Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Shell Shocked"

A couple of months ago, I came across "Shell Shocked", a new documentary about African-American youth who are growing up -- and dying young -- in New Orleans. I checked out the trailer, ordered my copy immediately, and then sat on it for months while I was screwing up the courage to watch it.

I could tell by the trailer it had been well done. And I already knew what to expect since I live 45 miles from New Orleans and have taught literally hundreds of students who commute from there on a daily basis. I spend a good bit of time every semester, in fact, working my butt off to help shell shocked Black youth hang in there another day while they're trying to overcome the effects of their experiences, which are sometimes on-going.

Young men come into my office on a regular basis, shut the door, and weep as they wrestle with their pain and their feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and even terror that, despite their determination and their dreams, they won't live to graduate. Some, as they approach graduation, stress about younger brothers and sisters or come in to grieve the loss of yet another family member or friend.

So it wasn't that I didn't want to know what the film was going to show me. It was that I've been in a somewhat dark place myself of late and I wasn't sure I could handle more darkness. I shouldn't have worried. It is powerful, indeed, and painful to watch, but Executive Producer/Director/Co-Writer John Richie's vision has been beautifully executed with the help of the rest of his highly professional team not only to illuminate the darkness, but to demonstrate that there are those in New Orleans who refuse to give up. By the end of the documentary, it is inspiring to see how their courage and what can only be called love parlays into a hope that shines unmistakably out of the faces of the youth to whom they reach out.

Coming out only last year, the film has already won seven awards, including one from the International Social Change Film Festival in Chicago, a city that has had plenty of problems of its own with early deaths and violence among Black children. And -- at 54 minutes -- it's a perfect length for showing in a classroom or using to train teachers and other professionals about the root causes of the problems that seem so overwhelming.

Grinding poverty in many New Orleans neighborhoods results at least in part from rampant unemployment. And in 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice reported wild disparities in arrests and felony convictions for Blacks as compared to Whites, especially under the age of seventeen. So 99% of the youth held in the detention center in New Orleans are Black. Which, then, of course, seriously affects their being able to secure subsequent employment. One interviewee in the film described growing up on bologna sandwiches and ramen noodles every day all year long, while a ten-year-old can get into the drug-selling game (to bring home real groceries) for an investment of as little as $20 on any given night.

Still, it's dangerous in the street at night or even in the middle of the afternoon in poverty-stricken communities. And though you have to be 21 in Louisiana to buy a handgun, you can buy a "hunting rifle" at 18 and AK-47's (called "choppers" in the city) fall into that category. As one young girl related in the film, "Fists won't protect you because you can't punch a bullet." These automatic weapons are not only guaranteed to have the last word in any confrontation, but they, all too often, take out innocent by-standers, as well. So anyone -- even somebody who's just passing through or on their way home from work or a child playing on her family's porch -- can wind up dead in the blink of an eye, shattering as one interviewee put it, "two whole families."

And then broken-hearted family members of a victim buy memorial t-shirts and -- shell shocked -- speak of retribution until another child may pick up a gun and carry the nightmare one step further.

Needless to say, relations between the police and poor Black communities are strained, at best. The Department of Justice's report documents a rampant culture of excessive force, racial profiling, and unconstitutional harassment and arrests perpetrated by New Orleans law enforcement officers on Black men and boys in particular. One youth in the film spoke of police breaking up basketball games in progress to make everybody lie on the ground. "It makes you feel like a gangster even if you're not one," he comments. Another youth says straight into the camera, "It makes me feel like I'm not wanted in my own society."

But Richie's documentary doesn't stop there. It introduces Father Terry, whose church maintains a list of names to humanize the fallen. We hear from the staff at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, that holds regular summits for youth and their families and operates like a bulldozer with a mission in the courts. We meet Danny and Lisa Fitzpatrick, who opened the APEX Youth Center with seemingly none of the support we imagine necessary to start such am ambitious enterprise. We find out that the Youth Empowerment Project helps youth transition from detention to a better life than the one that put them there. We see what the folks at Liberty's Kitchen are up to and we get exposed to the parodies of rapper 2-Cent. And more.

Frankly, part of my compassion fatigue (or whatever they're calling it these days) is directly related to the fact that I sometimes feel as if I'm standing alone in the gates of hell. Watching "Shell Shocked" made me feel the flames for sure, but it's heartening to be reminded that there is great love out there. And love is the irresistible force that can overcome even the seemingly immovable object we imagine the mean streets to be. 

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