Vet Canadian documaker Allan King explores the racism, hope and despair swirling around four Toronto teenagers and the volunteer trying to guide them in the thorough and powerful cinema verite exercise “EMPz 4 Life.” A marked departure from the ageism issues in his previous two films, “Dying at Grace” and “Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company,” this pic finds 76-year-old King continuing at the top of his game, and will be in demand by fests and cablers.
With the stated aim of creating a film allowing auds to experience racism, King and his small crew follow the ups and downs of four 13-year-olds trying to navigate adolescence in a high-risk community. Christopher Ellis, aka C-Jewlz, aspires to be a rapper but struggles in school; Jivon Walker flirts with thug life and is shot at in the doorway of his house before discovering a talent for numbers; Jordan Mendez is also drawn to gangs and already has three older brothers in prison; Sadiki Clarke is a quiet boy who, along with Jivon, excels at math.
The four are mentored by fulltime volunteer Brian Henry, a Guyanan-born Canadian who’s done time himself but now focuses on placing youths in proper schools. It’s a long, frustrating task, made moreso by the insensitive complexity of the system and constant presence of police. Henry turns to playwright-mathematician John Mighton, who motivates the kids via his Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies program. But it may not be enough: As Chris raps, “I’m in a struggle, lost in a bubble, lost in the hustle…”
As has come to be expected from a career in non-fiction film dating back to 1956, King brings a meticulous patience to the project and thus is present for the big setbacks and small victories that play out as a microcosm of the community’s overall frustrations. Guiding him through the new world of the street is Trinidadian-born Canadian playwright Joseph Jomo Pierre, who appears oncamera and receives a consulting director credit.
Tech credits hew faithfully to the fly-on-the-wall cinema verite form, with d.p. Mark Ellam taking over ably from recently deceased Peter Walker, who shot King’s previous two films. Empz is short for Empringham, a district of the Malvern community in Toronto where the pic was lensed.