Kiosa Sukami

Realities of Black Lives

Air Date: December 13, 2022

British-Congolese filmmaker Kiosa Sukami discusses his new film “A Letter to Black Men” and representation of Blackness in the press and film.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Kiosa Sukami. He is a British-Congolese award-winning writer and director based in London. Welcome Kiosa.

 

SUKAMI: Hi. Thank you for having me.

 

HEFFNER: Kiosa, your latest work is “A Letter to Black Men,” “an examination,” as Director Notes chronicles, “of the portrayal of black men in contemporary media, and a humbling drama about the role of fatherhood and community.” What specifically motivated you to make this short film?

 

SUKAMI: Well, for me it was out of the frustration from seeing so much negative portrayal of young black men in film and TV, especially here, over here in the UK. So, a lot of the content that gets put up there really sort of glamorizes, you know, gang violence, you know, drugs, all sorts of different negative things. So I really wanted to make a film that, you know, could speak to young black men, to really just show them that, you know, there are other routes and other avenues that they can take. And that doesn’t have to just always lead to the same sort of repetitive actions that we see in those film and TV shows that I was watching.

 

HEFFNER: And Director Notes online, if you read the review, summarizes it further, “it follows protagonist Kevin, who on the cusp of succumbing to a life of crime, is confronted by a black father-like figure in his life who has just been released from prison and is seeking to recompense.” The film revolves around this relationship, this mentorship. What specifically inspired this character and this character development? Was it a real person or was it a mixture of characters and people over your lifetime and protagonist that you’ve read in other literature?

 

SUKAMI: I think it was a mixture of other people around me as I was growing up. So the character of Black actually is sort of just inspired by older men who have essentially been mentors to myself or who have given me any sort of advice. I always sort of feel like as though that without a father figure in my life who knows, you know, where how it could have turned out or where, where I could have went. So I really wanted to, to show audiences and young men that, you know, fathers come in different, in different ways. It doesn’t have to be a blood relative. It could literally be anyone who essentially has interest in seeing you progress into a, you know, into an older man. So I really wanted this character to sort of not be tied down to any specific first specific person, but more so to just represent fathers or fathers in all types of walks of life, basically.

 

HEFFNER: In our lifetimes it’s fair to say that that stereotype or trope has stigmatized the black man for the entirety of our lives, but also probably our father’s lives, maybe our grandfather’s lives. That connection to the streets, the prism through which that has been viewed for decades, if not centuries, is the criminalization, you know, the crime component. Is it fair to say that that history just has not changed in this respect?

 

SUKAMI: Yeah, it is fair to say that. I also think that, you know, there are so many different film and TV shows out there that audiences sort of love, you know, the kind of content that, you know, that genre falls in is very entertaining. You know, I was drawn to it for a specific reason myself. It is very entertaining. But I will say earlier, I think there are different approaches and different ways that we can, you know, portray young black men in film and TV. And it can still draw those young audiences who enjoy this sort of genre. But it doesn’t always have to end up, you know, the same, the same way. Like I said earlier is for me it’s always about being able to connect with audiences and being able to leave them with a message, a positive one in this respect. But also to educate. I think as I was growing up when I was, you know, a young child in London, education would always play a big part in my family, in my household. So education was always key. So it’s kind of the message that I was trying to put all the way throughout the film. At the same time I was trying to juggle, sort of the tropes that are in around in this genre.

 

HEFFNER: Does it depress you at all that that trope or the sensationalism doesn’t seem to be dying down. Now, your film is, is an example to counteract that, but do you, do you see ways in which that sensationalism is being subdued or at least the nuances of the black experience are being fleshed out more accurately?

 

SUKAMI: Yeah, I think, as time goes, a lot of underrepresented voices are being given the opportunity to actually tell their stories. And as you mentioned it isn’t dying now because there are a lot of people who are often marginalized who are coming from these areas where the film is sort of set that are now seeing that it’s possible for them to get into film and get into TV. So they always tell you to write what you know. So people who are, you know, being raised in these areas as they get into the industry and they write what they know naturally what they write is, you know, their experiences growing up. it could be the same. You said the same thing about music as well. So I think it is on the rise only purely because there are more opportunities opening up for, you know, young black filmmakers like myself.

But also as time, as time goes on, they will, we will see a lot more stories. You know, even for myself personally, the reason why I wrote this film is because I understand that, as you said, it’s a growing, it’s a growing genre. And I wanted to be able to make sure that my message is heard by as many people to kind of show them that you know that there are, because there are all the parts that you can take. But I am also a filmmaker who actually can make films and, you know, if this kind of has to be a calling card to show people that I can, I can make films to them open up and show everyone else what other stories I can. I think this is definitely a good opportunity for that.

 

So it definitely starts with what we know, and then eventually over time, as we start to get more and more opportunities and more and more roles, I’m a hundred percent sure that, you know, we’ll have a lot more freedom to be able to explore other stories that we do want see, because that myself want to see, you know, people just doing normal things, doctors, you know, lawyers. I want to see people portrayed, in all sorts of walks of life that, you know, happen to be black. So, I’m very excited for, you know, where the industry is going.

 

HEFFNER: What is the most salient thing that you want your viewers to take away from this film in the UK specifically? I’m always interested in interviewing artists, filmmakers, authors who live on another continent, because I’m genuinely curious about the condition of the black man or blackness and the health of black folks in the UK versus in the States versus in, you know, other parts of the world. Obviously, many countries throughout Africa, but every continent has a population of vibrant people of color. And my question to you is, what do you want folks to take away from your film about the condition of black folks in the UK, and then more broadly, the condition of black people everywhere in the world?

 

SUKAMI: I would love for them to take away the idea that oftentimes news reports, and media can be, you know, sort of sensationalized. So anytime we hear any sort of thing about gang violence or the life of crime particularly, in London, in the UK, it’s always sort of how do I, how do I put it to words? It’s not as deep as you would want it to be, so it’s very, on the surface, you never really get any context about, you know, why this person may have been involved in, you know, gang crime or why this person may have gone down this route. So for me, really it was just to be able to show that when you do see a young black man, or you do hear a story about young black men being involved in, you know, gang life or anything around that, that they are humans as well, and they have stories behind themselves, you know, they could have ended up in that position. The reason why they’re in that position, for example, we don’t know. So for me it was always to kind of, if you are on the outside looking in, don’t judge a book by its cover. I really took the time to get to know people because the characters in my film, although that they, you know, they’re involved in, um, in, in this sort of life, they are still know people and we grow to love them. You know, they’re funny, you know, they’ve got family, they’ve got friends, they’re just like everybody else. So really it was just to kind of show that, you know, even though those people may seem as though they’re negative or violent or whatever, that behind all of that, there is a, they have a story, and they’ve got a journey just as everyone else. And I would like for us to kind of take the opportunity to really, you know, have an open mind essentially.

 

HEFFNER: And with respect to the UK, you know, specifically for our American audience, what are the distinct features of blackhood in London, and then more broadly in England, today? You know, in this year, we’re recording this in 2022. This may be on the air in 2023, but what are the distinctive facts that are worth recognizing about the environment, socioeconomic, political, cultural, familial, of black people in the UK that Americans should know, that they should understand, perhaps differences than the American experience of black people in America right now? You know, because you must have had folks view this film from all quarters, from all continents, and have some related or relatable experiences, but also some things that might be distinctive about blackhood, in blackness, about blackness in the UK.

SUKAMI: That’s a tough question. I’ve never actually been to the US myself, so I’m not too sure I could, I can really speak, speak, for the experiences, of young, young African American men really. So yeah, I think it’s quite a question for me. Cause like I said, my, my, my experiences have always been in the UK I’ve traveled many places in Europe. I’ve never actually had the opportunity to visit America. Any sort of, you know, what, what I see a hear of America is always, is always in the media wherever it’s film, TV, or the news. But I think what you mentioned about us having a lot of similarities, uh, is very true. If there are to be any, any sort of differences, I probably just believe that the systems that are around us, that are built for us, it, although, although they are challenging, for example, like the film industry for example, although it’s challenging, to get to get into, I truly believe that there are opportunities for people to actually break into it. It’s very, it is very, very tough. But I definitely feel like as though, as I said earlier, opportunities are opening up. So for me, really, in terms of the experiences of the US and the UK, I think it’s very limited just that regard. Because that’s purely said. I’ve never been to, to US, wouldn’t want to, on the, on the experiences, just on that…

 

HEFFNER: What about the experience in the UK from your own mentors and people in your community in London, just in terms of how things have changed or how they haven’t, and how, if at all, we should incorporate that into your view of this film. Is this a film whose events could be at any point in the last quarter century? Or are there aspects of the experience of these characters that are distinct to this time period, to when we’re living today?

 

SUKAMI: I think it’s both. So, the idea that young people can sort of be easily influenced to get into this life is still present in this very day and age. We’ve got this thing in the UK maybe that is probably a difference. I’m not sure if you can probably tell me if it’s not. But in the UK, we’ve got these things called, county lines. So essentially older guys get younger teenagers that are getting involved into selling drugs to work in areas that are outside of the cities, like it could be in the countryside. So they send them off there for, you know, for God knows how long, and the idea is for them to sell drugs in areas that are a little bit quieter, a little bit, more affluent. So I think that element of it is still, you know, prevalent, you know, it is a consistent cycle. I’ve kind of described it as, sort of a pyramid initially. That’s how the film was called initially in the sense that there’s always three elements of, you know, sort of the hood life. And that’s the idea that, all, you know, street guys or hood guys will either go to jail, die, or, you know, eventually get rich and move out of that. But either way, that cycle continues to go around, and people get replaced. If somebody does die, somebody does go to prison, somebody does get rich and, and leave that area, another head will go in its place and the cycle will continue to, you know, to go on and forth. Yeah.

 

HEFFNER: You mentioned in this interview that I read that there is a stigma, or that there is a false perception of misery, misery in the city, in urban life. And I grant you that. I mean, I think it’s stigmatized and sensationalized. And yet the cycle that you’re describing, Kiosa, is a miserable one, is not a life affirming one. It’s a, it’s a dejected, depressing one. So how do you grapple with, with those two realities if you see them that way?

 

SUKAMI: Yeah. So I don’t see that as a reality for every young black man. So that’s the reason why I wanted to put this film, sort of out there that there can be other sort of realities. So the idea this cycle does continue is more so for me to say that we can, we can stop this. And it, it has been done before. So this film is inspired by true events where I’ve seen, you know, young black men almost get caught up in this life. But luckily enough, they have been managed to not. So I think when I, when I say that it’s always miserable, it’s in a sense that this, it’s never, there’s never, there’s never a positive outcome or we never sort of see them evolve and develop into actual characters that we, that we love to, that we love to watch. So I would definitely like to think that the balance is there in a sense that we’re trying to get young black men away from this and show them that, you know, it isn’t going to be all, you know, doom and gloom. It’s not always going to be, you know, gangs and, and all these other things. You can aspire to become a filmmaker like myself, for example, or get into other things. So when it comes to that, I think that’s what I was sort of trying to get back, get that in that interview. But also in the sense that it’s always miserable, in the sense that you look at these characters, and you listen to everything that they say, but you know, you can never really relate to them. There’s a lot of comedic elements in my film. So I’m trying to sort of counteract the idea of that every time you see young black men, they’re always talking about the same things. They’re always, things are always so dark cause it, it’s never the case, you know. They just so happen to be put in these positions based on their environments or their, the lack of opportunities that they’ve got. So the only outlet that they’ve got is then to, you know, to then go out and take this avenue. But it doesn’t always have to be, have to be the case. So that’s what I sort of mean by that. And I want to kind of change the narrative of essentially misery of getting caught up in the cycle, uh, and breaking it and then going into, you know, other more positive routes.

 

HEFFNER: Would you say that there is a feeling of, of desperation out of the lack of economic equality right now?

 

SUKAMI: Yes, for sure. And that’s the, the fit mentality that I touch in the film. It’s the idea that, you know, young black men who are living in this area, they, what sort of crabs in a barrel mentality. So everyone kind of sees each other as competition, where it should never really be that way where, you know, we’re community and communities come together, you know, for the greater good to, you know, to improve ways of life or to improve themselves. So I definitely think that, yeah, I definitely think that I would like to, you know, keep on, keep on pushing that message and wanting to, you know, bring that forward.

 

HEFFNER: Do you think that sense of desperation is conveyed in the film?

 

SUKAMI: Sense of desperation? I believe, I believe just to, just to, we touch upon that on more so on the, our new character Black. He’s just come out of prison. And for him really, it’s the idea that he’s lost everything that he’s had, whether it’s family, whether it’s friends, or just control of the neighborhoods, that he was, he was around. So he’s desperate in a sense to try to make amends, try to, you know, get forgiveness for some of the things that he’s done wrong in the past, for example, um, the relationship that he’s had, uh, with our new character’s father that we touch upon quite briefly. So the desperation mainly comes from a protagonist, in trying to, to become a better person and to improve the lives of people around them. Yeah, I hope that answers your question.

 

HEFFNER: I’m always interested in artists’ prescriptions for public policy and how we can better the communities beyond a potent short film like your own and a moving, a charismatic portrait of what blackness and the black family and community can be. So from that perspective, Kiosa, when you think of policy change in the UK, you emphasize the importance in your youth and maturity of education, specifically though, what are the building blocks now of reform that are necessary? Because we can portray the aspirations and the successes of any community, of any color, religion, personhood, take away from, from this film in the UK specifically, I’m always interested in interviewing from taking, you know, to take hold. Then you’re still ensnared in that miserable or vicious cycle. So what to you is the most important policy that that could be, that needs to be worked on in addressing equality?

 

SUKAMI: Yeah. So for me, it would, it would probably be, for young people in general, is to be able to give them more opportunities and more funding to actually be able to do things and keep themselves busy. When I was younger, there were youth clubs that that were around, there were different things that you could essentially, as soon as you leave school, you weren’t out on the streets, you know, doing, you know, all sorts of, whatever. You would have things that you’d be able to go and spend your time actually doing, whether it’s building towards a career or building towards a hobby or an interest of yours. I definitely think the sort of funding in these areas, instead of being taken away and all these youth activities closed down, I definitely think you should be going the opposite way. And I also think the second point is, sort of the rehabilitation for people to come out of prison. There’s always a stigma that anybody who’s obviously been to prison, it’s like a, it’s a red check mark already on your file, so nobody really looks at you any different other than just a criminal. And we have a sort of value of property being above a sort of life. So I really want us to think about ways that, you know, people who are coming out of prison can be rehabilitated and to get back into society. And actually become a contributing member of society, rather than shunt and be left to return to that same sort of cycle. So it will definitely be resources for young people, and the rehabilitation for people who are coming out of prison.

 

HEFFNER: And that transition is something that’s being considered more and more, from prison to parole or probation. And, because we, at least from the American perspective, it does appear that that is a great obstacle to achieving equality. The idea that prison is really not there for rehabilitation, in that if you’re, you know, if you’re in prison and then you’re on probation, parole, you’re, you’re much more likely to be back in prison than you are in open free society. Would you say that in the UK, that that climate is, feels similarly, you know, that, that people perceive a jail or prison sentence as ultimately a life consuming and ending thing?

 

SUKAMI: Yeah. Just purely because of what you said, what I said earlier, so, when, when you come out of prison, you’ll have a lot less opportunities. Because anytime you fill in any form, at least in the UK, the one, the main question is do you have a criminal history, respect, have any convictions? So immediately that sort of kind limits your options coming out of that. So I would definitely want to hope that we can do it a lot more to be able to rehabilitate young people who are coming out of prison. Also, of course, older, older people. Well, but I would also want us to be able to, to see that people who are going into prisons, there are different sort of crimes that are being committed, so low-level crimes, in the UK for example, carry quite harsh, quite harsh sentences. So I think sometimes we kind of have to think about the decisions that we make when it comes to sending these people in jail, because sometimes it could just be a situation that they were put in and, you know, if they weren’t an offender before, they could be ways that we can, you know, look at preventing somebody from actually going to jail rather than just immediately thinking he’s a criminal. That’s stick him in there. Cause there’s nothing that they can really do after they’ve got that black check mark on there.

 

HEFFNER: Is it fair to say that you want to live in a time soon when the discussion of blackness is not associated with gang violence or criminality or imprisonment or incarceration? And I feel like in a sense, not that your film or this exchange is part of the problem, but I can’t help but want to avoid it being part of the problem by these two things intersecting, if you know what I mean. It’s almost hard to keep having this conversation in the context of blackness, but is it appropriate to have it because of disproportionate sentences and disproportionate outcomes in the criminal justice system? Like, do we need to keep having this interconnected conversation even though it feels stigmatizing in and of itself?

 

SUKAMI: I think it’s definitely, we definitely should. I think for as long as, you know, these problems surround us and are still with us every single day, I think there are conversations that still need to be had. And if they can be addressed in different mediums like film or television, then I think we definitely should be addressing them. But I definitely get your point. I definitely understand, even from my perspective being in the UK, out of the frustrations of seeing so many of these things, it’s hard for you to then come out and make something completely different.

 

HEFFNER: What is something, we talked about public policy. But what is something the media could be doing differently when it comes to sensationalizing criminal activities, away from this film in the UK specifically? I’m always interested in interviewing news in America for years and years and years, decades and decades. I don’t know if that’s something that also goes on in the UK right now, but like, what is the, what is the thing we most should change about that if anything?

 

SUKAMI: First of all and foremost is the change of the people behind, behind the scenes that are making these things. A lot of times you, you’ll watch an amazing TV show, an amazing film that does touch upon the subject matter and you look behind the people who are making these, and there aren’t that many black people, if any, that were involved in the making of these things. So I think the fundamental thing is to have, you know, people of color behind the scenes actually making these things. Because the one thing that they can bring is that authenticity, the actual, you know, the lived experiences. So that, so in this are being glamorized, they can then shut it down, actually tell them that this is not how things actually happen. You know, this is actually how, you know, things really happen in a real world. So that would be my first initial step into that.

 

HEFFNER: And I suppose the extension of that is folks in the newsroom who are also part of that community, when it comes to nonfiction, when it comes to watching the evening news and not seeing criminal activity associated with one race, or one religion, or one group of people. Kiosa, I urge all of our viewers to check out your film. And I thank you very much for your time this evening and for staying up late with us.

 

SUKAMI: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me. It’s not so late for me. It’s, it’s about 7:00 PM here, so I appreciate it so much.

 

HEFFNER: Enjoy your dinner. Be well.

 

SUKAMI: Likewise. Goodbye.

 

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