Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer co-directed the HBO documentary The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (2009) about the former DC politician who went to prison on drug charges but was able afterwards to be elected mayor. That movie was as much about Marion Barry as it was about the African-American experience in the nation’s capitol and the country-at-large. Seven years later, Flor and Oppenheimer have teamed up again to give us another look into the African-American experience in Washington, DC. This time, the focus isn’t on one, larger-than-life figure. The focus is on several, seemingly, larger-than-life figures. They are all black, all male, all young, all between the ages of 14 and 22, and all of them openly gay.
In 2009, several, gay ninth-graders started a gang in DC to defend themselves against bullying and hate crimes. The gang reportedly grew to over 200 members. The impression is that it is a gang of a bunch of street kids who have banded together. They’re not really organized in any kind of official way. They’re a loosely-tied family whose main function is to be a force of physical protection if any member feels threatened.
A lot of these young men come from homophobic homes that don’t support them or kick them out. As a result, these young men end up homeless, living with whomever or wherever they can, and often turning to prostitution in order to survive. The gang, which calls itself “Check It,” is also a support group for those young men who have to walk the streets at night because they have no where else to go or no other way to make money.
The focus is on four of these young, black men, but other troubled youth enter the picture to talk briefly about their experiences. Yet, we get to know them better through the three, black, adult men who also enter the picture to try to help these young ones and hopefully better their lives or at least their outlook on their lives.
Ron Moten is the first such adult. He’s a former gang member himself who turned his life around and became a gang counselor. Because of the boldness and flamboyance of the Check It gang, which are mostly young black, gay men acting and dressing very effeminately, Moten obviously hears about them, especially when the gang’s exploits become violent and criminal like picking fights and engaging in petty theft. Moten reaches out to the gang members to try to tamp down their aggression or criminality. He also hosts a radio show, which tries to have conversations toward that same goal.
Duke Buchanan is a former boxer who trains young black men in a gym either to compete or to redirect their energies into something positive. He and Moten push one of the Check It members to be a boxer. The young man in question goes by the name of Skittles, probably because of his brightly-colored hair. At first sight, Skittles’ hair is orange. Duke notices Skittles as being skinny and effeminate but very talented when it comes to fighting, having been bred on harassment in the streets.
Finally, there is Jarmal Harris, a fashion designer and stylist who founded a not-for-profit organization called the Jarmal Harris Project that tries to connect youth to the fashion industry, providing training in sketching and production like cutting prints and stitching fabrics. He runs a camp to that effect in DC where many of the Check It members go.
Among them are Alton, Tray and Day Day. It’s here where we get more of a sense of these young men like what they want for their lives and how they respond in certain situations. Some handle certain situations better than others. Few have bad tempers and for some, it’s their obvious first, professional environment, so it becomes about them having to adjust their street behavior with behavior appropriate in a work or business setting. Some are better to adjust or more quickly to commit to new things than others.
For those who remember, this movie is very much a spiritual sequel to Paris is Burning (1990). The characters and the culture are all very much the same. Instead of vogue-dancing and drag balls, everything in Flor and Oppenheimer’s picture revolve around a fashion show. The only thing diminished 25 years later are racism and AIDS as prominent adversities, but many of the other issues remain. In that regard, this movie is a reminder or an eye-opener to the problems that persist within the LGBT community.
Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains images of violence, sexual suggestion and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.