Chicago filmmaker takes on diet industry in new documentary

Staff - suntimes.com - 11/28/2011
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Darryl Roberts refuses to say a four-letter word: Diet. The South Side filmmaker had to face that word when he rolled cameras on his new documentary, “America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.”

He was 273 pounds and facing nagging high blood pressure and an arrhythmic heartbeat.

Sure, he always wanted to drop a few pounds, but he refused to obsess. “I never felt the need for a diet. I always felt good about myself no matter what weight I was at in life,” says Roberts.

“I think there is a big difference between the African-American community and the white community when it comes to what’s acceptable in terms of body size.”

His new documentary follows his 2008 hit by the same name. The topic this time is skewering the dieting industry. He discusses how punishing it is to lose pounds when you’re a model and the consequences of plastic surgery and anorexia. He also mulls over the body mass index.

Roberts has a bone to pick with the numbers — and not just the ones on the scale. He thinks that the obesity epidemic has been misunderstood and even inflated because people misapply the BMI (Body Mass Index).

“If you went by the BMI then even Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Christian Bale would be considered either overweight or obese,” he marvels.

Roberts is quick to say that people should deal with health issues when it comes to weight loss.

“We have a health problem in America. There is no denying it,” he says. “We have diabetes and heart issues. But I think people approach losing weight in the wrong way. I think people shouldn’t focus on a number on the scale and should think about what they can do to get healthier.”

Roberts tells us the sad stats in his new film:

† Some 100 million Americans are obese.

† Four out of five women don’t like the way they look.

† On any day almost 50 percent of women are dieting and so are 25 percent of men.

Digest that the dieting industry rakes in $50 billion even though 95 percent of diets fail.

Roberts doesn’t pull punches in the film. Yes, he would like to be thinner, but he isn’t going to give up his KFC or Subway. “It’s all about eating it in moderation,” the 6-foot-3 Roberts says.

Roberts grew up eating good food on the South Side of Chicago, just a few streets away from Jennifer Hudson and Bernie Mac. He says that becoming a film director wasn’t exactly a common dream in his neighborhood, or easy for others to stomach when he kept talking about it as a kid.

“There was a level of disbelief when I said I wanted to direct movies,” he says. “You don’t see many directors coming from these streets.”

“I was just a little kid who loved movies and my dream was to make them,” he says. “My love of movies is also why I didn’t get caught up in what was happening on the streets in my neighborhood. I just went to the movies.”

Roberts tried living in tofu-and-vegan L.A. for a few years, but found himself missing his hometown. “I moved to LA and came back three years later. I couldn’t take it anymore out there,” he says of California. “I was missing my Chicago.”

Roberts says that he originally was told there would be no audience for his first “America the Beautiful” film.

“I was told that nobody would go see it because black people supposedly don’t go see documentaries,” he says. “The head of one of the studios told me this. He said, ‘Go to any theater to a documentary.’ I did in eight cities and out of 1,000 people, there were about eight African Americans total.”

“Then I was told that white people wouldn’t go see a film like mine because I’m black,” he says. “I said, ‘I think people will go see a good movie. Let’s test it out.’ ” He screened the first film in Portland, Ore. “It doesn’t get any whiter,” he says. “Some 400 people came that night and I got a 97 percent rating that they loved the movie.”

In the end, Roberts says that people should relax a little bit on the whole weight thing. “People are too crazy about dieting. It consumes them and screws them up. Just try eating better today and see how you feel,” he advises.

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