|Critically-acclaimed filmmaker and Northeastern alum Byron Hurt returned to Boston for a special screening of his latest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” on Nov. 16. Hurt is pictured above with Keyla Jackson, assistant director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, where the film was screened. “Soul Food Junkies” premieres nationwide on Jan. 14 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens program. (Eric Esteves photo)
When Byron Hurt learned that his father had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he was determined to figure out what had caused the deadly disease.
He started investigating, and found that a poor diet — high in fat and red meat — was one of the primary causes.
Looking back on his father’s eating habits, Hurt recalled fried chicken, barbeque, fried pork chops, buttered biscuits, gravy, ham hocks, grits and macaroni and cheese, leading him to wonder: Was soul food to blame?
Hurt pleaded with his father to change his eating habits, and even though he started to make small changes in his diet, it was too late. Three years after his diagnosis, Hurt’s father died in 2007, at the age of 63. The question of whether African American culinary traditions led to his father’s death nagged Hurt, and eventually led him to create “Soul Food Junkies,” a documentary exploring the intersection of food, culture, race and health in the black community.
In his film, the award-winning documentary filmmaker and Northeastern alum travels across the country, interviewing activists and scholars such as Dick Gregory, Marc Lamont Hill, Jessica Harris, Bryant Terry, Michaela Angela Davis and Will Allen.
Hurt traces the history of African American cuisine from West Africa through the Civil Rights Movement, showing how soul food has nurtured communities physically and spiritually for centuries.
In one poignant example, Hurt features Ms. Peaches, the owner of Peaches Restaurant in Jackson, Miss. She used her soul food kitchen to feed civil rights protestors in the 1960s, and the Black Panther Party, who once set up free breakfast programs for poor children in their neighborhoods.
But something has changed over the past 50 years. Today, African Americans like Hurt’s father face a host of nutrition-related illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease and hypertension in higher proportion than other racial and ethnic groups in the country — leading many to point the finger at soul food.
Hurt’s research led him to see that the answer is bigger than just African American cuisine. Even though soul food is usually high in calories, he argues that the industrialization of the American food system — in which food is made more processed and convenient, but less nutritious — and the abundance of fast food have also taken a toll on black people’s health.
In addition, the prevalence of food deserts in poor communities of color — which Hurt says is a prime example of racism today — is another contributing factor.
Hurt says African Americans don’t need to abandon soul food entirely to stay healthy — they just need to modify it.
“There are ways to prepare traditional soul food in a way that is very healthy, nutritious and tasty as well,” he says, which includes baking meat instead of frying it, using more green vegetables and holding back on butter and salt.
But the key to reversing the current health crisis, he says, is public education.
“There have to be people who are willing to be leaders in the community by changing their own diets and being role models for others,” he says.
On top of this, public officials must be willing to make the policy changes necessary to help people make good decisions, Hurt says, citing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent move to reduce the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages in schools and other public places.
Hurt hopes his film will inspire audiences to make healthier choices and talk to friends and family about those decisions.
“If people have a loved one in their life who is suffering from a preventable disease that could be reversed or cured by changing their eating habits,” he says, “I hope they have conversations with them and talk to them about how to make changes in their lifestyle.”
After all, Hurt knows too well what happens when families don’t talk about health sooner rather than later.
“Soul Food Junkies” will premiere on the PBS series Independent Lens on Monday, Jan. 14 at 10 p.m.