For the Washington D.C. filmmaking team of Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, their second collaboration, Check It is up close and personal. During a Hot Docs interview, I could see their fine-tuned connection to Ron “Mo” Moten, the youth counsellor who activated the project, and Tray, a co-founder of the gay and lesbian black street gang profiled in the movie. The gang members formed Check It to protect themselves from violent attacks.
Up until now, Flor and Oppenheimer were known for their debut feature, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry. Also a D.C.-based film, it probes the former mayor who got busted on drug charges and is a sinner to some, a local hero to others. Flor’s solo filmography and TV work includes Latinos in Beisbol and Cesar Chavez. She filmed Latin Jazz-The Perfect Combination for America’s Jazz Heritage and the Smithsonian Institute.
Now a New Yorker, Oppenheimer co-produced Devil’s Playground, a film about Amish teenagers and directed The Cult of Cindy, which portrayed a woman who holds the record for cosmetic surgeries.
Flor and Oppenheimer’s passion for music that comes from the ground up (Oppenheimer was once a reggae deejay), led them to the Check It project. “We were playing with the idea of a doc on Washington Go-Go,” says Flor. “It’s the only indigenous sound from DC, an African-American sister of funk that’s probably the most economically and racially segregated music that exists in the world. The story we want to tell is about how the city killed its own music. Go-Go was associated with violence, and they shoved it out.” Moten adds, “They shut all the clubs down so they couldn’t get a business license,”
Researching the Go-Go film, Flor met with streetwise, musically hip Moten, who she says, “worked for 20 years in gang conflict resolution.” Through him, she and Oppenheimer hooked up with the gang.
“I came home from prison in 1995,” says Moten. “My passion was to give back to the community what I once helped to destroy, and that’s what I’ve been doing.” Like all the kids he counsels, “Check It was a group of young people that grow up in poverty and broken families, but it was a special experience working with them.” After meeting Flor he told her that she “needed to tell this story nobody knows about.”
Not a problem. Flor says that the contrast in D.C. between “whites and the blacks, rich and the poor—that’s a theme that draws Toby and me. We knew this was going to be an extraordinary story. It’s the only black gay gang anywhere.” Moten smiles, “They are respected by bad dudes in the street.”
Moten, who appears throughout the film, is its “central hub,” says Oppenheimer. As the film advances, “Mo and other amazing guys are kicking their ass, pushing them toward creative ways of expressing themselves and make money, rather than on the streets.” Just recently, Check It’s website for its fashion line launched.
Sweet-natured, and witty, Tray recalls that in the bad old days, before the gang formed, all you heard was, “Don’t go to this place, or don’t go that place because you might get jumped. Check it, check it.” As for his famous hometown, people “look at D.C. and say, ‘Oh the president’s there, oh the capitol is there, oh the nice monuments, and the nice museums.’ But they never talk about what’s really in D.C.”
At this point, Tray wants to get more into giving back to youth. “We know what’s goin’ on. We went through it.”
Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.