EDITOR’S NOTE: For immediate reference to the Kickstarter campaign for ‘Street Fighting Man,’ see here.
We miss a lot when we rely on catchy, simplified memes that spread through social media like relentless viruses. We lose even more being tempted by yearnings for nostalgia, especially when our partisan champions contextualize them as our best options for resolving the intractable social issues of our day.
In fact, it’s disturbing and astounding to discover just how much amnesia these impersonal rhetorical tools have inflicted upon us.
In a March 28 commentary for The Wall Street Journal amid the national attention regarding the recent murder of Trayvon Martin, Juan Williams, a former National Public Radio correspondent now a political analyst for the Fox News Network, asked:
‘But what about all the other young black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black. And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them?’
A few days later, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of The Beautiful Struggle, devastated Williams’ position merely by way of a quick Google search producing evidence that, contrary to Williams’ claim, rallies precisely for that objective recently were held in Brooklyn, New York City, Newark, Pittsburgh, Saginaw, Michigan and Gary, Indiana, just to name a few cities.
In a matter of seconds, one could retrieve via a Google search all sorts of deeply depressing statistics about urban decay and criminal violence, especially in cities with large black communities. Coates adds, ‘And then there are pundits who write more than they read, and talk more than they listen, and prefer an easy creationism to a Google search.’
A DIFFERENT MEME FOR DETROIT
Detroit also has inspired many memes. One is the definitive case study of a city’s decline amid globalization and a post-industrial economy. Another is its bundle of statistics for murder, functional illiteracy, and the effects of violence among young people. And, in this presidential election year, we are reminded how Detroit’s auto industry has been revitalized thanks to a government-sponsored rescue, considered at the time of its approval among the most politically unpopular decisions, at least according to conventional wisdom which turns out, more often, to be wrong than right. (PHOTO ABOVE: Deris Solomon)
However, Utah filmmaker Andrew James has crafted a different meme that pierces through the amnesia-inducing pathology and potentially draws us back into a once-middle-class neighborhood in Detroit’s east side that no longer even has a police precinct presence. Instead, it has James Jackson, a retired Detroit police officer in his sixties – a/k/a Jack Rabbit – who has become the neighborhood’s de facto law enforcement presence.
In the forthcoming documentary, ‘Street Fighting Man,’ with the name taken from a 2010 Metro Times article by Detroitblogger John, James relies on the observational techniques of cinema vérité to document not only Jackson’s extraordinary sense of responsible vigilantism but also of two younger men in the neighborhood – a single father just barely past 21 (Deris Solomon) ready to leave the high-risks of life on the streets and the other, (Luke Williams), a man in his forties who was homeless but was able to purchase a formerly condemned property so he could rehabilitate it.
While the documentary’s title conceivably could be at the top of a Hollywood blockbuster production of a heroic crime fighter in a dystopic urban area, James does not scrub away any of the harsh realities that might unsettle or even disturb viewers who perhaps are more accustomed to the memes that keep them at a safe artistic distance. In ‘Street Fighting Man,’ these realities take on eye-opening awareness wiping away the expectations of exoticism that inadvertently creep into some documentaries about the urban crisis in America.
There are natural instincts of investigative journalism in the film but they also are parlayed into precisely the same type of emotionally gripping force that one would see in a fictional film in which ‘the street fighting man’ is positioned as a reluctant hero who compels us, as the audience, to deal with the ever-present elemental choice between false consciousness and true self-discovery. With the stories of three generations of men, James offers a documentary about Detroit eschewing the disenfranchising, chauvinistic, and racist frames that unfortunately have engineered our most persistent myths and social imaginations about Detroit and cities all across the nation. (PHOTO ABOVE: Luke Williams)
THE EMOTIONAL POWER OF CHARACTER-DRIVEN NARRATIVE
Wisely navigating an intricate balance between the purest forms of investigative journalism and cinematic storytelling, James does not leaven his work with expert testimony, political discourse, and statistical evidence. Instinctively, we already know the larger institutional structures and social forces that have bedeviled many of our cities across the United States. ‘Street Fighting Man’ is essentially a narrative in three acts but as James indicates, all three acts inevitably converge into one as the film tells ‘the tale of one man as he attempts to make it though his youth, mid-life, and old age in post-industrial America.’
Unlike other directors who have made recent documentaries about the city, James and his wife, Jolyn Schleiffarth, lived in Detroit for more than a year. As James writes in his artistic statement, ‘For over a year, I traveled back and forth, following Jack Rabbit and encountering new characters along the way. I began to realize that I wouldn’t be able to treat these stories with the depth they deserved by coming to town every few weeks. So my wife and I packed our bags and moved to Detroit. That decision ended up being the most important one I made for this film.’
It afforded James the opportunity to cultivate close bonds with the three men as well as many other neighborhood residents, who, at first contact, were understandably skeptical about an outsider as well as their vulnerabilities to becoming exploited by someone eager to tell their story. Likewise, James proceeded cautiously to ensure that he could maintain an essential distance so that the story’s integrity would not be compromised or shaded for gratuitous purposes. By becoming embedded in the community, he occasionally would set aside the camera, help out in the neighborhood, and join in a volunteer project.
‘Sometimes, it was as simple as helping to trim trees and bushes or driving someone to the store for groceries,’ he explains. ‘I learned to balance my presence, too, so it did not appear that I was bugging them. There were days when nothing would be going on or the subjects I planned to talk to on a particular day were not ready. So, I would do small things like make lists or other small tasks that go with any film project. And, then there were times when the action would be non-stop for the entire day.’
The emotional, truly sincere impact of James’ film is shattering but it also demands our attention in a way that few, if any, contemporary media reports are capable of doing. There is the frustration of Solomon, struggling to find sufficiently sustainable employment and wondering why those who break the law always get rewarded. (At the time of this writing, Solomon has found a job at an Ohio factory). Williams, a once-homeless 40-year-old resident who is remodeling a former crack house he purchased for $1,500, struggles to regroup after the home burns down on an extremely cold winter day. Jack Rabbit doubts his effectiveness after two neighborhood children are shot in the head and left for dead in a field choked by weeds. The most painful irony is that the three children identified as the attackers had purchased ice cream from Rabbit when they were younger. (PHOTO ABOVE: James ‘Jack Rabbit’ Jackson)
THE KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN TO COMPLETE
In order to complete the post-production phase of this feature-length film, which is expected to be ready for screening later this year, the producing team has launched a Kickstarter campaign, in addition to seeking funds from external agency and foundational sources. The campaign has a $20,000 goal that must be reached by June 10 in order for the funding to be secured. The campaign details and information about pledges can be found here.
Those wishing to donate can pledge any amount. Depending upon the amount pledged, benefactors can gain a wide variety of benefits ranging from autographed DVD copies of the finished documentary to film credit acknowledgments as associate producer and to co-producer or executive producer credits along with other amenities.
The film is produced by Sara Archambault, program director at the LEF Foundation and programmer cofounder of award-winning nonfiction film series The DocYard at the historic Brattle Theatre, and Katie Tibaldi. a writer, producer, and director in film and television with lifelong ties to Michigan. Joe Vaughn, a Detroit-based cinematographer and photographer, is executive producer.
The Kickstarter funding is absolutely necessary in order to finish the film. If the goal is reached, the producing team will be able to secure the services of Sundance-award winning editor Greg Snider (‘How To Die In Oregon’).
The film already is attracting a good deal of attention among the nation’s documentary filmmaking community. James is part of a growing number of independent creative artists who contribute significantly to Salt Lake City’s solid reputation for making films where emotions and themes form and flow into a provocative energizing discourse and ask viewers to suspend judgment, prejudice and political partisanship as they participate in the conversation and find voice for their own grassroots motivations.
More recently, James co-directed “Cleanflix,” a documentary about the sanitized film movement in Utah, with Joshua Ligairi. The film enjoyed a healthy presence on the juried festival circuit including the Toronto International Film Festival, Michael Moore’s invite-only Traverse City Film Festival and Thom Powers’ Stranger Than Fiction film series at the IFC Center in NYC. And, just recently, the film is now available on iTunes, Amazon, and DVD.
In 2008, ‘Una Vida Mejor,’ a small fiction film he wrote and directed about the lives of southern California migrant workers, won the Cinequest special jury prize for artistic vision.
For more information about ‘Street Fighting Man,’ see here.
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