[This is the first in a series of posts highlighting some of the films from the Matatu Festival of Stories 2015. Enjoy.]
There’s something powerful about the idea of Home. Home is where the heart is. But, as Gil Scott-Heron sings, Home is also where the hatred is. This back and forth between passionate extremes is a central point of Romeo is Bleeding.
The documentary follows poet Donté Clark as he navigates the rift between Central and Unincorporated Richmond, CA. Just miles north of Oakland, these two cities-within-a-city have been engaged in a decades-long turf war that has scarred its people, too often and too deeply. Poetry was initially a way to get out of the streets. But Donté soon found himself using it to find a way to help spread love and healing amidst his peers and elders alike. In the midst of this process, the film finds him re-crafting Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet into a topical and culturally relevant new form, with the backdrop being Richmond’s feud with itself.
Put simply then, RIB is a powerful and evocative film.
This is a hard sell. Especially for those of us (see: black folk) who have seen this type of film time and again. Whether you want to believe it or not, many of us are actually tired of the Young Kid from The Hood Makes it Out through The Arts and Tries to Save Other Kids narrative. The first third of the film plays heavily on these tropes. From Donté’s guarded charisma to an almost play-by-play Nice White Woman, it all feels like a setup to play at your tired heartstrings.
However, as the film progresses, director Jason Zeldes crafts something entirely more powerful and meaningful. In confessional interviews with police, the poets, teachers, community leaders, historians, and community folk alike, a rich and troubled tapestry is woven. Richmond has problems, yes. But those problems come from somewhere.
The film not-so-subtly points fingers, from the city’s (by way of the police) laissez-faire isolation of unincorporated Richmond (all for the sake of lower crime stats), to the Exxon plant’s most likely implication in generations of asthmatic children. What’s admirable, though, is that the film also tries not to be rhetorically righteous; the muddied middleground is also involved here. Donté and his kin highlight the difficulty of escaping the streets, when oftentimes it’s the only thing feeding people. Victims of street life become apparent, and, possibly worse, many of these kids are trapped between trying to find their way and being treated all the same by the discriminatory actions of the city and police. Nothing highlights this more than Donté’s own predicament as kin to a notorious family name; everyday he travels through Richmond could easily be his last, simply because of association.
Fortunately, as much as the film works to show you the deep hurt and tragedy embedded in the city, it also works to show both hope and healing truths in reality. There are many stories that are revealed and progressed, and you feel as though you can truly see these different subjects as full humans; not just stereotypes or saccharine afterschool specials. What’s more, throughout the film and through its culmination, there’s a real investment in changing Richmond for the better. In the case of Donté and his crew, and their impact on their peers and community, the children truly are the future.
And that future seems more than bright.
Romeo is Bleeding opens Thursday 9.24 @7pm, at Starline Social Club in Oakland.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. @dapisdope