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.
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.