gay issues in school. When I saw their materials, they were so well done. The teaching guide and the film’s production values were excellent and I said to myself this is what I want to do. So I was thrilled to have a chance for this film to be distributed. It’s the largest distribution of the film in the country and I built a coalition of people that were gay, straight, black and white to say to the school systems that this is a critical staff development need and we are losing our students.
My advisor Gordon Quinn, the Artistic Director and co-founder at Kartemquin Films. It’s so funny because I did my internship in college at Kartemquin Films. I have seen Gordon over the years but never had a project to take to him for his advice. But during this process he was very open, supportive and very critical, which was needed.
And the third person would be my partner. She has a Masters in filmmaking and a critical eye around the filmmaking process and was enormously helpful during the process. In fact, two years ago she gave me a desktop iMac for our anniversary. I used it to edit the film from my home office. I cannot thank her enough.
PRIDEINDEX: What advice would you give to other aspiring filmmakers?
MORTEN: I would say first and foremost to learn how to raise money. Part of what I do as an organizational and resource development consultant is to teach non-profits and for-profits how to run better and how to fundraise. These skills came in handy for this project. I am used to promoting other people’s projects and so it was a real change to be promoting a project that I was in charge of. You have to employ the same techniques and let people know what you’re doing. You make sure that you thank people and thank them again and again.
I would suggest to anyone who is interested in filmmaking to take some fundraising courses. Go to a workshop that are held by many filmmaking organizations in the city. If you think you are going to write a grant and get money and it’s your first time doing it, you are most likely mistaken.
PRIDEINDEX: What’s next for you?
MORTEN: The next project that I would like to work on is something with the drag performance/female illusionist community. It’s a total departure from “Woke up Black” and part of my challenge is that I am interested in a number of different things. I have theater production background and I have put on shows and performances and all that it entails. And I come from a family where I am the youngest of six children. One of my older brothers, who passed away over 20 years ago, used to be a drag performer at The Baton Show Lounge. He performed as Shirley Basses, he was fabulous! His name was Terry Livingston. I’d like to tell some of his story as it relates to the story and history of the Baton, which is an LGBT institution. I think it is an important story to tell.
Tickets are available at four sponsorship levels:
$1,000.00 Director’s Circle Includes 6 tickets, program listing, preferred seating at the screening, opening night party and a DVD copy of the documentary.
$500.00 Producer’s Circle Includes 4 tickets, program listing, preferred seating, opening night party and goody bag of movie items.
$250.00 Patron Circle Includes 2 tickets, program listing, preferred seating, opening night party and film poster.
$100.00 Supporter Includes 1 general admission ticket and opening night party.