Hot Docs 2016: Check It
In cities across America, poverty ravages the poorest citizens. Homelessness, unemployment, and addiction are common. In an effort to find family and a sense of belonging, the young often join gangs. Now, on top of that, add in being gay and you’ve got a group of kids who have even more hurdles to overcome. The film Check It, directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, follows several members of what is the only documented gay gang in America.
In Washington D.C., just a few blocks from the White House on K Street, lies one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and a group of kids who have found family. This city is home to one of the highest reported rates of anti-gay hate crimes in America. In the face of poverty and misunderstanding, many youths have been forced out of their homes, being disowned by their families. They experienced violence for being who they are. A group of these kids finally said enough and began a gang designed to protect LGBT teens called The Check It. When nobody else was there for them, they would be there for each other. Through acts of violence and intimidation, they earned respect on the street and dispelled the stereotype that gay people are weak and passive. They got the attention of the neighbourhood and the group continued to grow.
Recognizing that these kids needed a role model and guidance, Community Outreach Counsellor Ron Moten strove to provide better opportunities for some of them. Several were accepted to a summer fashion school camp to encourage their passion about clothing and design and one, recognized as a potential athlete, begins training as a boxer and a runner. One of the founding members of the gang recognized he wants more for his life and decides to be a writer. Slowly, over time, some of the members of the gang learn skills that allow them to make positive changes in their lives and their community while still retaining their often flamboyant sense of self.
There’s a great sense of observation in the film. We are simply witnesses to the daily struggles of these kids without interfering with the events unfolding. The directors are able to gain the trust of the subjects they are documenting and they speak honestly about the realities of life on these streets, their fears, their hopes and dreams–we get to see past the violence and criminal activity and get to know the real person behind the protective façade. These teens are compelling.
There’s a great sense of hope in the film, that maybe their futures aren’t lost. The kids are encouraged by several adults to look within themselves, find their inner strength and fight for the future they want. They are trying to instil in these kids that they deserve better, they deserve more. When several of the kids are granted the opportunity to travel to New York City for Fashion Week to assist on a show, their eyes are opened to the opportunities that are out there. Getting out of their normally desperate situation encourages them to reach higher.
It’s so easy to only see the negative aspects of gang culture, with the violence, crime, and addiction. But when you get to know the driving force behind it, you meet real people with real problems like everyone else who are often victims of their circumstances. Participating in this film has been an invaluable experience for them, teaching them self worth, self respect, and desire for a better life.
In the context of documenting LGBT stories, it’s a unique view of the adage that people of this community come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. We don’t always get that and it’s important to see the diversity reflected in this film. Learning their stories makes us want to reach out and help them, for the gay community needs to remember to stand and continue the fight for acceptance together.