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Reckoning in Boston, A
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by Jay Seaver

4 stars

SCREENED VIA INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2021: The title of "A Reckoning in Boston" suggests a confrontation with a somewhat definitive finale, but I don't know that anything has particularly changed in the city. In some ways, filmmaker James Rutenbeck gets caught between scales here, but then, that's where a lot of stories end up, especially when they involve race or poverty - it's not hard to see the large forces at work, but most stories are going to be about surviving them rather than bringing them down.

Filmmaker James Rutenbeck has been in the business for around 30 years, settling in the Boston area, and has taken to teaching "Clemente Courses" in the neighborhood of Dorchester. That's a program designed to give inner-city adults exposure to the humanities that they might not have received before. Two Black students in particular catch his attention - or at least agree to be filmed - in 2015: Kafi Dixon, a bus driver for the MBTA with a growing interest in urban farming, and Carl Chandler, caring for grandson Yadiel while his daughters concentrate on their education.

Kafi's story is the one most clearly entwined with the larger issues Rutenbeck points out early on - she's a state employee facing eviction and also working so that other women in the city can be more self-sufficient, but empty real estate is increasingly previous in Boston, and developers certainly have their eye on the parcel where Kafi has started her first farm. Rutenbeck points out that of the thousands of mortgage loans made as working-class neighborhoods gentrify and the Seaport is just developed out of whole cloth, only a trivial number are going to Black families. She doesn't feel that she's being taken seriously as she talks to people in city offices trying to make her farm official. Rutenbeck's empathy is clear, and though he makes a certain amount of effort to be invisible, he recognizes that this is impossible; having a white man with a camera in the room, even potentially, changes the environment, and he's not shy about expressing anger at how much this is the case.

Carl, meanwhile, is seldom in the middle of confrontations as dramatic as Kafi, which means they spend a little more time focused on his time in class, and the viewer quickly gets an idea of just how sharp he is, at one point spotting a hierarchy in ancient Egyptian art while his classmates are still seeing more surface-level properties. As with Kafi, one quickly gets a sense of much the filmmakers like and respect him, but it also highlights the extent to which one can find brains almost anywhere, but folks like Carl and Kafi don't get the same sort of encouragement when young and don't have the opportunities to climb out of a hole the way white people with just a little more money do.

There are moments when a viewer might suspect that Rutenbeck might have started out making a movie about the Clemente Courses program itself, and how studying philosophy and art can be just as valuable as the job-training programs that often seem more directly practical, if only because it gives one a better understanding of the big picture, as the reading is often used for transitions, and there's talk of economics and the city's racist history around busing. There are plenty of related stories that might be more dramatic, but Rutenbeck makes the choice to center Carl and Kafi whenever possible, making sure that when he includes himself or something more abstract, it's in a way that speaks about them, rather than positioning the teachers as saviors.

Has Boston particularly changed in the six years since production started? It doesn't seem that way; what reckonings have occurred have been more or less at the individual level. Not everybody is necessarily going to have the sort of determination Kafi and Carl show, although it certainly suggests that the right mindset and set of tools can make a big difference.

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originally posted: 05/10/21 06:26:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2021 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2021 series, click here.

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Directed by
  James Rutenbeck

Written by
  James Rutenbeck


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