In his 2010 TED talk, “A Call to Men” (also the name of the organization of which he is co-founder, A Call To Men), Tony Porter speaks about the dangerous “man box” that restricts boys and men from being fully human:
“I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating — no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger — and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects. I’ve later come to know that to be the collective socialization of men, better known as the ‘man box.’ See this man box has in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”
Just as we need voices like Tony Porter’s, we need a continuous stream of stories like Dayveon (first-time feat. film dir. Amman Abbasi; writ. Amman Abbasi and Steven Reneau). The film tells the story of Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), a young man struggling with the death of his older brother. The landscape is a poor, rural Arkansas. This is a quiet film, a type of film I love that allows me to focus on the characters and the setting in a deep, pointed way with no distractions. The quiet rural land in Dayveon reflects the lack of opportunity and the absence of hope that drive Dayveon into a gang and toward what, in his restrictive “man box,” would make him powerful and immune to the fate of victimhood. Symbols like a menacing swarm of bees are ominous like the continuous anxiety of falling deeper into poverty and the relentless grief that results from losing people to death and from losing dreams of financial, physical, emotional, or psychological security.
African American men make up the cast, along with Dayveon’s sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), who is raising him. She encourages her partner, Brian (Dontrell Bright), to spend time with Dayveon, and he attempts to take on the role of a caring male role model for Dayveon. Brian expresses tenderness toward Dayveon that beautifully blows apart the man box. Blackmon does an exceptional job in both his private moments and in his public moments. In both situations, even while not speaking, he expresses volumes with his face and in how he moves through his room, explores the areas surrounding where he lives, and engages in nonverbal communication with his friend, Brayden (Kordell Johnson). This brilliantly displays the strength of what can be expressed through quietness.
In terms of spoken lines, for me the best is a scene we need so much more of. Sitting in a living room, a group of men express their frustrations and disappointments with life–never being able to get ahead, not being able to pay the bills, always feeling the bitterest feeling of defeat because whenever there is a sense of progress there is a setback that knocks them back down as if to remind them that people like them are not allowed to have success that leads to any type of security. They smoke together and express their feelings. They are vulnerable in front of their male friends. The man box disappears in these moments, and they provide a perspective on the actions of those who we see engage in gang activity, violence, and crime.
How Dayveon himself survives involves a direct battle between the lure of the gang and the encouragement from his sister and Brian, who want a better life for him. I have seen boys and men transform before my eyes, and not in a way that has meant a safe, healthy life. There is a point at which those in that situation pick a road to take, and that choice influences everything from how they speak to how they dress to how they carry themselves to, of course, how they view the world. But we all have aspirations and emotions and the need to express and share what is inside of us. The man box prevents men and boys from engaging in those normal, human activities. Dayveon reminds those who may forget that men (and African American men, too) are included in “all of us.” This film can remind men who forget that they are included. We need to eliminate the man box because it is a human need to be fully human.
Watch Porter’s TED talk: