The screen is filled with smoke billowing out of an explosion at the Chevron oil refinery in North Richmond, California. Against this backdrop, the voice of a young woman is heard expressing through spoken word poetry her outrage at this new threat in a place filled with violence and injustice. We see her briefly before the scene shifts back to the fire.
This is one of many gripping scenes in Romeo is Bleeding, a cinematically superb documentary for the 21st century, effectively capturing an exciting approach to enriching the lives of adolescents. Produced by Michael Klein and directed by Jason Zeldes, a gifted editor of major independent films, this masterpiece has won audience awards at film festivals in San Francisco, Aspen, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Seattle.
The best documentaries have the same qualities as excellent narrative films: the equivalent of great screenplay, first-rate direction and cinematography, superior "characters," and whatever it takes to emotionally engage viewers. Romeo is Bleeding has all these qualities.
A Mission to Change Lives
The film takes place in the primarily black communities of North and Central Richmond, focusing on RAW Talent, the performing arts program at the RYSE Center, whose mission is creating safe places for young people and helping transform their lives and the community. RAW Talent was the primary program providing the stimulus and support for the theatrical presentation that is the core and climax of the film.
Two of the film's stars, Molly Raynor and Donté Clark, are leaders of RAW Talent. They decide to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet set in Richmond, retitling it Té’s Harmony. With their crew, they rewrite Shakespeare's play as an allegory for the conditions permeating their daily lives, a spoken word theater piece by and about local youth. Combining theater, poetry, dance, music, film, and remixing Shakespearean verse with spoken word and Richmond vernacular, it retells the tale of the star-crossed lovers. Té, from North Richmond, falls in love with Harmony, from Central, amidst the violent conflict between these communities. Donté writes most of the dialogue, and each actor writes his or her own monologue. The goal is provoking the audience to question Richmond's culture of violence and re-imagine it through the lens of love.
The Life-Threatening Setting
While the primary story focuses on the theater production, the film is also about the setting, as important here as the streets of Baltimore were in The Wire. The kids continually deal with violence and the fear of death amidst the continual conflict between the two communities. Over the course of the film, we hear stories about shootings of teenage boys and learn that most of the actors have lost someone to gun violence.
After a police crackdown, there was a reported 20 percent drop in crime rate and 38,000 arrests since 2003 -- in a city of 104,000! But as Donté notes:
His powerful words capture a tragic reality.
Donté and D'Neise Robinson play the two leads, Té and Harmony. Deandre Evans co-stars as Té's father. D'Neise's journey, characterized by her transparency and insight, characterizes the film's emotional power.
Early in the film, Molly and Rooben Morgan, the play's director, encourage her to experience and express her emotions. Morgan tells her, "If you're going to be Juliet, you have to be able to access that part of yourself. You have to be able to be. . . soft and be vulnerable and be hard and be tough and be Richmond at the same time." She does exactly that. Watching and hearing her poetry recitation, filled with emotion about her life and especially feelings about her abusive father, is poignant and memorable. "How can you love something that's broken and doesn't want to be loved?"
In one beautiful scene, D'Neise sits at a bus stop after a rehearsal and talks about her father. In voiceover, she recites a poem expressing her sadness about him. Asked by the cinematographer if her dad will come to the play, she says, "No." A man on the bench asks whether he can come, and she says, "Yeah, you can come and see it." He responds, ". . . I don't even know you, and I'm proud of you. . . We need more like you." And D'Neise tells him. "There is more like me. We're called RAW Talent."
Art Amidst Violence
And then there's Donté, the central figure in the film. We get to know this extraordinary young man: his drive, articulateness, passion, and charisma; his self-doubts and grief; his talent as a poet, actor, and teacher; and his great sense of humor. Growing up in North Richmond, he was part of the Making Waves program as a kid. Now in his 20s, he's a teacher-mentor and leader, and his role is critical. Molly comments, "I have more anxiety about Donté's life than anyone else's life. Because there are a lot of people in this world that I love. . . but Donté risks his life every day being from North Richmond. . . he comes to Central Richmond every day to teach poetry." We get to know him well because he lets us in.
Donté has lost many people in his life to gun violence. And just days before the performance, he and Deandre are suddenly reeling from the murder of a close friend who was also Donté's student. Donté is distraught. "My little brother just got killed. . . I'm starting not to give a ____!" He breaks down crying and considers quitting, but Molly tells him how important he is to these young people. "If you're gone, all of this is over."
Naturally, he stays, and his voice captures the reality of their lives. "What I care about is that we put these guns down. At some point, Brother, we'll kill ourselves off."
The Performance and Beyond
Luis Rodriquez, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, introduces the play to a sellout audience at the El Cerrito High School theater and notes how wonderful it is for this community to see these young people "for who they really are. . . and not what the media says. Not what other people say, but what the beauty is that they bring into this world. Because if we don't bring out the beauty of the youth, it will turn to violence."
Spoiler alert! Surprisingly, the lovers don't die in this version of the play. D'Neise says, "We know what you were expecting, a tragedy. . . We know you were expecting us to choose death. . . but tonight we choose life." In front of a cheering audience, they end with powerful slams from Donté and D'Neise expressing how they want out of the violence, out of the war zone. "Tonight we begin to rewrite this story."
The final words are Donté's, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Hate can't drive out hate. . . you just gotta have love."
Donté's comments to me about how best to use the film highlight its underlying spirit and are a fitting coda to this story:
Because there are Richmonds all across this country, this provocative film has been released in an educational edition by ro.co films. The purchase includes an extraordinarily comprehensive, creative, and practical curriculum guide, written by Blueshift Education in collaboration with Donté, Molly, and the film team. The scope of the guide extends well beyond the film. Romeo Is Bleeding is great for high school kids, and the curriculum makes it easy to use this film effectively to stimulate the creation of similar programs and help provide an antidote to the violence of the streets.