Jewish Journal

‘How Jack Became Black’ Tackles Racial Identity

Photo courtesy of Taylor Leddin

When filmmaker Eli Steele went to register his son, Jack, for an L.A. Unified School District school four years ago, officials told him he had to check a primary race on the application. If he didn’t, they would not enroll his son. This was a problem for Steele, because Jack is Black, Jewish, Hispanic, Native American and White. 

“I knew the race question would come up,” Steele said. “What I was not expecting was the terminology on the form. There was no multiracial or ‘check all that apply’ option.” 

Steele recorded school officials telling him to pick a primary race and giving him differing advice. Some said to mark “White” while others said “Black.” He eventually checked “Black,” because he didn’t want to deny his son an education. 

“My objective was to show the world what I have experienced my entire life,” he said, “that no one really knows what they are talking about when it comes to race.” 

Steele took his footage and expanded what happened into a full-length documentary called “How Jack Became Black.” The movie, currently available through video on demand, iTunes and Amazon, features interviews with professors and multiracial individuals, and it highlights the history of race in America, the racial divides happening today and Steele’s upbringing.

Steele was born in the 1970s to a Black father and a Jewish mother, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. “My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s marriage to my father because he believed that Jews had a responsibility to carry on Judaism after the Holocaust and because my father was Black,” he said.

Steele grew up with both cultures. In the film, he talks about how his childhood and early adulthood were difficult not only because he was mixed race but because he is deaf and was bullied by his peers. When a teacher asked his classmates who they wanted to win the presidential election in 1984, everyone except for Steele said Ronald Reagan. Steele wanted Jesse Jackson but was torn when Jackson made a racial slur against Jewish people. 

“My objective was to show the world what I have experienced my entire life, that no one really knows what they are talking about when it comes to race.” — Eli Steele

Later, when Steele was applying to UCLA, he knew he could check the “African-American” box and have a better chance of getting in, but he chose to leave his race blank and was not admitted. 

“We should ask why LAUSD was willing to violate the California Constitution to deny enrollment to a kid for an unchecked race box,” he said. “We should also ask if these boxes are truly making us better as a society or are they actually blinding us to deeper, more human-related problems.”

When audiences watch “How Jack Became Black,” Steele hopes he can help them understand where society stands with race today. 

“I know I have a unique view of things due to my multiracial identity and ability to move through different parts of American society,” he said. “It is my hope that by conveying my unvarnished and somewhat uncomfortable views in good faith that we can begin to ask if we truly are on the right path to a better America.”