Exhibitionists·HOT DOCS

In new documentary Check It, black LGBT youth form a gang to protect themselves

Check It, a new documentary whose international premiere took place at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival on Sunday, follows four members of the only documented African American gang in the United States made up of gay and trans individuals.

D.C. youths' story is gripping, but film is short on social context

Tray, one of the young gang members profiled in the documentary Check It. (Hot Docs)

Check It, a new documentary whose international premiere I caught at Toronto's Hot Docs festival on Sunday, follows four members of the only documented African American gang in the United States made up of gay and trans individuals.

In the Q&A following the screening, with American filmmakers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer (The Nine Lives of Marion Barry) as well as some of the film's subjects, a member of the audience asked about ethical issues that emerged while making the film. Specifically, she was interested in a series of interviews conducted with an individual who identified as a sex worker but was only 15 years old.

The story was shaped by what the filmmakers left out: links between the stories of the members and the larger context that shapes their realities

The word "ethics" stuck in my mind. What ethical considerations come into play when you choose to be the vehicle for sharing the stories of communities that are rarely invited to do so?  How is that task complicated by the fact that these individuals may be vulnerable subjects?

Although inner-city gangs are not a new subject in the doc world, the twist of a gang made up of primarily gay men and trans people makes Check It a unique and untold story. The title of the film, whose executive producers include Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi, is borrowed from the name of the gang. Originally formed in 2005 as a means of protection against bullying and hate crimes (a rationale also cited when examining the formation of numerous 20th mid-century street gangs), Check It has since grown to include over 200 members.

The film follows four gang members as they navigate the complex realities of growing up with limited resources and numerous barriers in Washington D.C., where discrimination is rife. According to 2014 FBI Hate Crime Statistics in the city, 41 per cent of attacks were motivated by the victim's sexual orientation, 21 per cent were motivated by the victim's gender identity and 19 per cent were motivated by the victim's race.

Alton, a member of the Washington D.C. gang Check It. (Hot Docs)

Structured as a character-driven film, we are introduced to four members of Check It — Skittles, Tray, Day Day and Alton. They are joined in the film by several older mentors who support and encourage them to craft different avenues for themselves: former convict turned community worker Ron "Mo" Moten; a former boxer turned gym owner named Duke; and Jarmal Harris, who runs a program teaching young people about the fashion industry. 

What filmmakers choose to include and exclude from a film defines the kind of story an audience is left to grapple with. This illustrates the incredible power dynamic between the filmmaker and the subjects they are portraying. The subjects, too, can choose what information to share with filmmakers, the parts of their life that they are willing to open up and the personae they construct when the cameras turn on.

In one scene, Day Day goes to visit his mother in a half-way house. While sharing stories of their past struggles, she becomes emotional. Day Day immediately takes off the mic and demands that they stop the interview, in an effort to protect his mother from the space of emotional vulnerability he sees her entering. Another scene following an attack on two of the members zeroes in on the rage that seemingly overtakes one member, while the others attempt to calm him. It's a powerful scene, but it left me thinking about the impact of the cameras in that moment and the way their presence may have raised the stakes of an already volatile situation.

In the Q&A, the filmmakers described the challenging journey of getting the young members of Check It to trust them. They spent months in their neighborhoods before bringing cameras in. Their successful Indiegogo campaign funding the movie allocated 10 per cent of all money raised to the budding fashion enterprise being created by members of Check It, and at the screening, both Moten and Tray were there to answer questions. Clearly, the filmmakers have exercised a considerable degree of care for the Check It members.

Dana Flor (left) and Toby Oppenheimer, directors of the documentary Check It. (Hot Docs)

Again, however, the story was largely shaped by what the filmmakers left out — namely, linkages between the individual stories of the members and the larger context that shapes their realities. The poverty of the members was evident, but the reasons for that poverty were not explored in the film. Several of the members had parents who were suffering from addictions, but the larger illustration of how systemic this issue is in their communities was not drawn.

None of the main characters seemed to be in school, but little information was given on why that was the case. In the talk back following the film, Moten explained that poorly-handled public-school closures in the neighbourhoods featured in the film had created a crisis, where the high-school dropout rate in the area spiked to historic levels. The fact that this hugely important event was excluded from the story on the screen left me perplexed.

Instead, the film constantly emphasized the importance of individual responsibility. From Skittles, the naturally talented boxer who seemingly lacked the motivation and discipline to stick with his training, to Alton, who spent much of his time in the fashion program making jokes rather than focusing on the opportunities at hand, each character was shown grappling with the choices available to them. In focusing so heavily on the individual responsibility of the gang members, the filmmakers seemed to present an almost libertarian perspective on the way the subjects' options are shaped and mediated by their political and social realities.

What this absence enabled was a story heavily rooted in respectability politics; in the film, well-meaning mentors encouraged the members to leave their attitudes at the door and to act professionally, dismissing their anger as behavioral defects. This left little room to explore how trauma — from drug and alcohol addiction to abuse — is passed down through generations. There was no engagement with how the education system that closed its doors, and the prison system that welcomed them with open arms, left these young people with limited options. As a result, the film teetered dangerously close to a portrayal steeped in stereotypes, and devoid of historical or political context.

As an audience member, I watched the film thinking about the young people that I worked with in my capacity as a former activist and community worker, and as an academic studying political science, gender studies and sociology. I reflected on the power of individual motivation, and also the limitations of it; dreams and aspirations are often shaped by your social realities. I've seen people choose to study social work instead of architecture because even though the latter option fit their skill sets, their social situation made it seem so far out of reach.

Skittles appears in the doc Check It, screening at Hot Docs 2016. (Hot Docs)

I watched Check It while reflecting on the studies I did around ethics in research and considering the missing political, historical and social realities that I know play a role in the lives of Tray, Day Day, Alton and Skittles. I sat during the Q&A looking at the white filmmakers who were behind the camera and the black subjects who were in front of it, and wondered whether those dynamics had filtered into the finished product.

I don't believe that only black people should tell stories about black people. I don't think that an academic essay on the sociological realities of the Check It members would have made an enticing documentary. And I don't think that the individual decisions of the Check It members are unimportant. But Check It left me thinking about the responsibilities of the documentary filmmaker, and how they shouldn't be taken lightly.

Check It. Directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer. (14A). 91 mins. Screens in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Film Festival Fri, May 6. Scotiabank Theatre 14, 259 Richmond W., Toronto. 6pm. $15.04.


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