“I want you to be happy,” black teen mother Daje Shelton tells her newborn baby in St. Louis, Missouri. “I want you to have an almost perfect childhood.”
Daje, herself still legally a child, is struggling to graduate from high school. Her journey through a public school for troubled teenagers is the focus of "For Akheem,'' a compelling documentary that premiered at the Berlinale.
The film follows Daje as she comes of age, sharing her hopes and dreams and grappling with injustice as she builds an identity and a fragile future for herself and her son.
The story begins in 2013 as Daje, then 17 years old, is sent to a court-supervised high school, which is the last chance for her to get a diploma and a ticket out of her dangerous, low-income community. At the school, she falls in love with an ex-student turned drug dealer, and has a baby, as race relations deteriorate around her and and burst into riots in the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri.
“For Ahkeem” is an immersive film by Emmy-award winning filmmakers Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine, who spent four years side-by-side with Daje, who is called "Boonie'' by her single mother and her friends.
The movie opens on a dramatic note, a “do or die” moment as the filmmakers described it, in which Daje awaits her fate in a juvenile court. From the outset, she is determined, despite the odds, to escape the poverty of her rundown neighborhood. Whether it is battling to stay out of trouble at school or to pass algebra, she comes across as bright and carefree, and tenacious.
Her story takes a series of dramatic turns during the course of the filming, one that surprised the filmmakers.
“We couldn’t have predicted that she would fall in love, or have a baby, or the Ferguson shooting,” director Mr. Van Soest told Handelsblatt Global in an interview.
“We were invested in telling a deeply personal story that was both very specific and emblematic for many girls like her,” Mr. Van Soest said.
We couldn’t have predicted that she would fall in love, or have a baby, or the Ferguson shooting. Landon Van Soest, Director, 'For Ahkeem'
The filmmakers wanted to focus on Daje's school, but when they got to know Daje, they knew they had found a good protagonist to tell the bigger story. “We kept going back to the drawing board to redraw the narrative arc of the story,” Mr. Levine said. “So much happened.”
They rewrote the script as events happened around them. “That’s the thing about documentary filmmaking, you never know what to expect,” Mr. Levine said.
Viewers accompany Daje as she finds out she failed a math test she needed to graduate, learns she is pregnant with her son, as she cries with her boyfriend, who is in trouble with the law, when their baby is born.
When the film begins, she wants to be a singer or a journalist. That changes later, she says: “We’re just kids and now we’re going to have a little kid.” Looking on as children play in rusty, overgrown vacant lots, she reflects on the prospects for her son: “I want you to have all the things I didn’t have, and be raised the way I’m trying to raise you.”
As a protagonist, Daje is open and at times painfully transparent about her life and her prospects.
“We couldn’t have known what would happen to her in her life,” Mr. Van Soest said. “We just knew when we met her we wanted to work with her. She was so open and giving."
The film offers an unbiased look at Daje's experience as a young African-American woman in a corner of the United States where black people face long odds in an absolutist, three-strikes-and-you're-out criminal justice system and an under-funded public school system that is segregated by income, and thus by race.
As her story unfolds, St. Louis becomes the focal point of U.S. attention after the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, a town just four miles from Daje's home.
Daje is not surprised by Michael Brown's death – many of her friends have been killed, she herself has a scar from a police shooting and her cousin was shot 25 times. But she is surprised by the attention Brown's death garners.
Her mother, and her school community rally around her, to help Daje overcome her long odds and, with child in hand, graduate. Viewers watch as a teacher warns her about what happened to him when he was stopped by the police. Others help her with her struggles with algebra, enabling her to get a diploma.
Viewers also watch as a community group helps her boyfriend, who dropped out of school in 10th grade and is on probation for selling drugs.
The difficulties Daje faces in the film are likely to increase under the new president, Donald Trump, the filmmakers said.
As Daje becomes aware of her situation, she grows worried for the future of her young son, Ahkeem. She knows from first-hand experience what obstacles young black men face in her community, and at one point she reads a long list of boys in her class who died in drug-related killings or were shot by police.
As the film progresses, her boyfriend is arrested, and tracks his progress through the legal system.
Daje's plight didn't grow easier, the filmmakers said, following the election of Donald Trump. Admittedly, her situation wasn't all that good either under Barack Obama, the first U.S. president of African-American descent.
“She is a summer child, coming of age in the Obama years,” said Iyabo Boyd, the film’s producer. “That’s when her perspective was shaped. But she gradually realizes what people do to people who look like her.”
Predicting what will happen to Daje and her peers under the Trump administration is “terrifying and infuriating,” Mr. Van Soest said. “It’s hard to say what it will mean for Boonie. There was a lot of systemic racism in the Obama years. but it will be a tremendous challenge to overcome the bias and the inequality under Trump.”
Mr. Levine said racism has come out into the open now in the United States. He and Mr. van Soest fear deepening divisions between whites and blacks and how African Americans are treated by the law, economically and educationally. The overt racism faced by girls like Daje is “terrifying,” Mr. Levine said.
A portrait of Barack Obama hangs on the wall behind Daje in her room in St. Louis. “There was the hope that Obama would bring change, but then when Trump was elected, it took on a whole new meaning,” Mr. van Soest said.
The filmmakers wanted to tell an immersive story exploring a social issue through a compelling protagonist. They found that person in Daje. The two filmmakers are part of a group called New Films, New Times, a politically motivated cinematic community set up to combat "alternative facts."
The group aims to produce short, politically themed movies. Projects in the works include a film chronicling political activists, for example, and others holding regular strikes in upstate New York, Mr. Levine said.
But in the current conservative political era, Mr. Levine expects funding for such films to become difficult.
What matters, he said, is keeping attention focused on the issues.
“Trump is this black hole of media attraction. It’s a bit of a challenge especially for documentary filmmakers to try and re-frame the debate away from this one egomaniac. We need to focus not on him but on the lives that are impacted, to provide an alternative vision,” Mr. Levine said.
"For Akheem" is an auspicious start. While the film did not take the documentary prize in Berlin, it is up for consideration at the New York Film Festival. The producer, Ms. Boyd, says such documentaries can help change perceptions in the U.S., if slowly: “When you just see five seconds about black people on the news, it’s much better to see three years, or one and a half hours to show the depths and the nuances of their lives.”
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]