Foster Boy (2020) is a film about a young Black male ex-offender, James Randalf, who goes by the name Jamal. The film depicts Jamal, played by actor Shane Paul McGhie, as an intelligent and driven character that shows resilience despite the trauma he experienced as a child. Inspired by the true stories of four foster children, human rights advocate and Chicago lawyer, Jay Paul Deratany, who is also the producer and writer of the film, successfully portrays the injustice foster care children endured in the early 2000s in the Chicago foster care system.
The film opens with Jamal as an adult waking up in his prison cell from a nightmare connected with his traumatic childhood experience of being raped by his white foster brother. The next scene provides a written definition of the word foster, written in bold white letters against a black backdrop; ‘affording, receiving or sharing nurture or parental care though not related by blood or legal ties’. This scene sets the precedence of the film’s intent to reveal whether the American foster care system succeeded in providing vulnerable children with nurturing or parental care. The film shows how the foster system failed vulnerable children.
This film shows how a for-profit foster care agency places Jamal with several foster carers who emotionally and physically abused him. The foster care agency further neglected Jamal by knowingly placing him with a foster brother who had committed sexual offences against minors. Despite Jamal’s final foster parent’s efforts to nurture him with care, love, and support he needed they failed to protect him from his abusive foster brother as his past offences were conveniently hidden from them. Sadly, it was at this loving home that Jamal was subjected to three years of clandestine rape by his foster brother.
Moved by courage and bravery, Jamal pursues justice against the foster care agency for failing to provide him with a safe, stable, and nurturing home. Representing Jamal during the civil trial is a reluctant but reputable white corporate lawyer. The initial interactions between the lawyer, Michael Trainer, and Jamal are undeniably frictional as the pair express stereotypes and prejudices. Michael refers to Jamal as a ‘thug’, while Jamal refers to Michael as a ‘three-piece’. The prejudices conveyed by the characters illustrate the inequalities that exist in society today.
Like many young Black males, Jamal being labelled a thug based on his ethnicity can result in unfair treatment in the criminal justice system. For instance, Michael’s reference to Jamal as a thug demonstrates the lawyer predicting how the justice system would view Jamal based on his previous experience of how young Black men are treated by the law. He believes the jury’s distorted picture of Jamal as a ‘thug’ will not guarantee the pay-out from the foster agency that Jamal deserved, therefore, encouraging him to settle to what was offered by the agency. Michael’s expectation of Jamal settling for the unjust settlement reinforces the white patriarchal society’s expectation of young Black males accepting their position as a marginalised group. Jamal’s negative criminal justice system experience reveals to what extent institutions deeply embedded negative labels can oppress ethnic minority individuals.
On the other hand, Jamal reacts to those representing the oppressive system by referring specifically to his lawyer as ‘three-piece’, signifying that his suits represent the system. Michael challenges his label and says, ‘I wear nice clothes, I'm a three-piece … you don’t know shit about me!’ Ironically, before Michael knew Jamal, he labelled him a ‘thug’. As the film writer, Jay Paul Deratany could have made a more significant effort to make Michael accountable for his negative judgements against Jamal. Instead, Michael fails to challenge the stereotypes society places on him, thus colluding in labelling Jamal. For instance, Michael insists that Jamal change his afro hairstyle to change the jury’s negative perception of him as a thug. Jamal initially resisted; however, Michael’s Black colleague persuaded Jamal to change his hairstyle as she argued, ‘we have to play their game’. Jamal does ‘play their game’ as he succumbs to Michael’s pressure to change his hair to gain social acceptance from the white ruling class. Alternatively, Michael could have encouraged Jamal to express his Afro-Caribbean heritage that his natural hair symbolised, which arguably would have made a stronger emphasis on Jamal embracing his ethnic identity instead of conforming to the white norms that dominate society.
Fortunately, Jay Deratany ably addresses society’s prejudices on young Black boys such as Jamal, by using Black characters to challenge Michael’s discrimination against Jamal: the judge, Michael’s assistant, and Jamal’s former foster parents. By challenging and reflecting on his prejudices, Michael saw Jamal for who he was — a talented young boy who is disadvantaged by default because of the colour of his skin and then further discriminated against while growing up in a corrupt care system. Seeing past the labels, Michael built a positive relationship with Jamal and thus provided the support needed to ensure he received the justice he deserved. Michael, challenged by his assumptions, highlighted the importance of social workers not viewing individuals through the prejudiced lenses that prevent them from delivering the support they need to provide. Letting go of the stereotypes that once clouded Michael’s judgment freed him to search for the truth about Jamal’s allegations of his foster brother raping him. Consequently, Jamal was set free from the trauma that once bound him to a life of anger and frustration against a broken system. A combination of Michael listening to Jamal’s pain and ensuring the court heard him, and collecting evidence, led Jamal to win the enormous settlement that he deserved. Social workers adopting Michael’s evidence-based approach and questioning their assumptions can collect the evidence required to attain solutions that service users seek. Silenced by the emotional pain induced by his trauma, Jamal struggled to testify during the civil trial. However, it was particularly moving to watch Jamal finds his voice as he expresses his pain resulting from the experience of being raped. Jamal’s ability to express himself supported his healing process and reminded me of the healing power of the arts. As a social work student, Jamal’s story inspired me to be creative in supporting service users to express their too often suppressed emotions and feelings. Overall, Foster Boy encourages social workers, policymakers, and health and social care professionals to continuously reflect on their existing discriminatory practices. When such agencies fail to implement anti-discriminatory practices, it will negatively impact the quality of care and support a vulnerable individual receives.