Street Fighting MenReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/22/17 09:06:44
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: You could make a heck of an intersecting-plotlines drama with the subjects of Andrew James's "Street Fighting Men", and someone probably would if he'd written a magazine article about the people he met trying to get by in Detroit rather than filmed them. But he did pick up a camera, so the folks he follows all have their own stories that maybe don't play out as neatly and connectedly as a dramatist would have it, but that works for his film. A community with troubles has people with troubles.James's cameras primarily follow three people. James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson is a retired cop, running a small plumbing and septic system business, at least during the day; at night he stakes out the drug dealers in his neighborhood, calling his old friends on the force when he thinks he can make a dent. Deris Solomon is the unmarried father of a girl who is six months old when the film starts, trying to go to school despite being an ex-con. Luke Williams works salvage and demolition in the city's abandoned houses, trying to save up enough to start his own business, but he'll soon be trying to figure out some more basic things when his own house burns down.
Their stories are frustratingly familiar, to the point where if this was a fictional film, one might ask what the angle was; Luke's house burning down down might almost seem a little too on-the-nose for a Detroit story. That ability to fit a template has its uses, of course - when a viewer thinks they know the story, then the bits that don't conform can surprise. They also don't intersect in particularly memorable ways, making the film often feel like three similar projects cut together. But that, in fact, is useful, and perhaps at the heart of the film: For all that these things are all taking place in physical proximity, and for all that the three subjects are African-American, each person is one man against a system much larger than him and mostly indifferent to his struggle. They can't do it alone, and there's not that many people who have their backs.
James counts as one of them, even if there's not a whole lot he can do. This is the sort of documentary that needs genuine trust between filmmaker and subject in order to get made, and James earns enough of it to be one of the people Luke calls when his house burns down. He still positions himself just far enough outside their stories that he can observe, and often the most interesting details come from what's not quite in the center of the frame: Jack Rabbit gets a lot of chances to talk about his community work and that exciting opening scene of him surveilling a crack house, but his day-to-day is cleaning septic tanks Luke's Jamaican family gives him a slight separation from the community where the others are embedded. Deris has a lot of words and great moments with his daughter, but it's probably instructive to watch his ex-girlfriend in the one or two times she winds up on screen - that she's clearly frustrated with him but not willing to speak too harshly when a camera's running doesn't cancel out the generally positive impression he makes, but it's useful detail.
None of those more detailed bits of characterization manage to undermine the generally hopeful theme of people doing their best to meet challenges that James looks to communicate from the Blaxploitation-inspired title screen forward. The music by Shigeto is more often used to boost moments of potential and forward motion than to enhance sorrow, and there's a straightforward simplicity in the cinematography and shot choices James makes - without making things things look stark, there's nothing hidden on-screen, lurking in the corners. This is where these guys are at and what they have to work with.It doesn't all tie together neatly, either as a package or necessarily individually by the end; it's a story about the struggle. But, with any luck, it's one where a person can walk away knowing that they're not struggling alone, and maybe that can make a difference.
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