“Asking people to change their eating habits is like asking people about their sex life or how much money they have in the bank,” said filmmaker Byron Hurt in a voiceover during his documentary “Soul Food Junkies.”
Food is one of the few things in life that is both universal and intensely personal. Last Friday in John B. Davis (JBD) lecture hall, a group of Macalester students and members of the community got a taste of what that means and more at a screening of Byron Hurt’s documentary followed by a question and answer session with the director. The event was the keynote of Macalester’s Black History Month programming.
Hurt, who was in the midst of a tour around the country promoting the film with stops from Baltimore to Springfield, Illinois, was not easy to book, but Macalester’s committee succeeded by getting in touch with him early.
“We have contacts at St. Catherine’s and they were really jealous that we were able to get him here,” said Andezu Orionzu ’15, a member of the Black History Month planning committee and an organizer of the event.
The film explores the history of soul food, the traditionally popular family meal and restaurant staples in the black community, as well as the community’s current relationship with food and the role it plays in cultural identity.
The documentary is framed around the personal story of Byron Hurt’s father, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007 at the age of 63. Hurt speaks of trying to motivate his father to change his diet during his life and includes several excerpts of home movies shot before the documentary was conceived. Pancreatic cancer is a disease that disproportionately affects black people and is linked to a high fat and meat-based diet common to traditional soul food. Hurt also interviews many others in his family, including those who have made improvements to their health in recent years.
Through its hour-long running time, “Soul Food Junkies” moves from history, to expert interviews, to personal stories and documentary vignettes. It discusses the roots of soul food in the conditions of black life in America throughout its history, describing it as both an adaptation to hardship and an art.
Beyond exploring the role of soul food itself, “Soul Food Junkies” explores broader issues related to food and health, such as the industrialization of the food system and the proliferation of unhealthy but cheap processed food, which one expert interviewed in the documentary called “the biggest cause of African American death” through the health problems associated with it. Hurt also investigates the problem of food deserts and the role of education in promoting good eating habits.
Despite the often serious and personal subject matter, the film was frequently very funny and warm, with candid personal anecdotes from the speakers and experts throughout, such as an expert in food health activism admitting that his attachment to soul food leads him to carry a bottle of hot sauce in his bag.
The screening and talk-back were attended by around 40 people, mostly students and staff at Macalester with a few members of the broader community.
“Of course we always expect more,” Orionzi said of the turnout, but she added that she was encouraged by the number of people who attended both the screening and the previous nights’ American Studies colloquium by Dr. Psyche Williams-Forsen, which also dealt with issues of food justice in the black diaspora.
The thematic linking of the two events was intentional, according to Orionzi, and also aligned the week with the theme of this year’s international roundtable, “Feeding the World: Globalization, Food, and Agriculture in the 21st Century.”
After the film, Hurt spoke about both the process of producing a documentary and the issues raised by “Soul Food Junkies.” He considered the film to be an activist project, focused towards something he called food sovereignty, which is centered on increasing a community’s ability to provide itself with healthy food.
“[The goal of the film] was to get people to really think about their relationship with food,” Hurt said. “I use my art and my craft as an activist tool.”
But some in the audience felt that the film failed to delve into some of the underlying issues in food culture.
“I thought Byron Hurt’s documentary offered clear and interesting examples of the culture and history of soul food among the black population of the country,” wrote Hannah Rehak ’15 in an email.
However, Rehak was disappointed by what she saw as the film’s failure to explore issues of class and food culture that she thought were explained well in Dr. Williams-Forsen’s earlier talk.
“The suggestion that soul food must be eaten less or prepared differently is valid,” she wrote. “Yet, it is limited in that it does not recognize the necessary time, energy and will it would take to make such changes; changes that are perhaps not realistic, or even ideal, in certain communities.”
During the talk, Hurt said that his overall message was not meant to be an attack on soul food, which can often be prepared in alternative and healthier ways. Many of the problems that are commonly associated with soul food are in fact systemic, he said.
“The food industry has made it very difficult for the average person to eat a healthy diet,” Hurt said.
Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, Associate Director of Campus Programs, had already seen the film once before but was still impressed by its complexity.
“Understanding individual and community connections to food requires far more nuance than I had really thought about before,” she wrote in an email. “I am increasingly convinced of the importance that we engage in these discussions because it was clear through people’s reactions to the documentary that experiences of finding community and comfort and connection in food are in some ways universal.”
Hurt himself called the documentary “a family story.” He urged everyone in the audience to reflect on the role of food in their own lives and communities and to take action to improve it whenever possible.
“As students you are the future leadership,” Hurt said, stressing the need for food justice and food sovereignty. “We have to demand it,” he said. “We have to make it a political issue.”
Any student interested in viewing “Soul Food Junkies” can check it out through Media Services.