‘We lost our first friend at 15… 2004: lost another one. 2005: lost another one. 2006: lost two more.’
It’s a sad reality that Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan endure a disturbing amount of Boston’s gun violence, largely in relation to gang activity. A disproportionate number of young, minority men face the daily threat of death in neighborhoods where territories span only a few blocks, often even less.
As of September, the Boston Police Department recorded 161 shooting incidents so far in 2017, up from 135 shootings in 2016. This year already, dozens have died and more than 150 have been injured. Reports of gun violence surface daily.
This isn’t a new story. While statistics sometimes change from year to year and place to place, this nightmare affects communities across the country. The Gun Violence Archive tallies 47,721 shooting incidents nationally so far in 2017. Of those, nearly 2,500 involved teenagers. With an issue this large, it’s hard to gain back perspective.
Nevertheless, no matter how desensitized one may become in the trance of so much morbid media coverage, it’s important to remember: This ain’t normal.
That’s the name and message of a new documentary from Kreateabuzz, a group of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan natives who were also the creative minds behind PUSH: Madison vs. Madison, an outstanding doc about hoop dreams in the hub that aired on ESPN Classic. With their latest, the filmmakers aim to remind audiences that the tragic deaths and injuries caused by gun violence, well, they’re not normal. Even when they happen time and time again, they should not be normalized.
To that end, director Rudy Hypolite chose to let the people who know this story best tell it. He partnered with StreetSafe Boston, a gang violence intervention program, to speak directly with the young people whose lives hang on the line.
The resulting project, This Ain’t Normal, is a profound film that brings the audience into the homes of young men in their neighborhoods, and has them explain the multilayered, complex social and economic issues that drive gun violence so high.
The film also shows the invaluable work done by the employees of the StreetSafe program, which has now been incorporated into the Boston Centers for Youth and Families Violence Interrupters Program. The program employs workers to intervene in youth gang and criminal activity, and to provide mentorship and resources to young people stuck in that cycle of violence.
For the StreetSafe team, it’s not a job but an investment in the community. Many of the program’s workers were once involved in gang activity or grew up on these same corners. Their experiences allow them to be mentors who understand what young people go through, something the documentary shows is in low supply.
“These are human beings,” Hypolite told DigBoston. “These young men, if you look at their lives and what they’ve been through, the trajectory they’ve taken, [it] would be very obvious to see why they’re involved in doing this. They come from broken homes without role models. They’re just struggling to survive. They look to other young men in their community to have a bond with, to feel like family.”
As a priority, Hypolite says that it was important for him to convey that if circumstances were different, it could be any of us living in these situations. This Ain’t Normal offers a much different perspective than, say, academic overviews of inner-city violence that are so often portrayed in the media. In one scene, a young man describes how StreetSafe helped him get a driver’s license, which in turn “validated his existence.” The film helps you imagine what it’s like to navigate the RMV without proper documents up against incredible odds. It’s subtle, and it’s powerful.
Such moments stand out in This Ain’t Normal, which does a solid job of breaking down narratives without getting lost in the overwhelming magnitude of a problem. As Malik Williams, the film’s music supervisor, said, “The reality is, this is someone’s real life.”
“We’re these same kids,” he told the Dig. “Me and my friends … we’ve been locked up or died. We need to pull kids to the side and say, ‘This is not normal. This is what your life could be like.’”
A commingling of community members from police officers to hospital administrators, young to old, suits to sweats, watched the story play out for the first time on the big screen at an invitation-only prescreening in July.
Before the film started, audience members gathered around food and refreshments, and two men high-fived and were overheard saying they worked late the night before in order to attend the screening. Another audience member whispered loudly to the quickly filling auditorium, “Rudy is a legend, man. I can’t wait to see this.”
Along with Hypolite, the screening was co-hosted by Dennis G. Wilson, the indefatigable Madison High School coach from PUSH (who co-produced This Ain’t Normal), and executive producer Hassan K. Smith of John Legend Inc.
“The only difference between myself and the young people in this film is that I had opportunity,” Smith told the audience. “This is a world-class city, forward thinking, with the best universities, hospitals, and businesses. It doesn’t make sense that there’s this disparity just a few miles away.”
After the screening, Boston rapper Rae Trilogy, who created music for the soundtrack of the film, stood to thank Kreateabuzz.
“The streets raised me. I didn’t get a hug until I was 15,” he said, “You made us not look like animals.”
As many in the audience nodded in agreement, Hypolite said that’s exactly why the team made this film.
“A lot of kids think no one even cares to get to know them. With this documentary, we want to show that they’re wrong and people can decide to care if they see the issue is right in front of them. I believe it is very possible to change this situation if we decide to care,” he said. “So this is the beginning. This is us saying, let’s listen.”
THIS AIN’T NORMAL SCREENING AND FUNDRAISER. WED 11.15, 5:30-8PM. BLACK MARKET, 2136 WASHINGTON ST., ROXBURY.