The Laurence Fishburne-produced and Laura Checkoway-directed documentary Cave of Adullam is a love letter to male vulnerability. Cave leader Jason Wilson uses a quote from Frederick Douglas for reference: “It’s easier to raise boys than to mend broken men.” Through martial arts, meditation, discipline and emotional expression, he helps the young men of Detroit create a new way of life that transcends the temptations of crime and gang culture.
His teachings encourage young men to cry, to be upset, to express their feelings properly, ignoring the idea that black men have to bottle up their feelings because it’s not what men do. The film follows four young men (some of whom grew up with months in a single parent situation), as Wilson reprograms their understanding of masculinity, giving them problem-solving tools to break through the generational trauma of masculinity.
Deadline spoke with Fishburne and Wilson about their joint venture and why in a society that forces black children to grow up too quickly, it’s important to help young black boys seek a better future for themselves.
How did you (Fishburne), Jason and director Laura Checkoway come together for Cave of Adullam?
Laurens: It’s really interesting because I think my relationship with Jason started way before I met him. He has a relationship with my work and found some of the work I’ve done useful for what he does.
jason: I’ve always been a fan of Lawrence, you know, especially Boyz n the Hood and I saw him as a father figure. However, when he played Morpheus in The Matrix, I saw the ultimate father figure. Some of the Cave’s curriculum is based on the philosophies in the film. Like Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), I had to rethink my own trauma, growing up with a father who was verbally abusive.
In 2016 we had a video that went viral on YouTube, breaking down emotional barriers. When it went viral, I was approached by three film producers, including Roy Bank. He kept in touch over the years and I decided to continue with him. Fast forward and Lawrence sees the sizzle reel.
Laurens: Roy brought Jason to our attention, told us about him, his program, his ideas, what he was doing made us sizzle a little. This fits right in with our mission and the kind of lives we want to illuminate.
Why was it important to you to create a space like the Cave of Adullam?
jason: The Cave was born out of my own desire for a man or a father figure to teach me how to be a man. Looking for someone who wouldn’t judge me when I felt weak, or someone who would encourage and affirm me. Even today, many young boys are misled by deceptive mantras such as “no pain, no gain” and “big boys don’t cry.” It was absolutely necessary for me to create a space where guys can feel safe, where they can really express what’s going on, the toxic thoughts and emotional wounds before they do something harmful. I use martial arts because it gave me an alternative to a chance to really express what was going on without, you know, jeopardizing my future. It helped me release the anger I felt from my father for not really being active in my life.
You’re creating a new way for young men to process that not someone is yelling in their face or someone yelling at them to make it happen.
jason: There were many boot camp programs that started to fail at an alarming rate. I attended about three of them before I realized you can’t scare a guy. Black guys in Detroit didn’t need that. They had to be healed. I went from just martial arts and mentoring to therapy and opportunities for them to meditate and really discuss what’s really going on internally.
Women play a big part in your process. Not only do you (Jason) present as a father figure, but you also honor the mothers. Can you extend that?
jason: We help many single parent families where women are the only provider, but there is a mix. We have two single fathers who have their sons enrolled in the Cave. What we’re trying to do is give mothers the opportunity to be educators. Look, I’m a great caregiver, but I can’t match my wife’s nurturing love, even on my best day. As often as you are dealing with a boy, and he is in that crucial phase of the transition into adulthood, there is a lot of rebellion in the quarrel between the mother and the son. When they come to me, they let me carry out the discipline and encouragement he needs from a father figure.
This movie about black boys is directed by Laura Checkoway, a white woman. There is always a question of what makes her the best candidate to describe Black lives. What was the deciding factor in choosing Laura to direct Cave of Adullam?
Laurens: Lauren was chosen because she is a brilliant documentary filmmaker. She has a cinematic sensibility and a doctor’s trickery.’ She is also good at entering someone’s private space as an observer and letting things manifest naturally. Laura doesn’t put her personality or her energy on anything. It comes down to her humanity and her ability to see humanity in all the subjects she has shot as a documentary filmmaker. And that’s why we chose her.
The principles you learn in the Cave have universal sensitivities. Do you think this documentary can be used as a lesson for guys around the world? And is there a plan to expand the cavern behind the city of Detroit?
jason: On my Instagram I would say that over 70 percent of the direct messages I received are from men of different ethnic backgrounds. I wrote a book in 2019 called Cry like a man† I thought what we were dealing with this emotional incarceration was a black matter until I started receiving calls and letters from men all over the world saying they are tired of suppressing their emotions. Men are tired of holding onto trauma. It ruins their lives and their families.
This isn’t just a black guys issue, it’s a men’s issue. For so long we’ve been limited to the world definition of being male, which we don’t even know how to be. So many guys and men want to break free, want to be human and want to be more than manly. The documentary Cave of Adullam not only shows boys how to express themselves but also teaches them to be better fathers, husbands and leaders in society.
Resources play a major role in expansion. We have the curriculum, it’s just the financial aspect that has to come together. I’ve created a space in Detroit to work out the kinks and set up the framework for the program so it can eventually be sustained on a larger scale. But we also have a podcast studio where we can train virtually if you don’t even pass the academy. That’s a start.
If the two of you could go back and talk to your 14-year-old self, what advice would you give them, knowing what you know now?
Laurens: Sit down and stop all that foolishness!
jason: I’d say, “Jason, you’re good enough.”