Directed by Marc A. Grimmett, 30 minutes, 2013
Director of Photography, David Hambridge
Produced by N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault
A barber is having a playful back and forth with a young boy getting a buzz cut at the busy Style Master’s Barber Shop and Beauty Salon in Wilson, North Carolina.
The sign outside advertises “Afro cuts” and “Mustache trims,” among other, mostly male, styles. A slide flashes on the screen informing us that 10 women in the U.S. are sexually assaulted in the time it takes to get a haircut. The exchange between the barber and his preteen client opens the film My Masculinity Helps, a 30-minute documentary about sexual assault with an additional emphasis on challenging “inaccurate and misleading portrayals of African American masculinity.”
Produced by the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, My Masculinity Helps was conceived and directed by Marc A. Grimmet, a father, psychologist, and counseling professor at North Carolina State University. Grimmet, who is featured in the film, wrote the screenplay with his spouse, Juliette Grimmet, a longtime sexual assault prevention activist. It’s structured around a series of intermingling interviews with mostly black men and women of varying ages, including survivors, their friends, teachers, a pastor, psychologists, and experts in sexual assault prevention. The film is divided into sections with themes such as consent, sexist language, religion, and social change. By employing warm, natural lighting, cinematographer David Hambridge infuses the film with a clean, elegant visual quality. In addition to amplifying the voices of survivors, My Masculinity Helps reveals a nuanced understanding of the language we use to describe—or erase—gender, race, and sexual violence, ultimately working toward severe, yet proactive conclusions.
The film’s interviews with three survivors are among its most powerful and persuasive moments. Michelle Johnson is a yoga instructor and social worker; Becca Bishopric, the film’s only white interview subject, works as a violence prevention coordinator. Vincent “PJ” Lewis is a student who was assaulted in high school by an older classmate with whom he had previously been romantically interested. While each has a different story, all are painfully and haltingly recounted, and forcefully convey the damage wrought by sexual assault, the struggle to heal, and what bystanders can do to help victims.
Teach young people that sexual assault is unacceptable, Lewis advises, that we should speak up and never be silent bystanders. Bishopric says it’s not helpful when men propose violently retaliating against assailants, as opposed to looking at how we all contribute to rape culture. Johnson says to change society in part means “waking up to what we already know…making space for survivors to name what’s happening, and for men to really own that they are sexist [and] to figure out what they’re going to do about that.” In each case, the film advocates supporting assault victims and argues that ending sexual violence is a matter of both listening to victims and challenging the norms that make assault permissible.
At one point, Johnson says, “healing isn’t linear…it takes a long time, and there are setbacks.” This line is especially potent. Victims too often are expected to “get over” their traumatic experiences, and faulted if they don’t. But pointing out that healing doesn’t happen in a single upward swoop challenges the myth that assault victims are weak, and weaker yet if they struggle to heal. Like Lewis and Bishopric, Johnson stresses the importance of communicating with victims, a recurring theme among the interviews.
Scenes depicting male concern are juxtaposed with accounts of male reluctance to speak out against sexual violence and sexism. Together they reveal how even as many men are outraged by misogyny, many are also afraid—or unwilling—to challenge a patriarchal culture that socializes men to collectively value women less, view them as male property and sexual objects, and subject them to violence. So believes Tony Porter, a cofounder and codirector of A Call to Men, another of the film’s interview subjects.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014 found that many whites possess an unconscious bias against black boys, often dehumanizing them, viewing them as inherently less innocent, more animalistic, and more responsible for their actions than white boys of the same age. But the film works against the damaging representations of blackness that seem to saturate so much of our media and shape the way we perceive, and consequently treat, people. Its representation of black women in positions of authority, of a gay black man, of African Americans as intellectual, sensitive, and morally concerned citizens seems designed to undercut dominant narratives that use the image of the black body as a way to invoke moral panic. In other words, it’s a profoundly humanizing work.
My Masculinity Helps works against the mainstream media’s ahistorical representations of blackness, which ultimately serve to distract viewers from real solutions to discrimination and male violence, and for this reason, it is extremely valuable as an educational tool for those interested in moving beyond heteronormative and white-centric accounts of race and gender. As a film that amplifies the voices of sexual assault victims and African Americans, it puts narratives of race and gender back in the hands of the people these narratives silence most.
Damon Hastings, Voice Male editorial assistant, is a writer and editor with a long-standing interest in advocating for non-normative identities. He graduated from Hampshire College, where he studied literature and critical theory.