“Soul Food Junkies” is a documentary being made by Byron Hurt; he is presently raising money to finish it. My own nickname for him is “Braveheart” because of his willingness to bring complexity to issues that affect black people first, but are bound to become troubling to the country at large because they are not the result of genetics or color. They are the result of exploitation or misunderstanding.
Hurt first deserved his “Braveheart” nickname after doing a surprisingly serious film about the decadence at the center of the hip-hop phenomenon. It was called “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” Though an admitted fan of early hip-hop, Hurt was disturbed as the so-called music moved away from community awareness and was taken over by hustlers who reached to the bottom of the barrel for profit-making material that could be placed on the auction block of popular culture.
The black male was now a “darkie” remade for this time and recognized by his gold teeth and tattoos — as well as an obligatory frown that opened up as the mouth spread loads of filth. Ethnic insults of black people were the norm because the hustlers were discouraged from attacking Jews, Koreans and any other ethnic group other than their own, which was not supposed to block their profits or keep them from becoming millionaires.
The integrity and deep human feeling of Hurt’s documentary never became the big subject one would have expected, but integrity and deep human feeling are no longer expected from those examining black popular culture, or making big profit from it.
It turned out to be all right for the hustlers, but things are now beginning to heat up against the minstrel misogyny of hip-hop on black websites like The Grio.
The one Hurt is now working on — “Soul Food Junkies” — may hit the target much more quickly when finished and released. It might become as well discussed as Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” which was an explosive revelation about the toxic fast-food industry.
Hurt, for all of his originality, is much like an aesthetic son of the wonderful Stanley Nelson. He is also a combination of Spurlock and the writer Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s 1906 “The Jungle” exposed the filthy meatpacking industry and led to the Pure Food and Drug Act. While Sinclair was essentially a well-meaning but terrible writer, Hurt is an actual artist who understands the importance of nuance and complexity. Those qualities run through the hour of his film that I have seen. It is humorous, soulful and well aware of how hard it is to change when what one is addicted to is not only certain kinds of food but food made to taste truly delicious.
The grand irony that Hurt examines is the fact that black slaves made a cuisine out of discarded parts of the food served to the white people, who were eventually converted by the deliciousness that was unfortunately provided by the salt-heavy seasoning, the deep frying, the butter and the fat. Soul food’s achievement has an ironic meaning. As Hurt, Dick Gregory and health professionals point out, the cuisine is toxic over time if not properly seasoned or made differently without too much butter and fat.
His interviews with street people, ministers, chefs, dietitians, writers, academics and cooks give heft to the tale. At the center of it is the grief felt by Hurt, his sister and his mother over the death of his father, who was a good man but too in love with bad food to change his habits.
This is a common problem. There is no joke in the film about the frightening degrees of black illness from consuming too much ethnic food dripping in grease and containing too much fat, sugar and butter. Worst of all, people consume too many ethnic cuisine imitations in fast-food places that are so prevalent in black and Latin neighborhoods.
Thus, minorities contract diabetes and suffer from heart diseases in disproportionate numbers. That alone costs the American economy enough to be concerned about what people eat and why.
Byron Hurt’s new project is another example of how well 2011 was ending, regardless of all of the problems smearing almost everything in our American lives. Those interested in contributing money for him to finish “Soul Food Junkies” can reach Hurt through Kickstarter.com and learn more about what he has done and what he is presently doing.
— Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at email@example.com.