In 1917, the East St. Louis riots/massacre left “40-250” dead (what an impossibly vague statistic), 6,000 homeless and property damage in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The trigger seemed to be resentment by the white majority that the influx of blacks was taking away their jobs by accepting less pay. Fast forward to 2017 and the blacks are in the overwhelming majority (95.72%) in this city of 27,000, but the homicide rate is the highest in the U.S. and almost everywhere else on the planet.
Directors/writers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist decided to create a “year-in-the-death” film (2017), following three East St. Louis police officers and three of its citizens.
Binding the production together is Chief of Police Michael Hubbard (born and raised in East St. Louis) who sets a goal for 2017 of having less murders than 2016 (27 or 1 homicide per 1,000 residents). He dutifully keeps “score” on a whiteboard in the officers’ briefing room. Sadly, the totals show very little signs of an improvement anytime soon. Perhaps to keep his sanity (and relieve his soul due to bearing witness to so many dead young men littering the streets), Hubbard is also an ordained pastor. Sadly, pathetically, no amount of prayer makes an iota of difference to the god-fearing residents/officers on either side of the citizen/police/criminal divide.
Just as in 1917, the root of the problem is more economic than anything else. From James, we learn that with his wife pregnant and a daughter on the way, that he is willing to do anything to provide for his family—including drug deals, robberies, etc.
Other disenfranchised young men form gangs to support each other’s plight—in this case the Velt Boyz (named after the Roosevelt housing community where the bodies seem to be falling everywhere you look). They easily rationalize their gang-banger activities because “disrespect [of us] breeds disrespect back.” And so the cycle continues.
It seems the only way out of a life of crime for young men is “rappin’ or sports.”
Dortavus (a survivor of a gunshot to the head while his buddy Malachi died), vows to finish high school and go to college—hopefully with a baseball scholarship. Part of the film’s inner drama is the unsaid but present question to thoughtful viewers: “Will he make it to the closing credits without becoming yet another victim?”
The other side of the housing coin (and effectively bridging both worlds) comes in the older-before-his-time, 12-year-old Deshaun whose goal is to become a police chief just like his idol, Chief Hubbard. Already enrolled in the police apprentice program, he puts on his bullet-proof vest then goes on patrol with East St. Louis’ finest (witnessing murder and mayhem instead of “just being a kid”).
Two other cops offer decidedly different views. Debra (joining the force when she was 45—an anomaly in itself) takes an, at times, motherly interest in the outright thugs or criminals-in-training (“Will you be my role model?” asks a struggling boy after being caught up in a carjacking). She plans to stick it out in order to get full benefits after retiring at 65, but most certainly understands being alive at that point is not a sure thing. Former LAPD take-no-prisoners cop, Rich, was asked to take a desk job after the Rodney King travesty forced the higher command to set down the rogue officers in their midst. Wangling his way to East St. Louis, it is clear that this officer of the peace prefers to “kick ass” whenever the slightest opportunity comes his way.
Being embedded with both the “saints” and the “sinners” (always so difficult to know which is which), cinematographer Adam Booher does a superb job, capturing the good the bad and deadly, making this—at times—a difficult production to watch but erring on the side of “this is how it really is.” John Hendicott’s original score is a model of understatement, knowing full well that many of the images are sensational enough so has chosen to offer a much more welcome, soothing approach instead of merging powerful orchestrations with the already explosive situations.
By journey’s end, Hubbard—failing to come anywhere near to turning the tide—opts to quietly resign and return to a church that always provides hope but no real answers to the ongoing tragedy that is fuelled by lack of recourse and—especially these days—senior leadership that doesn’t give a damn. JWR