Byron Hurt is an important person in today’s cultural landscape, and I was honored to follow him into his home workspace, and document his creative process. I first learned of his work through the film Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. As I listened to the interviews and his arguments in my Intercultural Communication class in college, I saw hope for Hip Hop. I feel safe to say that Byron Hurt has fired up generations of documentary filmmakers and cultural-workers alike, myself included.
Hurt is more than a filmmaker- He is a media activist, writer, commentator, lecturer/speaker, husband and father. He is a published writer with work in publications like the New York Times. He is an anti-sexism activist and is most widely known for his documentary film work, often playing on PBS’ Independent Lens series. Since 1993 he has appeared or been seen/heard on CNN, Access Hollywood, MTV, BET, ABC News World Tonight and The Montel Williams Show. Hurt uses his creative voice in film and written word to speak out about issues that so many are afraid to address, such as gender, racism, sexism and violence.
We sat down with Hurt in his New Jersey home to talk about his work, life and upcoming project, Soul Food Junkies.
B FRESH: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Byron Hurt: I made my first documentary video, Moving Memories: The Black Senior Video Yearbook, when I was a senior at Northeastern University in Boston in 1993. Moving Memories is about the trials and tribulations of being a black college student at a predominantly white university in New England. It took me about 6 months to make, and I shot it with my first video camera, a Canovision E250 Hi-8 video camera that my parents bought me for Christmas. The journalism department at NU gave me $300 to make it.
BF: As a filmmaker, what is the most exciting part of the process for you?
BH: I enjoy shooting and then logging the footage we shot. I love interviewing my subjects and I love to see what’s in the can so I can begin to figure out what’s actually there to use in the film.
BF: What does a “Day in the Life of Byron Hurt” look like?
BH: It depends on the day. I travel a lot, so think “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.” I spend a lot of time taking off my shoes at security checkpoints at various airports around the country. When I am home and not in production, I spend a lot of time returning emails, phone calls, or writing. When I am in production, a typical day is being out in the field shooting interviews and b-roll for a video project.
BF: Describe your creation process, in relation to your upcoming project Soul Food Junkies.
BH: I decided on the topic of Soul Food Junkies during the time when my father was sick with pancreatic cancer. I had issues with my father’s eating habits and wished that he ate healthier. When he died in 2007, I decided that I wanted to make a film that focused on health and wellness issues facing black Americans. I have radically changed my eating habits over the past 10 years and I am very interested in food consumption, the food industry, health and so on. I hope to get my audience to think more critically about the kind of food we eat and feed our families, and I hope the film reaches as many people as humanly possible.
I am currently staffing my crew for the film and I want to have a strong, creative, intelligent team to help me make an extraordinary film. I go into production in early May.
BF: I first saw your work Beyond Beats and Rhymes while in a communication class in college. When you started planning and filming for this project, did you imagine it would reach people like me in classrooms across the country?
BH: Yes I did actually. I knew that if we made a great film, it would have a huge impact and would reach a lot of people around the world. So I stayed focused on that goal and communicated that with my editor, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, throughout the process. She did a great job of organizing the footage and helped to figure out the structure of the film. The film took almost six years to make but when it was finished the public was ready to embrace it.
BF: Can you share a few of your most memorable responses to your films?
BH: After a screening in Washington, DC, a young African-American man stood up during the Q&A, and said that he identified with the aspiring rappers who were rhyming about violence, misogyny, and homophobia just to get a record deal. ”After watching the film,” he said, “I am going to make music from my heart, not to impress a record executive.” It was a powerful moment, and as the creator of the film, his comments meant a lot to me.
BF: In all of your films, what do you aim to accomplish?
BH: I want to make my audience think, cry, and laugh. I hope that they walk away from my film transformed in some way.
BF: Have you had any life-changing experiences while doing research for or filming one of your projects?
BH: When doctors diagnosed my father with pancreatic cancer while I was in the editing process, my life changed forever. It was very difficult to finish the film while he was sick — probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.
BF: You are a filmmaker, activist, writer, lecturer/speaker, husband and father. How do you balance all of these roles?
BH: It’s hard to balance being all of the above, especially now that I am a father. But I do my best to stay focused and on point. But I will admit, I need a personal assistant!
BF: Any shout-outs or last words?
BH: Big shout out to my wife, mother, sister, and daughter. They support me and always have my back. Also, to everyone who has supported me and my work: thank you, thank you, thank you!