Byron Hurt, AS’93, is an award-winning triple threat—a writer, director, and producer of six documentaries that have targeted controversial aspects of black culture, from soul food health problems to troublesome views of masculinity, while also demanding justice for blacks and victims of sexual violence.
In Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006), for instance, Hurt challenged the male posturing and misogyny celebrated in hip-hop music. Rather than facing blowback from the black community, the movie was widely embraced.
“It was a film whose time had come,” says Hurt.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was broadcast on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Independent Lens, and put him on the map as a documentary filmmaker. It’s been shown in more than 150 film festivals around the world and is still popular on college campuses, where Hurt leads discussions on masculinity, sexism, and violence in hip-hop.
Hurt scored additional acclaim with Soul Food Junkies (2012), which was awarded the CNN Best Documentary at the 2012 Black Film Festival and was also aired on PBS. The film traces the cultural importance of soul food in black history while shining a light on the health consequences that, according to Hurt, have caused African Americans to lead the nation in obesity, heart disease, and hypertension.
Three years after its release, Soul Food Junkies is still racking up awards. In May, The Food Project, a nonprofit that brings together youth and adults from diverse backgrounds to build a sustainable food system, honored Hurt with its Leadership Award, which acknowledges visionaries within the food movement.
His latest film, due for release this year, covers a subject that’s been troubling him for years: hazing. Hurt is a member of a black fraternity and admits to having been hazed and having taken part in hazing others.
“[Hazing] is not exclusive to fraternities—it happens across race and gender, sports, and the military,” says Hurt.
Hazing: How Badly Do You Want In? explores why these initiation rites are such an integral part of membership, despite injuries, deaths, and lawsuits.
To support his filmmaking, Hurt took a number of nonfilm jobs over the years, and one in particular influenced his activist and humanitarian efforts. After graduation, while working at Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, he helped implement the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, one of the first college-based rape and domestic violence prevention initiatives for college and professional athletics.
“I learned about gender issues, physical and sexual violence, hypermasculinity, bystander intervention, and power dynamics. I learned that men can end all forms of violence against women, and that led me to focus some of my filmmaking on gender issues,” Hurt says.
Finding the Funds
Although he’s received grants and funding from prestigious foundations, and his films have won global acclaim, the challenge of raising funds while trying to support a family is relentless.
“People are not banging down your door the day after the PBS broadcast and asking what kind of film you want to make next,” says Hurt.
But he gets to hear young hip-hop artists say they will no longer perpetuate negative stereotypes of manhood and women. Professors tell him his films do in one hour what they’ve been trying to teach all semester. Hurt educates without preaching—the hallmark of the best documentaries.
“My goal is to address relevant social issues without finger wagging—to effectively communicate without making people feel bad about their choices,” he says. With the documentary as the medium, Hurt has perfected the message.
Photo: Lynn Savarese