Eli Steele: Challenging the Narrative
Filmmaker Eli Steele is asking tough questions, ones that not everyone wants to hear: What are the popular narratives about race in America? How do these narratives impact the decisions we make and the actions we take each day? Do these beliefs accurately reflect our personal relationships or our society?
Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in 2014. Conflicting accounts of the altercation followed, as well as widespread protests and an FBI investigation that ultimately cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing.
Six years later, in 2020, Steele released the findings of his own inquiry. What Killed Michael Brown, a documentary film examining Brown’s death and the racial tensions that arose from it, was initially pulled from Amazon Prime. Though the film was set to be launched on the streaming platform, an email from the company cryptically informed Steele that the movie didn’t meet “content quality expectations.”
“For Amazon to ban us, that was not the reaction we were expecting,” explained Steele. “It was a blessing in disguise in a way. They put all the eyeballs onto the film. Obviously you can't pay for that kind of publicity.” Eventually, after the decision received negative public attention, Amazon relented.
The film, a collaborative project between Eli Steele and his father, Shelby Steele, took a critical look at the narrative brought forward by progressives and Black Lives Matter activists. Though Steele is himself a descendant of slaves and Holocaust survivors, the idea that black American life today is largely shaped by oppressive, systematic forces is one that Steele takes to task.
“My Jewish grandfather, when he came to America, if you told him 'You should spend the rest of your life focusing on the Holocaust, focusing on what Germany did to you ...You need to spend the rest of your life getting revenge,' he would never have become the man that he did,” said Steele. “He had one conversation with my mother about the Holocaust. It was a very different model then. Now people want to go and unpack all of that, but that's in the past. There will never ever be justice. Our family should probably be five or six times bigger than it is now.”
Although some on both sides of the political spectrum found issues with the film, positive reactions also began rolling in, a distinction Steele chalked up to “being open-minded or close-minded.” One professor, a faculty member from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, invited Steele to lead a class discussion.
“He was more of an old fashioned liberal, but wanted to present the students the other side,” recalled Steele. “It was supposed to be like a half an hour discussion, and it ended up being three hours because the students were very engaged and were just talking about it. But, one girl, she says, 'Look, I'm an ally. I support Black Lives Matter. I've been out there protesting and everything and I believe in everything that they say, until I saw your film. Now, you're film's just confused me.' That's the reason why we made the film. We made the film, not to try to convince you, but just to say hey look there's another side.”
Two years before Who Killed Michael Brown?, Steele made another film that questioned the popular narratives around race, How Jack Became Black. The project followed Steele’s journey as a father of two multiracial children, Jack and Jane, as he considers where his kids fit into the national conversation about race.The way race is presented to children today, Steele argues, is fundamentally different from how he was raised to think about it.
Steele’s son Jack is 13 years old, now old enough to be learning about social concepts in school. Recently, he has been reading a number of modern texts in class about the history of black Americans. Steele worries that these books overemphasize the victimization of black people at the expense of teaching kids about their individual and collective strength.
“I asked Jack, I said 'What do you think of black people?' He didn't want to answer my question. Finally he says, 'Weak,’” remembered Steele. “My message was, look, we overcame that. We should do whatever we want. They may have done this to us, but nothing can stop us now. So the message today is completely the opposite of what I grew up with.”
Steele is now a member of FAIR’s Board of Advisors. What convinced him to join FAIR, he says, was its constructive approach. He said, “I thought what was interesting was how it was designed to be pro-human and really be inclusive of all people...It kind of moves you away from race.” He says that FAIR does not just push back against race-essentialist narratives, but also articulates a truly inclusive alternative vision of race in America based on our common humanity.
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