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Film Review: ‘Check It’

"Check It" portrays Washington D.C. African-American gay and transgender youths who started their own gang for self-protection as a handful of fed-up 9th graders a decade ago.

Skittles, Tray, Day Day, Alton, Ron “Mo” Moten, Duke, Jarmal Harris.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5299014/

Though an opening text informs that Washington D.C. has one of the highest rates of anti-gay violence in the nation, bullies and predators would be advised to steer clear of “Check It’s” protagonists. They’re local African-American gay and transgender youths who started their own gang for self-protection as a handful of fed-up 9th graders a decade ago. Now they number over 200 — many armed and dangerous as well as fierce and fabulous. Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer’s engrossing, well-crafted doc could parlay its attention-grabbing subject beyond the fest circuit into niche theatrical and broadcast exposure.

The streets depicted here are just a stone’s throw from the corridors of power in the nation’s capitol, but they might as well be light-years away. Poverty, violence, broken homes and arrest records are standard formative experiences for these boys, whose often conspicuously “different,” feminine ways from an early age tended to attract even greater abuse than typical among their peers. Figuring that the safety-in-numbers principle might protect them from frequent beatings and sometimes worse, several middle-schoolers started “the Check-It” in 2005.

Banding together helped lessen their chances of various kinds of harm (from not only schoolmates and gangbangers but family members and prostitution johns), in large part because a fearsome reputation rapidly arose around their willingness to fight. These “sissies” might look and act girlishly flamboyant, but they were packing brass knuckles, knives and trigger-tempers. While the film doesn’t dwell on the rap sheets they’ve accumulated (presumably to avoid dogging their futures), we see several instances in which personalities accustomed to going postal over any perceived threat or disrespect come very close to the brink — and one street melee which hurtles right over it.

Such behavior has evolved as a defense mechanism after years of various psychological and physical abuses, and it serves its purpose (particularly given that many of the subjects hustle their bodies for cash on a particular stretch of K Street, which requires a whole other dimension of self-protective measures). But when the goal is more than mere survival, being “fierce” can become a liability — as our principal figures here discover, now that they’re entering adulthood and trying to turn some dreams into reality.

Facilitating their evolution is Jarmal Harris, a similarly backgrounded child of the D.C. projects who runs a summer “fashion camp” for underprivileged kids who aspire toward the fashion industry. It’s a great opportunity, but having to follow instructions, tone down their volume and play well with others is more than some Check It members can easily manage.

The film also spotlights other mentoring adults trying to give them a path out of the many dead ends they’ve witnessed in their community: Ex-con Ron “Mo” Moten counsels local gay youth, while a pro boxer turned trainer called Duke recognizes the natural athlete beneath rail-thin but sinewy Skittles’ flighty veneer. He encourages the young man to get in the ring, though other fighters are dubious about this prospective competitor — and Skittles isn’t the most dedicated or reliable trainee.

These subjects may often be drama queens, but they’ve been shaped by the kind of less-than-entertaining drama that can suddenly yank them right out of the filmmakers’ access — which could explain the limited backstory provided, and the fact we can’t always follow what’s happened when their circumstances seem to have changed between sections. (One shocking exception is a scene where a Check It member calls a rape crisis line in post-traumatic distress, and they prove dismayingly unhelpful when it comes to assault by an anonymous prostitution client.)

Still, a one-year-later epilogue suggests things are generally on the upswing for our protags, thanks to their own developing talents but also Moten and Harris’ dogged advocacy efforts. Despite occasional narrative gaps, “Check It” is consistently compelling, with a brisk pace and vivid personalities making up for the occasional unanswered question. Assembly is aptly not over-slick but energetically well-turned.

Film Review: 'Check It'

Reviewed at Alamo Drafthouse, San Francisco, April 5, 2016. (In Tribeca, San Francisco International, Hot Docs film festivals.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Olive Productions, Radical Media and Macro Pictures production. (Sales: WME, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Dana Flor, Toby Oppenheimer, Wren Arthur. Executive producers, Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Jon Kamen, Dave O’Connor, Justin Wilkes.

Crew: Directed by Dana Flor, Toby Oppenheimer. Camera (color, HD), Oppenheimer; editor, Tom Patterson; music, Paul Brill; sound, Jeff Keiler.

With: Skittles, Tray, Day Day, Alton, Ron “Mo” Moten, Duke, Jarmal Harris.

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