FOR AHKEEM B+
USA (90 mi) 2017 d: Jeremy S. Levine and Landon von Soest
Things are gonna get easier
Things’ll get brighter
Things are gonna get easier
Things’ll get brighter
—OOH CHILD The Five Stairsteps - YouTube (3:22) 1970
Shot as a visual diary, bleak but starkly revelatory, this small, relatively unrecognized film has a shattering impact, much more influential than the highly politicized Whose Streets? (2017), serving as a female counterpart to Hoop Dreams (1994), as it works as a humanistic exposé, significant because the protagonist, Daje Shelton, known as Boonie, a 17-year old black girl from St. Louis, is someone rarely, if ever, featured onscreen, as she lives a life that is worlds apart from what most people experience, confined to segregated living conditions and the harsh penalties that accompany those living there, where it appears they never get a fair shake, that the system is stacked against them, as they are singled out for any routine infraction and then penalized well beyond what other kids go through, making it damn near impossible for anyone to ever succeed. As we learn early in the film, the State of Missouri expels and suspends more black kids from elementary and high school than any other state in America, suggesting they must be the worst kids anywhere in the United States. But this is far from the truth, as they’re really no different than any other adolescent kids, yet they’re treated differently, as their childhood is criminalized, where teachers don’t see normal, average kids, but see potential criminals in their classrooms, resorting to race profiling, calling the police when things get out of hand (with some arrested as early as age 8), initiating criminal records when other kids are simply sent to the principal’s office. This double standard of inherent racism is an unspoken theme throughout this film, following two years in the life of a young black teenage girl, who we see at the outset facing a judge who orders her to a court-supervised alternative school (that he runs, ironically, offering the appearance of fueling a pipeline of his own self-interest) for engaging in a typical fight, where someone called her by a disparaging name, and she ends up paying the price. The black judge in this instance has no wiggle room, as there is a zero tolerance policy in effect that seems to apply exclusively towards black kids. Shaken to the core by this decision, Daje and her overly distraught single mother have no choice in the matter, as the same thing happened to Daje’s mother when she was in high school. Hoping things would be different for her own daughter, that more opportunities would open up, kids in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are constantly reminded by the cyclical turn of events that leave them with far fewer choices, where they rarely make it out of these neighborhoods, stuck generation by generation.
Daje is convinced that she will graduate high school and go to college, that she will make her mother proud, so she enters her new school convinced she will succeed, yet on the very first day we see that same judge that sentenced her reminding all these students that they are considered “bad” kids, as otherwise they wouldn’t have been sent here, where this has a way of stigmatizing each and every one of these kids. These are different circumstances than what most kids go through, as they are not constantly reminded of the extra hurdles and obstacles that they must overcome just to be on the same playing field. Instead they are marked for failure, where it’s simply impossible for this not to have a staggering effect on their outlook. Consider the differences between Daje’s prospects and the kids in Richard Linklater’s 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood, as the St. Louis system categorizes “bad” children early on, marking them for trouble, where instead of high school to college to a career, their path is more commonly from school to expulsion to prison. We hear Daje mutter to herself, “People have been labeling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it of yourself.” Their hopes and aspirations are met with a wall of resistance, which includes the deaths of several of their classmates along the way. Daje narrates throughout the film various passages written into her journal, allowing viewers to follow a timeline, and while it’s difficult to follow her slang vernacular without subtitles (which do occasionally appear), she repeats the names of kids who have been killed, speaking almost casually of a bullet wound she herself took to the stomach, where the effects are obviously traumatizing, yet this is simply the landscape of their existence, matching the mindset of returning war veterans who are equally scarred by post traumatic stress when attempting to reintegrate back into their lives at home. There are no grief counselors talking to these kids, no psychologists or social workers, as budgets have been cut down to the bare necessities. One might think counselors are a necessity, but they don’t exist here. The events taking place in Ferguson are a backdrop to these kid’s lives, as the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer that is not even charged reverberates throughout their community, with eyes riveted on the nightly newscast covering the Ferguson unrest, where police routinely target innocent lives of black protesters, giving a face to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Almost instantly, Daje is again targeted for talking in class and using profanity, with her mother called in for another disciplinary hearing, where it’s hard to comprehend how these coming-of-age kids are supposed to react when faced with discovering the realities of racism in their everyday lives without resorting to anger and disappointment, where discussing it among themselves is part of what’s needed in coming to terms with it, yet they’re punished for expressing themselves. Given this atmosphere of extreme repression, Daje gravitates to a boyfriend, Antonio, who allows her to be herself, though Antonio’s path is another story in itself, as it’s riddled with even more roadblocks. Nonetheless, he’s a nice kid who cares about Daje, but he inevitably runs into trouble, having fewer and fewer options, with no jobs and no money, in a system where minors are routinely charged as adults, urged by the courts (as they can’t afford lawyers) to plead guilty to avoid jail time, accumulating felony convictions by the time they’re only 16 or 17, disqualifying them for federal help, eventually forced out of school or dropping out altogether. One of the more revealing scenes shows Antonio waiting in line to meet with a judge in what amounts to a typical hallway, not even in a courtroom, with the judge dispensing life-altering verdicts with alarming speed, spending only a minute or two with each suspect before moving on to the next in assembly-line fashion. Daje also gets pregnant, to no one’s surprise, perhaps, as she knows better, but simply refused to listen to all advice to the contrary. Her mother freaks out, calling her a “whore,” knowing how this mirrors her own life, where things never get any easier. With her baby Ahkeem arriving in time for her senior year, Antonio is a doting father (when he’s not locked up in jail for petty offenses with major consequences, unable to raise money for bail, which is $500, crimes that more affluent whites would never spend any jail time), and her mother can’t help but welcome this adorable new kid to their lives. But it’s a struggle balancing a pregnancy, parenthood, and a relationship with a full load of classes, where she’s obviously sleep-deprived with a newborn on her hands, finding it difficult to navigate the few hours needed for homework. While the teachers and various workers associated with her alternative school are not only helpful, but offer positive feedback of constant encouragement, and Daje needs every bit of it, as she initially falters, failing courses that she needs to graduate, absolutely devastated that she falls short of her dream to graduate, but through help and intervention she’s given another opportunity to retake final exams, where the smile on her face finally says it all. This is not the typical path to high school graduation, but it’s hard-earned and eye-opening, exhibiting a kind of effort that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world, as these lives are largely invisible, off the radar, with precious little understanding for what they have to go through.
Followed around by two white filmmakers with cameras using a cinéma vérité style through the hallways of a nearly all-black school, it’s never clear how Daje was selected in the first place, as she has no distinctive qualities, but is the same story of millions of black teenagers across the country, where her pathway calls into question existing practices in the state of Missouri, as black lives are simply treated differently, punished with greater regularity, and with harsher sentencing. For a small, relatively unheralded film without an ounce of pretense or editorial content, this film clearly shows how black lives are uniquely different than white lives in America, quietly revealing just how different. For Ahkeem, there are two strikes against him before he’s even been born.