We grew up afraid to be vulnerable: "Minding the Gap" helped me see my toxic boyhood masculinity

My dad taught me that crying was for suckas. Here's why Director Bing Liu forced me to rethink manhood

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 19, 2019 5:00PM (EST)

"Minding the Gap" (Hulu)
"Minding the Gap" (Hulu)

Director Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Minding the Gap” should be required watching for all high school students. It sparks a much-needed conversation around race, class, and what becoming a man means today through the lens of three skateboarder friends growing up in Rockford, Illinois.

After watching “Minding the Gap,” which compiles 12 years of footage, and after meeting and chatting with Liu recently on “Salon Talks,” I reflected on my own definition of masculinity through the years. Why did I celebrate certain rites of passage as “manly” accomplishments and pass them down to the younger guys in my circle?

Liu’s film took me back to a neighborhood feud I had with a dude named Kavon from age 10 until around 16.

Kavon was one year my senior, but triple my size. He used to bully everybody on our block, at the park and in school. Our beef started on a summer day when he pushed me off the curb and into the street. Before I could get up, he lodged his heavy knee in my chest, bloodied my lip, took all the candy and money out of my pockets and kicked me in the ribs yelling, “Go get whoever you want, I’ll do the same to them.”

I gathered myself while the other kids laughed—which was crazy because he bullied them too—walked home, went directly to my room and hid under my bed. There I cried, and probably would’ve screamed, if I didn’t burry my face in a t-shirt.

My dad was home around that time, and he taught me that crying was for suckas—the weak. “Men don’t cry,” he’d say. “They do what they gotta do to protect their family.”

I never saw my older brother, male cousins or big sister cry —  not at funerals, not when Bambi’s mother was blown away, and not even when some of them faced jail time. To think about it, I only saw my mother cry one time in my whole life, at that was at her mother’s funeral.

Toxic masculinity was the backdrop to my whole childhood and I never even heard the phrase before.

“You ain’t been outside in a week,” my older brother noticed. “Is there something you wanna tell me?”

“Bro, I was humiliated, knocked down and strong armed in front of girls, and everybody laughed, I mean everybody! I’m never going outside again, I’m staying in here and playing Sega until I’m 80, because my life is over!” That’s what I wanted to say.

“Nah man, everything is cool,” is what came out of my mouth. It’s no way I could admit to being defeated — men don’t acknowledge defeat.

This whole situation for me was a lose-lose. On one hand, everyone knew I loved being outside so I couldn't continue to hide in the house, and if I went back to the block with my friends, I'd be the butt of everyone’s joke. So, I consulted the small Bible of toxic masculinity inside of me and decided to confront Kavon.

I had these long Nike tube socks that matched my basketball jersey. I snatched one, loaded it with a combination master lock and told myself, “Just hit him, and everything will go back to normal.”

I should’ve been able to talk it out, or get an older person to mediate, but I didn’t know anybody that talked things out, and not reacting made you a chump in my neighborhood.

Kavon was in the center of a dice game, squeezing money and taking bets. A few of the same girls were around and everyone was having fun. A voice in my head told me I had to hurt him as I approached with the lock-sock in my right hand, spinning it around like a yo-yo.

“Kavon!” I yelled, “Ay’yo Kavon!”

He ignored me. Some people mumbled, giggled and pointed at me. “D Watk, where you been at?” my friend Nick asked.

“Ay Kavon!” I yelled again.

“Yo, stop calling my name you lil b***h!” he replied, before diving back into the game.

I charged in his direction, gripping the sock, slicing through the crowd and cracked him in the back of his head. He instantly hit the ground, so I cracked him in the head again, hard enough to make a little blood splatter.

The same people that laughed a week ago were cheering on as I stood over him, still gripping the bloody sock. My assault instantly allowed me to regain the respect I lost or what I thought respect was.

Kavon never robbed me again, but we fought multiple times — including an incident where we fell through a car windshield. He chipped half of my central incisor by slapping me in the mouth with a brick, when I bit a chunk of meat out of him with that same sharp tooth and rammed his head through the new dry wall in his grandmother’s house.

Years of meaningless bouts went down in an effortless attempt to prove who was more manly. Kavon ended up getting life in jail for murder. He shot killed another one of our close friends, and from what I hear he’s still using his fist to prove points.

I ridiculously used these same stories for years, bragging to my nephews and young friends about our battles — me bravely facing a murderer — and how they gave me the ability to handle anything.

The truth is that fighting brought me unnecessary trauma and pain. Gloating over or promoting fighting does the same. I now have to spend so much time undoing those teachings that I once lived by. While I hope and pray that times are changing, films like “Minding the Gap” show me how much work we still have to do in all neighborhoods.

Liu’s film explores race, class, and manhood in America, and Liu is extremely clever about responding when his friends fall victim to the same type of culture I grew up in. Toxic male culture sneaks up on you, right before you are forced to confront it.

In the film, his friends went from skating and joking around to fatherhood and deconstructing racial identity, as I went from Little League and trading basketball cards with Kavon to bloody brawls.

“Minding the Gap” is full of important wake up calls, and I’m better after watching it. Read or watch our “Salon Talks” conversation below.

Are you surprised with all of the success of “Minding the Gap”? It’s nominated for an Oscar and it’s on Obama’s favorite films of the year list. Obama's calling his president friends like yo, you gotta know about this guy Bing.

 Who's he calling? Bill Clinton?

Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter, yeah.

But Michelle is pretty cool with Bush so maybe they got a group text.

It's pretty cool I guess. When I first started, it was just gonna be like the past projects I'd done where we premiered at some local setting and make some DVDs maybe.

Did you know that this many people were gonna feel it? Was it shocking?

It’s a gradual uptick. I think the biggest thing was getting into Sundance, and then it premiered  at a U.S. festival, and from there on out, it was just the word kept building and then Hulu came on board and it's like okay, this thing is gonna get some eyes on it. It’s a little weird when people come up to me in public and they're like, "Are you that guy from Minding the Gap?" And it's like, yeah. Other than that, it doesn't really touch me that much 'cause my friends and the people in my life, they still treat me the same fortunately.

Do you still live in Illinois?

I live in Chicago. I've been in Chicago for 11 years. I was living in Chicago when I was making the film actually.

How many hours did you shoot for? You shot over many years, right?

I never calculated the hours, but I shot for five years. I don't know, if it's thousands. A lot of it is reverse engineered. All that childhood stuff, a lot of it was shot by other people. I went and I was like hey, can you give me all of Zack and Kiere's footage that you have? Those two main guys there in the film. They sorta did that work of just putting it all on a thumb drive. I wasn't combing through stuff from my teenage years really. It ended up being about eight terabytes of footage that I shot.

It's mainly about you three guys. You, Zackk, and Kiere. How have those guys been responding to the film now that so many people know their names and stories?

I think Kiere's probably got the most love and fame out of all of us.

Is he Hollywood? Does he wear shades at night now?

Yeah, he's not returning my calls, he blocked me on Insta. No, we still talk a lot. All three of us talk. He lives in Phoenix and people just recognize him so much because his face is just so synonymous with the film and his story, I think, is just so powerful and inspiring.

All the storylines are very unexpected, but I don't want to give away too much. We want people to see the film and we want people to share it because the topics that you touch on are things that are right in front of us, but sometimes when you're living in those moments, it's kind of hard to pay attention to them, especially dealing with issues around masculinity.

You think about Zack and one day, someone, they're your close friend or it's a friend and you grow up and you develop, regardless or based on whatever situations happen in your life, you grow and you respond in certain ways and you just sometimes don't really expect your friends to turn into the people who they turn into. It's just a part of their journey.

Now that you got a chance to reflect, what do you think happened that caused you guys to go in different directions?

Essentially, I think for Kiere, the first time I ever really sat him down for an interview was during this moment in this film in the first act where we asked him how were you disciplined when you were growing up? He goes, "Well, nowadays, they'd call it child abuse, but it's not really." He sort of trails off, like he has this shame around talking about it but that was a two-hour conversation. He laid out everything that he felt about his father in that conversation. What was important for me is that he was willing to open up about it and admit that he still feels a lot of pain and unresolved feelings from his childhood.

I think for Zack, when I asked him about how he got disciplined when he was younger and he was like, "yeah, of course I got . . . my dad beat my ass," he was hiding that hurt and I think that was true of a lot of people that I talked to growing up. Ultimately, it came down to Kiere is self-aware of what he's been through and he's willing to process emotions.

For me too, I felt like I went into some difficult places in the film, but I wanted to process my emotions. I think a lot of boys grow up and they just bury it and it's like I'm just gonna move on and I don't need to deal with it.

That's what I mean. When you're growing up in our society, there’s kind of the rules of the game for a lot of young boys and young men in general. You're not supposed to sit down and be like, this hurt me. You're supposed to wear these abuses and this pain like it's a badge of honor. You guys do a great job at exposing that and as different people, we respond to it in different ways.

Everyone has their own truth, right? The film doesn't try . . .  Some people have complained about this. The film doesn't leave you with some final universal, tied together thought, to leave you with, to go off of and learn your lesson. I think the film presents just different truths. Everyone is living their own truth and because of that, I think everybody was on board with the project once we finished and all the people that participated. I don't think there's some one grand lesson to be taken away from this. There's a lot of them, but I don't think there's one.

Would you consider Rockford to be diverse or is it segregated?

I mean, it's diverse but segregated.

Like most of America.

Exactly, like Chicago, like in most other places I've been to.

But in Chicago, you're downtown Chicago and you gotta drive 30 minutes to see black people.


How was it in Rockford?

If you're in downtown Rockford, nobody's around. It's that classic Rust Belt sort of city where it's gutted in the middle.

A lot of people aren't really familiar with that. If you were hired as a Rockford tour guide, tell us about Rockford.

You head in off the Interstate 90, which is the main interstate that is the artery for people coming in and out of Rockford. That interstate butts up right against the eastern most edge of Rockford. On the east side near the highway, you see Target, Walmart, chain stores, franchises, Best Buy. Then you go a little further, you start to get residential. It's a lot of old, white working class people.

Like Trumpers, or ...?

They can be. It's a city that's right down the line. I think it skewed towards Trump in 2016 by a little bit. But it's diverse in political beliefs too which is interesting. I'd say the more affluent white people live on that eastern side and then as you go further in, that's where you get into downtown.

That's where it's sort of this gutted feeling of businesses closed down, a lot of big ornate houses but they're sagging and the paint's chipping off, but that's where the white working class and also some black working class, some Hispanic working class live.

I think there's probably more Trump supporters around there. Then there's a river that divides the city into east and west. Once you cross that river, that's where you start to see a lot more black people.

There wasn't a big Asian population there when my mom and I moved there when I was eight but we moved all over. We lived in the deep west side when we first moved there, then she married my white stepfather and we moved to the east side. I was able to see a lot of different parts of Rockford growing up as a kid.

You were able to just interact with so many different types of people through skating, right?

What are the public spaces today that you can think of that people gather in where they can be around other people that are different from them without the purpose of actually doing that, right? I can think of libraries maybe and —

Community college?

And community college.

A community college mixer. 

I went to a community college, so I totally get what you mean 'cause it's like wow, there's a 50-year-old nurse and then this 25-year-old stoner.

There's an Asian DJ and a black guy with dreads.

Totally, that's the community college prom. But the skate park was like that too. I was hanging out with 12-year-olds as an 18-year-old kid and it was not abnormal.

People don't talk about age diversity enough but that's one of the biggest problems. Not to jump too far off topic, but education. Sometimes younger people might learn better by older people, some people learn better during the day, some people learn better at night. Some people are kinesthetic, some people are visual.

That's the different learning styles. We have this idea that this is just how you learn. You grow up and you memorize these things or whatever. Then there's some lessons and some intelligence, there's more value than others.

You go to any skate park in America and you see kids self-policing each other into a community. You see kids learning how to do something by intuition and by communal help. That kind of work and that kind of learning just isn't valued but I think it can be translatable with the right support.

There's so many lessons in the film. One of the lessons that I took away was just from the way that you show vulnerability in a way that it hasn't been seen in the generation before you. You're a millennial, right?

I'm 30. That's millennial, yes.

That's a millennial. 30, but I know everyone talks about how young you look, man. They told me you were like 12.

I started doing pre-production in the womb, started writing grants when I was a sperm.

You're showing vulnerability in a way that's going to be transformative for Gen Xers, and I don't know, what's before Generation X, maybe Baby Boomers. People who watch “Minding the Gap” are going to think about their own biases and the false ways they were taught. One of the ways you did that was being very open about your own story. Was that difficult?

Not really. I mean it became difficult once I actually did the interviews, but I think there was a little bit of either naïveté or I don't know, maybe denial about what I was actually doing.

I thought I was gonna go in and just get exposition. Even the way that I cut the scenes before I brought on my co-editor, it was a lot more I'm just explaining what the filmmaker's history. For example, with that mom interview that's in the film, it ends up being a challenge in the final version, but when I first started cutting it, I was putting in things like, "Mom, what'd you think about me starting to skateboard? When did you get me my first skateboard?" It wasn't confrontational.

When my editor came on board and he looked at the raw footage of that interview, he brought out this portion of this two-hour interview where I'm basically asking my mom, “Did you know what was going on at home, mom, when you weren't around? What my stepfather was doing to me?”

I did not plan on making it seem like a confrontation when I was doing it and I didn't plan on even using it like that. That was when it became difficult where I'm starting to realize that's what this whole interview is about. Maybe it was just subconscious for me.

Do you feel like there is a way you can heal from that? From the art process or just even from the process of having that conversation with your mom in general?

There’s definitely a way. I'm not saying you have to go through painful confrontations with memory or with people that were involved with pain you had experienced in the past in order to heal, but I think you gotta be prepared to do that. That's not always the way you're gonna heal.

I went and I started seeing a therapist while I was making the film because I felt like I was being the therapist for everybody else. I needed someone to vent to. Eventually I got to a point where I showed my therapist a rough cut of the film.

This was before I decided to be in the film, so none of my story was in it, but it helped me in a clinical setting almost to talk about those two other guys and the things that they were sharing with me. It helped me get some structural thinking around what they were going through so that I could tell their stories better.

At what point did you decide to be in the film? I can't imagine the film without you in there.

I know, it's hard 'cause the film at its heart is just one big inquisition and it's me trying to get answers. But it wasn't until a year after Kiere moves out of Rockford that I interviewed my mom, to give you a timeline.

It was very late, but it came out of something that happens in the film where one of the characters tells me something about another person and it sort of changes everything and I have to rethink what I'm doing not only as a filmmaker, but how am I influencing the situations that I'm filming.

I thought one way to do that was to show the audience, this is where I come from in terms of my household and that's why I'm making these decisions as a filmmaker and basically pull apart the fourth wall. That's how I thought about it.

It's a great decision 'cause it worked and now it's nominated, so now you even get to dress and talk like a film snob. You can wear sweaters in the summertime and you can get a little monocle.

I left them all in the green room, I didn't know if that was kosher.

 Has that changed? Has that put more pressure on you as you gear up for your next project?

Yeah, my head is so big, I can't fit through ...

You gotta wear all v-neck shirts.

Exactly. I’m growing out my man bun as we speak. I don't know, luckily, I started the project I'm finishing up right now before “Minding the Gap” came out, so there was less pressure.

Is that a documentary as well?

Yes, it's a documentary. Thematically, it's about confronting the past and your emotions in order to move forward with your life, as it pertains to these gun violence reduction programs in Chicago that are doing some of this community work. I have another one that we're getting off the ground about millennial love and how millennials define it.

They define it through apps.

Maybe, maybe I'm in for a very depressing time trying to find answers out there.

You go out to the bar and you see someone you wanna date and you walk up to them and you say, "What's your username? Are you on Christian Mingle?” [laughs]

J-Date? Let me adjust my bio. [laughs]

My thing is how is the millennial generation confronting the same sort of issues and the same sort of internal emotional work that needs to be done that relates to Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, basically every past generation.

For Baby Boomers, you get in a relationship with somebody and you stay with them for 50 years, even if you hate them, right?

That's a cycle. I think love happens in cycles. It could be a 50-year marriage and you go through the cycle, or it could be a three-month fling.

Gen Xers get married and then they get divorced after 40 years of marriage.

You're saying the divorce happens quicker as time goes along.

Millennials stay in relationships for a month and then it's over because there's too many apps, there's too many options. Think about it. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, they could meet a girl on Instagram and then go to California, but millennials, they're saying their new girlfriend's from Alaska, we're going igloo shopping and then after two weeks, I'm not feeling Alaska and they go back to Chicago.

I think that's unsustainable, and at some point I think that's just a phase that millennials have the privilege of being able to have now. It's a phase that didn't exist in the past but I still think that's a phase and, at some point, you're gonna actually want to do a committed, serious relationship despite options. That's the part I'm interested in, I think.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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