Film Reviews

‘This is North Preston’: Struggle for a Community

Doc follows R&B star Just Chase as he returns to his roots


This is North Preston
(Canada, 71 min.)
Dir. Jaren Hayman

There’s a great film somewhere in This is North Preston. Director Jaren Hayman gives voice to a community that receives an unduly negative representation in the media. His film allows numerous people on the margins to take hold of the narrative and reflect their experiences in their own words. While doing that, though, the film offers a grab bag of talking points in lieu of a coherent argument or perspective. Hayman seems to be making three different documentaries at the same time—one about a rising music star, one about a community with a richly complicated history, and one about an urgent sex trafficking crisis—and one of them ultimately takes precedence over the other stronger elements, which leaves something to be desired.

The thread that dominates This is North Preston is the story of up and coming R&B artist Just Chase, a native of North Preston, Nova Scotia, who goes home to reflect upon his roots and his journey towards stardom. A trip to the cemetery sees Chase visit his mother and set up the community’s history of loss. He testifies before the extremely busy camera (which just doesn’t stop moving) and acknowledges both his pride and his pain.

It’s fair to portray Chase as a Drake-in-the-making and the artist has great screen presence as he plays tour guide and shows the documentary crew around the haunts of his youth. Chase’s openness is especially important as a door through which the audience can enter North Preston. The artist speaks about the violence he experienced and recalls how he used to carry a gun as a teenager and packed heat during his days as a truck driver. The doc admirably acknowledges the culture of violence that Chase escaped from North Preston by channeling his experiences into music while others went the route of violence, drugs, and gangs.

While Chase’s voice is the key player, the doc lets numerous residents of North Preston speak to the community’s history and its present state using a mix of formal interviews and spontaneous conversations with residents whom Chase encounters. Chase’s easygoing nature and celebrity ensure that many North Preston residents are eager to speak. However, many of speakers are also clearly intoxicated as Chase approaches them at parties, which frequently undercuts the film’s authority as loose lips tell different tales.

The film is more successful when it highlights the community’s uniqueness as the end of the line for the Underground Railroad and as an early site of settlement where escaped Black slaves established a community in a land they believed offered freedom. The interviews reflect on the fallacy of said freedom, however, as the residents of North Preston recount ongoing systemic injustices and inequities that lead to a disproportionate level of violence and crime in their community of nearly 4000 residents. For example, former boxing champ Kirk Johnson shares his many run-ins with racial profiling by the local police, who simply couldn’t stand to see a Black man driving around town in a flashy car. Despite his celebrity and well-earned success, Johnson offers stories of utter humiliation and indignity as the cops pulled him over repeatedly because they said they were looking for a Black man and he fit the bill. Despite speaking of his successful lawsuit in which he held the police accountable for systemic racism, the problems persist.

There is a long and complicated history to North Preston and while Hayman’s film captures the resilience of the residents, it doesn’t shy away from depicting the many contradictions embroiled within the community. For example, the early scenes of the doc introduce North Preston as an alleged hotbed for sex trafficking. As the film begins, it highlights a serious problem, but the narrative changes as interviewees suggest that sex trafficking and gang violence, attributed to the group that calls itself North Preston’s Finest, are being misrepresented by the media and blown way out of proportion. Many of them outright deny the problems of which other interviewees speak. Interviewees rationalize events that, even by their accounts, seem to be criminal or harmful. Hayman also gets remarkable access and scores interviews with two pimps and two victims of sex trafficking who speak to the extremely urgent reality of North Preston. However, This is North Preston doesn’t quite seem sure what to do with this material and instead of going deeper into the stories that arise, it ends with an upbeat note about Just Chase’s success in music, although one can’t deny that the community might need the hopeful note.

The messiness of the film inadvertently finds a purpose, though. The doc shows that North Preston isn’t all the media portrays it to be, but it’s also evident that the stories the community creates for itself don’t jive. This is North Preston presents numerous facets of a deeply rooted problem to inspire a community to take a hard look at itself and ask how it moves forward.

This is North Preston opens in Toronto on May 17.