While an inner city gang or a group of once-bullied gay and transgender teens might seem likely subjects for a documentary, there is nothing predictable about The Check It, an all-gay African-American gang (America’s only, it seems) based out of Washington DC. The young members of the gang were once relentlessly bullied before banding together in 2005 to form Check It in one of DC’s most troubled neighborhoods. Directors Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer (The Nine Lives of Marion Barry) gained access to the group and followed around five of its members in order to portray not just life on the streets, but the forming of a community and the building of a future. We spoke with Flor and Oppenheimer about their documentary, Check It, (produced in part by Radical Media and Brooklyn’s own Steve Buscemi) and what it is about this story that’s so appealing.
The film centers around what is thought to be the only all-gay and transgender gang in America, Check It, based out of Washington DC. What first brought the group to your attention? And what about the story appealed to you so much?
We spent many years making our first feature doc The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (HBO), which is not only about the infamous DC politician but also about the city of Washington itself. So, in telling this story, we spoke with hundreds upon hundreds of Washingtonians of all classes and color. But because Barry’s primary constituency—specifically in his latter years running for city council—was African American, that’s the community we really spent a lot of time with and with whom we built up a lot of trust—and the film was ultimately well received in that community. Not too long after it came out, we met a gang counselor named Ron “Mo” Moten (a major figure in Check It). Mo told us about a gay gang he was working with who was putting on fashion shows and asked if we wanted to meet them. Umm—yeah. How could we possibly say no to such an offer? That was 3 years ago.
Was it difficult to get access to members of the group? Or were they willing to talk with you?
We first met a handful of the gang’s leaders with Mo at a restaurant in their neighborhood. We explained who we were and that we were interested in spending some time with them, exploring the idea of making a documentary on their crew. They were understandably reticent, but because they trusted Mo implicitly—who had worked closely with them for many years at that point—they agreed to let us hang out. Without Mo, we would never have gotten in. For the next four months, that’s pretty much just what we did—hang out. Sometimes with a camera, but often times without. Just feeling each other out. After some time—just when we were feeling like we had probably worn out our welcome—they told us it was cool to hang out and shoot a documentary on them if we still wanted to, which of course we did! But it wasn’t until we zeroed in on the handful of who would ultimately be the primary subjects of the film (which was NOT easy to choose from over 200 amazing kids in the Check It!) that their stories really began to come together.
Where did these kids come from? Are they all from the DC area, or have some kids come from further afield?
The Check it are 100 percent DC kids—most coming out of the notoriously rough (but now increasingly more gentrified) Trinidad neighborhood.
Bullying is a huge topic of conversation in our culture right now, and the Check It kids seem to have turned bullying on its head by going from the role of oppressed to that of oppressor. Do you think this type of system will wind up ending the cycle of violence or just perpetuating it?
It’s hard to tell sometimes to be honest. Our minds switch back and forth on this question constantly. More than anything, if things are to ever improve for these kids, it’s up to the larger communities that surround the Check It in DC—and other groups like them around the country—to begin to face this problem head on, to accept these kids as they are and open their arms to them with offers of real concrete opportunities and support. Job programs, reading programs, easy to access GED programs, mentors to help kick them in the ass and keep them in line on a daily basis. These kids desperately need these things if they’re ever going to make any positive strides. But as our documentary illustrates, when opportunities and caring, tenacious mentors are knocking on their doors every day—these kids DO respond. And some of them genuinely flourish.
Our society seems to have reached a pretty interesting place right now, wherein more and more states have marriage equality and one of the most acclaimed television shows, Transparent, centers around a transgender character. And yet, the fact remains that gay and transgender teens are more subject to bullying and more frequently succumb to suicide than their peers, to say nothing of the fact that gay and transgender adults (particularly those of color) are so often victims of hate crimes and violent acts. How do you think this seeming paradox is reflected in the existence of Check It?
True acceptance of gay and transgender people, especially those of color still has a very far way to go. There may be new legislation and popular TV shows, but the statistics tell the story. Up to 50 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. 86 percent of LGBT youth are harassed in school and 42 percent live in a hostile environment where they are not accepted. Baby steps are being made but there is still a long road to walk.
What kind of future do these kids see for themselves? They’ve lived on the margins for so long, can they be expected to engage with their larger communities?
Its important to remember that these kids are just that—kids. Like a lot of young people between the ages of 14-22, they are just beginning to forge an idea of who they are, what they want to do and what they need to do to get there. Overall, they are tremendously optimistic about their future and they have huge dreams and aspirations. But these are kids have had to weather a lot of trauma—many have been abused both physically and sexually, most have been incarcerated and none have had much in the way of opportunities or help. But they are also some of the most resilient, creative, witty and energetic people we’ve ever met. These kids have enormous potential.
Are you still involved with the people you met in Check It? After filming them for several years, I would imagine you made the kind of ties that are hard to break.
Yes, these are very strong ties-we are in constant contact with these kids. We adore them—they’re a big part of our lives, and we’ve become a big part of theirs.
You can help fund Check It and find out more about the documentary at the film’s Indiegogo site.