How I Turned Anger & Grief Into A Film About Racism — And Healed The Loss Of My Mother

Photo: 1 Angry Black Man film/the author
turning grief and fear into a film about racism

My mother was my first teacher, both literally and figuratively.

She held three degrees in English, including a PhD from The University of Colorado, Boulder. She taught english at all grades from elementary school to adult learners and raised me and my brother on her own.

My mother also had a strong understanding of the psychosis of racism.

She was born in 1952 in a small town in Texas. She witnessed the id of American racism. She told unbelievable stories of racial oppression and institutionalized violence. Was this America? What about the constitution? What about inalienable rights?

In Texas, they had Black Codes. My WWII veteran grandfather had to pay a poll tax just to vote. Sometimes he could afford it. Sometimes he had to use that money to feed one of his six daughters, instead.

Prior to President Trump’s election in 2016, it was extremely easy to categorize America’s racist past like one would a science fiction tale, taking place in a galaxy far, far away. But Trump is a reminder of the social root of American Democracy — white supremacy.

The social fabric of modern American society still depends on the subjugation of non-white people.

In this context, the American experience for Black people is infinitely complicated. The social and political high of the Obama administration was counter punched by old school, law and order, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and racist rhetoric.

I get chills at the thought of white mothers in red states (and blue) who have no problem seeing children in cages on the border.

The year is 2020, but the aftershocks of American racial oppression live and breathe with us.

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I lost my mother to breast cancer in 2009.

Her death was beyond devastating. She was more than a mother, she was my best friend and confidant.

We spoke almost daily. In some ways, I thought she was invincible, and the idea of her death was silly. I knew she would beat her cancer, but I was wrong.

I had no clarity when she died. Everyone said it just “takes time” to deal with the grief. I never understood that. The permanence of death made grief impossible for me to complete.

I could not process the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Acceptance was never going to be an option I loved her too much.

The idea of accepting her death felt like a betrayal. How could I just accept that she had died? Instead, I decided to stay with anger.

Anger was far easier to embrace than acceptance. Anger felt righteous. Anger felt like an active way to honor my mother, but this was pure delusion.

In reality, the anger was destroying me. Sleep was impossible, I gained weight, I lost touch with friends and family. Grief was my full-time job.

Perpetual grief is worse than death. Death, albeit painful, is natural. Grief should have a beginning and end.

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Fortunately, my passion for filmmaking would help the healing of my soul.

I saw John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood when I was ten years old. That film changed my life forever.

I did not understand the filmmaking process, but I wanted to be a part of that world. I wanted to create images and tell stories. The power of the story became a lifelong obsession.

I love cinema. Cinema is power. The camera is more powerful than any weapon. I started making films and even minored in film in college.

However, in the haze of my grief, I quit my passion. I stopped writing. I stopped creating. I dedicated myself to a career in higher education.

The dream of filmmaking had become a burden — I was in my thirties and my wife was pregnant. Trying to become a filmmaker felt selfish and irresponsible.

My wife understood my passion for filmmaking. She had suffered endless nights of watching obscure films with me and listening to my babbling commentary. She believed in me. She believed in me long after I stopped believing in myself.

In those moments, support from my friends and family saved me from a grief that was only going to destroy me.

Grief is blinding. Love gives you the courage to open your eyes.

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On November 19th, 2014, I held my son for the first time. He looked at me with his big eyes and I felt something for the first time in my life: I was afraid.

I could feel his physical vulnerability. At that moment, I dedicated my life to him. Every decision would be connected to the nurturing of my son. This feeling was more than love.

Fatherhood expanded all of my possibilities as an artist. Fatherhood allowed me to see beyond the limited scope of my eyes.

In 2017, I wrote a script entitled 1 Angry Black Man.

Never did I imagine the scenario we find ourselves in American today and how relevant my film would be.

The title is deliberately misleading. The film in not about anger.

The film is a love letter to African American literature (and a love letter to my mother and son). How do you make that interesting? The term “literature” comes with the baggage or perceived boredom of academic density.

I wanted to highlight the predictive power of the past. Empires always repeat the sins of their predecessors. America has reached a breaking point in racial and economic disparity.

I wanted to make a film to explore raw emotion. The film takes place in one room, one English classroom. Who wins in the battle of love and anger?

My film is about a young man coming to terms with his vulnerability. His education will not save him from systemic racism and bias.

I wanted to make a film about America.

In 1 Angry Black Man, eleven students and one professor wrestle with the ideas presented by literary titans like James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and August Wilson. These writers reflect the reality of the American experiment.

The results were not always pretty. However, the texts from the great Black writers of the past give us the clearest mirror into where we are today.

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Sometimes I think stress is what took my mother away. The stress of being a free-thinking Black woman when that was an act of social defiance. The stress of raising two Black sons in a society that wants them destroyed.

Around age 17, she would respond physically when I left the house. She was scared. She knew her protection had limits.

As a young man, this concern would annoy me. Now, as the father of a son, I understand her fear and my son is only five years old.

Three years ago, I hoped my film would be a time capsule into a brief period of violence. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.

Black Americans love this country enough to hold it accountable to everything promised in the constitution.

Anger is painful. Anger destroys. Love teaches. You just have to be willing to learn.

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Menelek Lumumba was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. He received his bachelor's degree from Colorado College in English and Film Studies. His first feature film "1 Angry Black Man" is available on most VOD platforms including YouTube Movies and iTunes, as well as DVD. Follow him on twitter @mumba50.

All photos courtesy of the author