arts

Two young directors want the world to see Black male joy in a 'love letter to brothers everywhere'

Published 16th October 2020
Credit: Courtesy Joshua Renfroe
Two young directors want the world to see Black male joy in a 'love letter to brothers everywhere'
Written by Skylar Mitchell, CNN
Photographer Joshua Renfroe is meticulous in his approach to making images -- from the early conceptualization stage through to exhibition. His goal is to tell a story through the final pictures but also through the process of creating them.
His first book, "Black Boy Fly," released last year, is a captivating example of visual storytelling. Its subject is what he refers to as Black male joy, and throughout the book he depicts scenes of kinship, leisure, sport and dance. Since he first exhibited the work in Brooklyn, New York last Fall, the book attracted interest from other creatives who share a common interest in their desire to expand the veneers of Black representation.
Photographer and director Curtis Taylor Jr. is one such artist who, this year, collaborated with Renfroe on a limited edition reissue of "Black Boy Fly."
In what they call "a love letter to brothers everywhere," Renfroe, Curtis and a team of emerging Black artists are expanding the work into a short film, "What Flying Feels Like," coming this November.

Reclaiming the Black subject in photography

Since the early days of photography, the depiction of Black bodies has been a topic of debate. While the Black community has faced obstacles to fair and authentic representation in White-dominated spaces, Black photographers sought agency by controlling their own image production. In an early example of this, in 1900, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, compiled a series of photographs for the "American Negro" exhibit at the Paris Exposition of the World Fair. He organized 363 images into albums showcasing African American life with the intention of challenging racist stereotypes about Black people.
Since then, generations of photographers have employed different creative methods to showcase their community as they see it. When Renfroe was first conceptualizing "Black Boy Fly" in 2018 he knew that he wanted to re-examine Black masculinity and boyhood. At the time he was only in his second year of photography, practicing on digital and film in his spare time while balancing a full time job.
After planning the scenes he wanted to shoot, he recruited friends as models, then expanded his network via Instagram, reaching out to different men of color to be featured in the project. Every day after work, he'd stage and shoot his scenes, completing two a month and finishing in February 2019. When he had enough images, he worked with his friend, layout editor and graphic designer Fred Sands IV to bring the project together and design the final hard cover book.
The resulting 240-pages of photographs walk the line between documentary and surrealism; some of the images are of organic scenes captured in the moment, whereas others are staged. Part of the beauty of the project is that you cannot always tell which is which.
Joshua Renfroe wanted to create a work that present Black male experience in a variety of ways outside of  stereotypical norms.
Joshua Renfroe wanted to create a work that present Black male experience in a variety of ways outside of stereotypical norms. Credit: Courtesy Joshua Renfroe
"This was a deeper visual investigation of Black maleness," said Taylor. "The work that 'Black Boy Fly' was doing outside of the book was just as important as the work inside of it." Taylor, who earned his masters in education policy with research on Black masculinity in visual culture, knew he wanted to work with Renfroe to create scenes where Black boys and men represented happiness instead of trauma.
"For us, it was sort of about building this world for Black males to get lost in. Like being able to say that we are not just one thing, but we have the ability to have joy; we have the ability to rest; we have the ability to just show up in the world as our full selves," he said.
Taylor and Renfroe both said they wanted to create a work that could exist accessibly, not just in art spheres. Between this year's reissue of the book and the ongoing production of the film, their goal was to make room for what Taylor called, "an elevated discourse around what Black maleness is, whether it be sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or any of the things that fall under the umbrella."
Co-directing the film allowed them the room to merge their tones, aesthetics and voices to depict "even a fraction of what it feels like to exist in a Black male body," said Renfroe.

Creating during the pandemic

Joshua Renfroe and Curtis Taylor Jr. continued production of their short film during quarantine by collecting footage through digital submissions.
Joshua Renfroe and Curtis Taylor Jr. continued production of their short film during quarantine by collecting footage through digital submissions. Credit: Courtesy James Jeter
When the pandemic no longer allowed them to continue shooting outside or in-studio, the co-directors turned to experimental, user-generated footage from models and friends around the country. As a result, they were actually able to showcase more than they anticipated. Instead of only including shoots in the major urban hubs of America, they were able to collect footage from lesser-represented regions, such as Renfroe's native Midwest.

From book to film

The upcoming short film, will exhibit themes of dimensionality -- reflecting the spectrum of Black maleness -- and also performance, specifically addressing how Black men are sometimes pressured to perform either for themselves or for the validation of others.
Overall, this is a project that has turned creative collaborators into brothers. Through this endeavor in what they call "world-making," they are eagerly creating a space where boys and men who look like them can feel seen and validated.
"As a Black body we have always been filled with this sense of pride that is almost mythical," reads a line from their film treatment. "'Black Boy Fly' is that space that Peter Pan talked about where you get to live in your innocence. It's where you get to undo yourself and be free."
"It was never just a photobook," Taylor said. "What we built was a world. What we gave people is a living breathing organism. This photobook, in real time, built a brotherhood."