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REVIEW: 'Bad Rap,' 'Check It' + Others Shine At This Year's Tribeca Film Festival


Has Tribeca finally found itself?

Amidst the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite — the lack of diversity in cinema has reached an apex level. Yet, the celebrated event, which now is in its 15th year, has seemingly found its identity. Despite concluding yesterday (April 24), those who attended have found that Tribeca has emerged as a go-to-destination for upcoming flicks, awesome new stars and the best in non-fiction filmmaking + documentaries. With that said, here are some of the best projects that we've seen at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.


Check It

Directed By: Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer

When we meet one of our first members of the country's first documented gay street gang, he is being interviewed on a community radio station. The interviewee is a very calm and kind young man, so it is quite a surprise to hear him answer a question about an alleged case involving a victim and bleach. And yet, in Check It, a level of violence and aggressiveness plays itself out as those within the gang earn a reputation as one of the most unfuckwitable gangs in the area. Check It, a thrilling, new documentary by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, follows these young men and tells their stories.

Their lives, all interwoven as signifiers as childhood friends and rivals, are stories of drug addiction, terrible schools and the stigmatization that comes with being a gay young man. Like many gangs, drugs and prostitution are common currencies for members of the Check It crew. Every individual in the film finds us witnessing that prostitution offers one of the most easily accessible means to money. During these montages, we're introduced to Niyah, who in full makeup and costume appears to be in her early twenties at least. She tells the audience that she hopes to "stop hooking" in a few years ("By eleventh or twelfth grade") — the realization that many of the street-wisened young men in the film are truly children is a swift heartbreak.

Despite the heart-wrenching reality of these young people's lives, or perhaps because of it, there are very few adults in the lives of the Check It members trying to open up doors of opportunity and create safe spaces for them. Ron Moten, a gang counselor in the area, regularly checks up on his young wards, driving them to and from different activities in an attempt to keep them off the streets. Skittles, presumably for his ever-changing candy-colored hair, is recognized for his keen fighting ability and is enrolled in a boxing program at a local gym. Even though the owner of the gym is regularly interviewed saying highly problematic things ("I don't care how f****t you are, at the end of the day that's still a man.") — Skittles is able to find himself a safe space the few times he attends.

For others, a summer fashion camp provides an alternate outlet and some (however brief) relief for the young men of the Check It gang. Having that outlet enables them to lessen the pressures of defending themselves in their at-times cruel environment.

It all isn't tough wars and plans of escape for members of Check It, but it sure seems to be that most of the time. At one point in the film, a jovial group hangout in the streets turns devastating when Day Day, one of the protagonists, shows up after having been jumped at a nearby H&M. Friends try to help him recuperate, while fending off pepper spray-wielding cops who are attempting to "control" the group. The scene is utterly chaotic, and yet, only one of the young men appears to lose his cool. His outbursts against the cops aren't the most surprising part of this moment; instead that his cohorts are not reacting the same way. It is a clear example of the hard-fought survival skills these young men have adopted — protect your own when no one else will because they will protect you in return, and cops are not your allies.

Financed in part by a successful IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign, Check It is described on its website as telling the story of five childhood friends from D.C.'s impoverished urban centers as they "claw their way out of gang life through an unlikely venue—fashion." Of course, watching the film you can't help but want to root for its young protagonists to make it out of the rough lot they've been assigned in life, yet one of the most lasting takeaways from “Check It” is the sheer direness if the subjects’ circumstances. Yes, we want to see the young men like Day Day, Skittles and Niyah escape life on the street, but it's also impossible to not wonder simultaneously, what are their real chances to get out and into a new life? To be young, black and gay, born into a social rung so low on the economic ladder that your life choices are almost predetermined to be minuscule -- what avenues really exist for more than a tiny few of these young people to make it out alive? I found these questions to be unshakeable as I left the film; not with a sense of disheartenment, but rather genuine concern and a lack of satisfying answers to give myself.

The Return

Directed By: Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway

Starring: Bilal Chatman, Kenneth Anderson, Monica Grier, Kaylica Anderson, Sam Anderson, Mike Romano, Susan Champion, Judge William Ryan

For the subjects of Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s documentary, The Return, the struggle to define one’s identity as a black man in America is painted in a radically different light. At one time serving life sentences in prison, two men are given the opportunity to re-enter society after having their sentences reduced under Proposition 36, an amendment to the devastating and highly controversial “Three Strikes” law enacted in the State of California almost two decades prior. For these men, coming home should feel like an overdue victory, but for many former inmates returning to their families and communities, reentry is only the beginning of an even greater set of obstacles to maneuver once they are out, thus giving The Return the room to reveal yet another layer of this country’s prison system and the prison industrial complex at large.

The Return is a smart documentary with a clear agenda of social justice, saving the emotionally charged moments for their most effective use, while the heft of the film is balanced between the interpersonal narratives and an exploration of the broader issues. We meet two men, Bilal Kevin Chatman and Kenneth Anderson, who are both eligible for release after having their life sentences reduced under Proposition 36. In addition to these men, we are also introduced to Mike Romano and Susan Champion, lawyers who helped co-author the amendment and continue to provide legal counsel for inmates seeking sentence reduction. By broadening the scope of the film to include these different perspectives, The Return smartly achieves something very difficult in a single film, which is successfully providing a context for the multifaceted impact of mass incarceration on the interpersonal level, the community level, and the policy level.

While this shift between an emotional and intellectual approach sets The Return to be an informative and insightful social justice film, it is not without its narrative tensions. Kenneth Anderson and Bilal Kevin Chatman come back to their lives with vastly different resources at their disposals, and their journeys couldn’t be more different. For Bilal Kevin, constantly expressing gratitude and a commitment to clean living seem to keep his attitude and his emotional state in balance. Kenneth, on the other hand, has not exercised the demons that plagued him in the past, and struggles continuously to deal with the emotional weight of the time he has lost from his family and the wounds he inflicted with his absence, as well as the frustration he encounters trying to find a job with dignity without a proper education. He often looks awkwardly into the camera during emotional scenes with his wife and children, seemingly unsure of how to maintain a stoic image when he knows there are others watching in. He is clearly in much internal pain and turmoil, and feels he has few outlets to express the many years of pent up sadness and anger from his time before and in prison. In this way, he is a portrait of the trappings and expectations of masculinity, and the toll it takes on those who aren’t able to live up.

What Anderson and Chatman do have in common, however, is the proverbial one-two punch served to each of them by society that landed them both in prison for life to begin with: lack of viable employment opportunities to support themselves and their families (the one), and the introduction of using and selling drugs as both a means for escape and financial resolve (the two). I saw Check It and The Return in the same day, and the unintentional juxtaposition left me with even more to think about. And yet, while the issues are different, the subjects of both films and the problems they face are the direct resultants of problems America has created itself: property, drug addiction, and mass incarnation in the black community. They both, in their own ways, tell stories of what happens to our nation’s most at-risk citizens are subjected to economic disenfranchisement and the gutting of social programs that could give these people more options.

Bad Rap

Directed By: Salima Koroma

Starring: Jonathan "Dumbfoundead" Park, Nora "Awkwafina" Lum, David "Rekstizzy" Lee, Richard "Lyricks" Lee

In 2016, a time where music has transcended the status of urban subculture to all out pop culture global supremacy, you’d think the world would be ready to stop being surprised when anyone except black people decide to become rappers. And yet, if the idea of an Asian-American rap artist still sounds like a bit of a novelty to some, those people are apparently not alone.

Bad Rap follows the lives and careers of four Asian-American hip hop artists, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks working to find a place for themselves in the music industry. Each of the profiled artists have a unique story, and many of them find themselves torn between the expectations of their immigrant parents and their chosen cultural identity as Americans who love hip hop. Between their narratives and the interviews with pretty much every Asian-American even marginally affiliated with hip hop (outfits alone are a veritable who’s-who of high end streetwear brands), the film is a thorough examination of both the rap industry from an outsider’s perspective, as well as the first-generation American immigrant experience.

At its core, the interesting aspect to Bad Rap’s protagonists’ stories are that in many ways, their fights to make it as rappers were no different than of rappers of any other race. The filmmakers almost relied too heavily on the premise that the world is not ready for Asian-Americans to gain mainstream visibility in the rap world. For the artists profiled, it seemed that the challenges they faced were those of any newcomers to the game — in one part of the film, a few industry executives are filmed as they watch and react to music videos by Awkwafina, Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy and Lyricks. While most of these industry guys had no knowledge of any of the artists before being shown their videos, their feedback was critical and on-point, recognizing their talent but also pointing out obvious areas of improvement (“His name is ‘Lyricks’? That needs to change”). If the point of these interviews was to unveil an underlying industry prejudice against Asian-Americans, this segment almost did the opposite: it showed that regardless of race or perceived outsider status, the rap world is a really tough one to break into for anyone, especially when the standards have become so high.

And still, to deny that an Asian-American rapper has exactly the same struggles as any other rapper trying to make it in the industry would be an unfair dismissal, especially on the part of someone who is not Asian-American themselves and doesn’t have that life experience (author included). Many interviewees discussed fighting the “model minority” stereotype and the pressures to live up to that; others lamented the constant criticism from within and outside the Asian immigrant community of their parents and their peers that they were “acting Black” (what this really means and why it’s a criticism is a whole ‘nother topic, if you feel me!) and not like themselves. Adding to these issues are the roles of gender norms and stereotypes folding into the mix — Dumbfoundead claims at one point that given the Western nerdy, frail, emasculated Asian male trope in the media, it’s probably easier to market a female Asian rapper. Awkwafina pushes back on this idea, and rightfully so: Westerners may be used to a certain kind of Asian female identity, an oversexualized image born from pornography culture, but that’s problematic for her too (and doesn’t help her marketing any more than it would Dumbfoundead’s).

So, if Asian-American rappers share some of the same industry experience as their counterparts from other races, but not necessarily the same life stories or community backgrounds, the issue of representation comes back to the forefront. There’s a certain kind of racist logic that lives in our society that believes if there aren’t many members of a certain race in a given industry, it must be because there aren’t enough of them who are actually good at it. For Asian-American rappers, the struggle to be represented continues, but if Bad Rap leaves us with a single message, it’s that there is enough talent in the community to continue to prove the haters wrong.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Night School

Directed By: Andrew Cohn

Starring: Greg Henson, Melissa Lewis, Shynika Jakes

The premise of Night School is seemingly banal, but the weight of the film is felt throughout: three people are documented through the process of getting their high school diplomas later in life as adults. Indianapolis, the setting for the film, has one of the nation’s highest illiteracy rates - a statistic that is an indicator of many other social factors lurking beneath its surface. Night School is a personal and intimate portrait of our nation’s deeply rooted educational and socioeconomic inequalities, as told through the persevering spirits of those desperately trying to fight against them. It takes place in Indianapolis’ Excel Center, a tuition-free high school for adults seeking their diplomas, a radical model rooted in social justice: almost all of the student we see at Excel are of color, and almost all of them are poor.

Attempting to pull themselves out of poverty seems to be a revolving door for Night School’s protagonists, a feeling that will be all-too-familiar to anyone who has tried to fight their way out of a system designed to fail you from the jump. For Greg Henson, a single parent raising his 4-year-old daughter, getting a diploma and the better job it will help him get requires getting his criminal record expunged, a process that keeps getting delayed as one small charge leads to another. For Melissa Lewis, flunking the same introductory Algebra class means her graduation date inches further and further away from her. Shynika Jakes, a fast food worker, keeps getting her hours cut and shifts scheduled during class time, forcing her to choose between going to school and keeping her job. When we see Shynika get actively involved in the Fight for $15 campaign, you can’t help but notice if this is an intentional aggression from her bosses to send her a message about the cost of fighting for your own rights.

Despite not containing the same high-stakes drama that some of the other films I watched during the festival, I found Night School to be the most emotionally upheaving. It stirred me deeply to witness how much of an achievement like getting a high school diploma meant for these people and their life outcomes; that something that should be so basic and accessible for all American citizens is such a barrier for these people and many others like them really hit home. By the end of the film, we see Greg and Shynika beaming with pride at their graduation stories (and Melissa a year later), and I was already fighting the waterworks. It’s impossible to watch Night School and do anything but root for these people to win, and it’s a huge relief to know at least this case, all of them do — especially knowing that for many others like them, this isn’t often the case.

Often times, a documentary film is able to find its subject by looking in the more obscure pockets of society; the people and groups whose existence we might not otherwise know about if it weren’t for these films. The thing I found very striking about Night School was the sheer ordinariness of the stories of its subjects: when portrayed with the narrative spotlight documentary filmmaking provides, it can be tempting to forget that the lives of Shynika, Michelle, and Greg are the stories of hundreds of thousands of people just like them in our country. Their hopes and dreams are those of everyone else’s - to be able to provide a life for themselves and their families that offers at least the hope of social mobility. And yet, because of the limitations designed by poverty and inadequate access to education, they are faced daily with barriers and challenges that those of us fortunate enough to not live in these spaces (or who have made our ways out) can’t readily imagine.

I had a professor in grad school who used to use a quote often, something along the lines of “the floor of white people’s aspirations in America is the ceiling of blacks’.” I can’t find the original quote (maybe it was a Professor Guerrero original), but I had all but forgotten it until watching Night School. Of course, this is not true universally, but for poor people of color in this country, it is almost a certainty. Poverty and lack of access to education are inextricably linked, and as one Excel Center counselor explains in the film, helping these people get diplomas is not a humanitarian or charitable endeavor, but rather an issue of social justice. Night School does a wonderful job of humanizing one of our nation’s most pressing matters of social justice today.

Zephyr Doles is a New York based writer, DJ and scholar. Follow the latest + greatest from her on Twitter @Zephyr_Ann.