AFI Docs Festival
Saturday, June 25
555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
The new documentary “Check It” starts with two powerful titles.
The first provides a sobering statistic for Washington’s LGBT community:
“Washington, D.C. has one of the nation’s highest rates of hate crimes against its LGBTQ community.”
The second announces a brave and unexpected act of resistance against that statistic:
“In 2009, three gay ninth graders started a gang in Washington, D.C. to defend themselves against bullying. Today the Check It has over 200 members and counting.”
Directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, “Check It” has been selected for the coveted Spotlight Screening on Saturday night of the AFI Docs festival. AFI Docs Director Michael Lumpkin, who is gay, has been a fan of the film for a long time.
“I love “Check It,” he says. “Before I came to AFI, I ran the International Documentary Association. We had a grant program to provide production support for documentaries. Toby and Dana applied for funding for their film three or four years ago. When I was watching the clip they provided with their application, I knew this was going to be a very special film.”
In fact, AFI Docs announced last week that “Check It” was one of 10 films selected to participate in the prestigious AFI Docs Impact Lab. The intensive program will provide Flor and Oppenheimer, who identify as straight allies, with advanced training in the areas of advocacy, grassroots communication and engagement.
“Check It” tells the stories of the founding members of the group. According to Flor and Oppenheimer, Washington has the dubious distinction of having the only organized gang of LGBT youth in the country. The African-American gang started in the Trinidad neighborhood in northeast Washington. The youth already faced the grueling social pressures of poverty, broken homes, prostitution and a broken web of social services. On top of that, they faced violent bullying because of their sexual orientation and their gender-bending fashion sense.
According to Flor, “It came about as a necessity. They banded together because they wanted to protect each other. They became famous — and infamous — for being good at defending themselves. Nobody messes with them because they will fight. And not only do they fight, they do not censor who they are. … They’re flamboyant. They walk around with little Hello Kitty bags and platform shoes and dresses and lipstick. You don’t do that in the neighborhoods they come from. They’re from very tough neighborhoods with very conservative ideas about masculinity. They didn’t want to back down, they just wanted to be who they wanted to be. That’s how it formed. And it’s flourishing because kids are still being kicked out of their houses and being kicked out of school and taking to the streets. They form their own family.”
As one of the Check It members announces in the film, “To be in the Check It, you have to have a good sense of fashion — wild, crazy, colorful. To walk with us, you have to have a heart. You have to believe you’re not gonna take no bullshit from nobody.”
The members of the Check It found some supportive mentors to help turn their energy in a more positive direction. The first was Ronald “Mo” Moten, one of the founders of the controversial Peaceoholics organization which worked with city residents and gang members to reduce violence in the city.
“Basically.” Flor says, “he deals with gang conflict resolution. He is a beloved figure, especially in the worst neighborhoods of the city, especially because he has helped gang members get out of the gang and go to college, and he has squashed a lot of beefs. He’s like a father figure to these kids and he is very fond of them.”
Then there’s local fashion entrepreneur extraordinaire Jarmal Harris. He founded the Jarmal Harris Project, a non-profit organization that works with D.C.-area youth to provide them with opportunities in the fashion industry and beyond.
“Harris runs a fashion camp for high school age kids that trains them in all elements of the fashion industry,” Oppenheimer says. “The film follows some of the Check It kids through six weeks of this fashion camp. Then a handful of them are chosen to go to Fashion Week in New York City. That’s kinda the spine of the film.”
Lumpkin is thrilled to be hosting the Spotlight Screening of “Check It.”
“It has been on my radar for years and I’m really happy to present the hometown premiere at AFI Docs,” Lumpkin says. “It’s the screening I can’t wait for. It’s going to be electric.”
“This film is about a community that isn’t given visibility very often,” he says. “The concept of a queer gang was just something I had never considered. For most gay people, those two ideas just don’t match up. But when you learn about their story, it makes perfect sense. For this community, that’s how they protect themselves; that’s how they survive. People who are queer have to come up with mechanisms for how they’re going to survive the world they come into.”
Lumpkin is also full of praise for the filmmakers.
“It’s fresh and new,” he says. “It was the subject matter that drew me to the film. But it was also the approach the filmmakers took to the subject matter. It’s honest, it’s respectful. Like all excellent documentaries, they provide their subjects with the space for them to have a voice. It takes a lot more than just putting a camera in front of somebody and filming them.”
The members of the Check It agree with Lumpkin’s assessment of their crew and the film. In the film, one of the members says, “It was because of the Check It that these faggots feel more comfortable within themselves to come outside. We can go out in public without being criticized. If they criticize us, they know there will be consequences.”
Towards the end of the movie, another member says, “No one was gonna stand up for us. We stood up for ourselves.”
Tray, one of the film’s subjects, has started actively promoting the documentary at film festivals around the county. Although he initially didn’t want to be in the film (his late mother talked him into it), he’s been delighted by the film’s reception. “I wasn’t sure if people would understand the movie,” he says, “but they actually loved it and they gained something from it. That was the most important thing we wanted.”
Tray says some of the attention has been overwhelming.
“Everywhere we go, people know who we are, but we don’t know who they are. They know our names, but we don’t know theirs.”
Inspired and supported by Moten and Harris, the founding members of the Check It have become role models and entrepreneurs. Oppenheimer says some of the gang members are looking into becoming outreach workers themselves, and that Moten is looking for opportunities for them to talk to younger kids who are still out there.
Flor also reports that the youth have started to launch their own fashion label, Check It Enterprises. They’ve just set up their website and are currently selling stylish T-shirts to the general public. She says, “Basically the idea is to take their skills and turn it to something positive and that’s fashion. They’re pretty fly.”
As for the members of the Check It profiled in the movie, Trey says, “We’re focusing on the documentary and on launching our business. We’re putting 100 percent into it so we can get it off the ground the way we want it to be. Everything is coming together.”
Flor is glad that this movie has been a catalyst for the youth profiled in the film, but notes that more action is urgently needed.
“Marginalized LGBT youth, especially youth of color, exist everywhere,“ she says. “This is our city and these are our kids. People have really turned a blind eye to what’s going on and they should be getting a lot more support.”
“For a city like Washington, that is seen as quite progressive in the way LGBT groups are treated and respected, these kids are not getting the respect, the attention and the opportunities they deserve,” Oppenheier says. “They’re in plain sight but they’ve been quite forgotten. We hope that this film will shine a light on these amazing kids and show them for the smart, ambitious, funny, sensitive human beings that they are.”
And as Tray says in the movie, “I know I’m not where I want to be, but I’m not where I was yesterday. … You don’t have to be afraid to tell your story.”