When I first was told about Check It, the new documentary by Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor (both are behind The Nine Lives of Marion Barry), I didn’t know what to make of it: Over the course of four years, Oppenheimer and Flor embed themselves, become friends with, and then tell the story of America’s only documented all-LGBTQ gang through up-close and intimate footage of their lives.
Members of Check It, begun in Washington DC in 2009, are young—mostly high school aged—and today number in the hundreds. As one Check It member says early in the film, “Gay and black—you’re in a world of your own.” So the Check It band together instead, forming a tight-knit collective of outsiders. In order to combat homophobic violence—of which they are regular targets in places like the DC Metro, and on city streets—they fight back. They throw punches but also carry switch blades and bleach. It is their only recourse to protection when they have no outside system of support. Many of the Check It were abandoned early in life by parents who did drugs, went to jail, abused them, or refused to accept their sexual identities. Check It, then, is the only family they ever had; the only group that has accepted them for who they are, and encouraged them to express that in public.
Oppenheimer and Flor illustrate the extent to which this is true, but they also highlight the efforts of key members of the community who go to great lengths to redirect Check It’s violent energy toward better ends. Their approach is not based in money or materials—these mentors too have struggled with substance abuse, jail time, and financial instability—but with more fundamental commodities that Check It members were never fully given: attention, empathy, mentorship, love.
Their tireless community leader is a man named Ron “Mo” Moten. He’s like a stand-in uncle, mentor, and gang leader, with a simple goal of keeping them out of trouble. In one case, he connects them with The Jarmal Harris Project, led by a young DC-based fashion designer: Harris teaches Check It—all of whom are incredibly inventive with their own personal style—to put together a series of “looks” and produce a runway show over the course of six weeks.
At times, the kids struggle to avoid squabbles with each other, and with random passersby, just as much as they do to learn fashion design. But they do put on the show, and Jarmal chooses three members of Check It who have shown the most potential to accompany him as assistants to Fashion Week in New York City.
In another instance, Mo sees the innate athleticism of a kid named Skittles. He introduces Skittles to Duke, who has his own boxing gym. Rather than fight on the streets, Skittles has the chance to be the first openly gay boxer. “Don’t let one punch knock you down,” Duke coaches Skittles, “You’ve got 12 rounds to fight.”
But this relationship reveals another, still more nuanced thread: Duke is forced to close his gym when he falls on financial trouble. In one upsetting scene, we see him living in his car, drinking, and staring out the window at bunch of pigeons—they must be tasty, he remarks, and he seems halfway serious. Only one thing seems to make Duke pull himself up by the bootstraps and back into the boxing ring: Skittles. “Duke fought for Skittles,” he says of his return to boxing. Just as much as Check It needs these mentors—in this troubled community—their mentors need Check It, and the renewed sense of purpose Check It gives them.
Oppenheimer and Flor capture striking, unmediated moments of humor, violence, insight, and beauty. In one scene, a Check It named Alton—who fancies himself the world’s most beautiful woman, strikes a series of expertly assumed fashion poses. We see Alton’s face, close up and consumed by the moment while fireworks burst behind him. It’s a little escape to a perfect place that Alton, whose family was troubled, gives to himself. In New York City, the day the Fashion Week assistants arrive by bus, a Check it named Day Day is told a pack of Newports is $15.50; he is beside himself with laughter.
The filmmakers also capture Day Day, one of the most irascible Check It members, in a rare moment of emotional vulnerability. We see Day Day, whose mother spent a lot of time in jail, in a park and, when he sees a caterpillar on a tree, he interacts with it gently. He always loved animals, he starts to say, and dreamed of working with them. They are strong and resilient and fight for themselves.
It’s hard to know what to make of an all-gay violent gang of kids who live just blocks from the White House, use prostitution to survive, and regularly get into violent public fights; it’s easy to write them off as the ultimate outsiders, unrelated to mainstream society. But Oppenheimer and Flor make it abundantly clear how the world has been an enemy to these kids. Near the end one Check It member assesses: We used violence to fight for our cause—essentially, to get the world to notice their plight. And after Oppenheimer and Flor have shown us what that world looks like from the perspective of Check It, it’s hard not to empathize, and to wonder what can be done to bring these outsiders into a place where they can feel like they belong.
Check It‘s world premiere screens this weekend at Tribeca Film Festival.