As the end credits roll on Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s documentary “For Ahkeem,” we hear a fantastic cover of “O-o-h Child” arranged by Kaie Bea and sung by Tati Elicia, with its encouraging line “Things are gonna get easier / Things are gonna get brighter.” But are they really? Daje Shelton, a 17-year-old girl from the slums of St. Louis, has a story that’s all too familiar, yet why is it that outrage over the unchanging devaluation of black lives still hasn’t led to things getting brighter?
Levine and Van Soest don’t present Daje as a victim of anything other than the constant message that African-American kids have a one-way ticket from high school drop-out to the grave, but surely that’s enough. “For Ahkeem” doesn’t present anything new, but perhaps there’s no need to: Its focus on one young woman struggling to graduate implicitly says that no matter how common the story, every person matters. Satcasts and streaming are the most likely outlets for the message.
Daje, nicknamed Boonie, has a discipline problem. When first seen, she’s brought before Judge Jimmie M. Edwards and told she either has to switch schools and attend the Innovative Concept Academy for at-risk students, or forget about graduating. Naturally she’s resistant, but the Judge is clear about her lack of options, and her mom Tammy gives her a supportive talking-to about this being the only path left if she wants to attend college later.
Missouri has the highest expulsion rate for black students of all the states, and when combined with other deeply disturbing statistics for African-American youth there, it becomes clear that the challenges Daje and her peers face are monumental. She’s not a bad student, but she has self-control issues in the classroom, and she’s not great at applying herself. As seen in the documentary, the teachers and staff try hard, with a mixture of warmth and firmness, to ensure she gets through the year, but it’s a rocky road ahead.
Tammy’s story remains frustratingly opaque (how many kids does she have, for example, and does she work?), but she’s an encouraging presence, telling her daughter she can be anything she wants to be as long as she stays in school. Levine and Van Soest don’t force-feed viewers information, so the way Daje got a bullet wound is never explained, though in that neighborhood, and in her age range, it’s not a distinctive characteristic — she and her friends are used to attending the funerals of peers.
Boyfriend Antonio is unlikely to be encouraging her to focus on school since he dropped out in the 10th grade and doesn’t have a job, and few will be surprised when Daje learns she’s pregnant. Against counsel, she decides to keep the baby, and Ahkeem is born right around the time of the Ferguson riots. It’s a very heavy load for a 17-year-old to carry: school, infant, a boyfriend who gets into trouble, and now on the news the reminder (as if anyone needed reminding) that black men like Michael Brown are considered dispensable by the white establishment.
Having Ahkeem reinforces Daje’s need to prove everyone wrong — to show that she can graduate, perhaps go to college, and raise a black boy to believe that he can be whatever he wants to be. With a poster of Barack Obama behind her in one scene, the goal has the feel of achievability, though in a country that can (almost) as easily elect a racist as an African-American, the future inevitably becomes more fraught with pessimism.
Throughout the documentary, the viewer is dropped in the center of Daje’s world, closely observing her, Tammy, friends, and school employees. No one acknowledges the omnipresent camera, yet the constant presence of a Caucasian cinematographer (and producer), Nicholas Weissman, must have stuck out like a sore thumb. How that affected the way people behave in front of his camera is impossible to gauge, though the issue of performance, intended or not, must always be considered in all documentaries.