NY fest helps keep South Side off poverty porn tour

0
1614

ELAINE HEGWOOD BOWEN is frustrated as she and Cyrus Dowlatshahi and Catherine Crouch take questions from the audience during “Let’s Talk About Chicago” panel at Columbia University.

The controversy surrounding the making of the movie “Chi-raq” has somewhat subsided now, but more dialogue will probably come with the revelation that the New Yorker magazine has named it the No. 1 movie of 2015. However, Chicago faces new problems that are more important than the title of a “Spike Lee Joint,” and the media continues to shape the city’s and outsiders’ viewpoints about the South Side. Given this, I wanted to share my experience of speaking about my book, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago, at Columbia University in New York City that touched upon this topic.

As part of the African Diaspora International Film Festival, which was held November 27 through December 13, I was invited to read from my book in a segment called “Let’s Talk About Chicago.” The book reading was included along with the screening of two Chicago-based films, “70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green,” which was directed by Ronit Bezalel and was 20 years in the making. According to press materials, “The film follows the story of a community displaced when their neighborhood is torn down in the name of progress. Home to thousands, misunderstood by millions, Cabrini Green once towered over Chicago’s most valuable neighborhoods. A looming reminder of inequality and poverty, Cabrini’s high-rises were demolished and an African-American community cleared to make room for another social experiment: mixed-income neighborhoods.”

The other film that was screened was “Takin’ Place,” which was directed by Cyrus Dowlatshahi. Press materials for this film read as follows: “Chicago’s South Side is rarely portrayed in the media as a place of beauty and positive energy. ‘Takin’ Place’ colorfully captures the aura of the Washington Park and Englewood neighborhoods from the chaos of a joyous Fourth of July in the streets to girl talk in the intimate confines of a beauty salon. Director Dowlatshahi, whose career encompasses work for Al-Jazeera, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to discovering everyday life and culture on the South Side in all its glorious diversity and complexity.”

The audience for the panel discussion was filled with New Yorkers, people from other cities and countries, as well as a few people who had either lived in Chicago previously or who had intimate knowledge about the city and its makeup.

As a result, the discussion was a spirited event with people asking relevant questions. One participant pointed out that the South Side of Chicago gave the world President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and renowned playwright Lorraine Hansberry, among others.

I appreciated that people wanted to learn more about the city, but I was rattled with the perceptions about the South Side that people admitted that they had; either by voicing this directly or through their questions.

One person wanted to know if Minister Louis Farrakhan lived in the suburbs, and seemed a bit surprised when I said that he lived on the South Side. Many in the audience, in my opinion, wrongly believe that Hyde Park isn’t a part of the South Side.

One audience member who really stood out proclaimed with such zeal that she was once in Chicago, staying with friends in Hyde Park, and she asked if they would “drive her through the South Side.” She said it with such enthusiasm, as if she were asking for a ride on Germany’s Autobahn, that I had to remind her to never pose the statement like that again. “The South Side is not a zoo filled with animals that your friends can just drive you through,” I admonished the participant. I couldn’t let her consider that her tour was what I would call “poverty porn.”

Now this was after she had watched “Takin’ Place,” which I think was a bit derogatory, cloaking the film about Blacks from the South Side as being “colorfully glorious, diverse and complex.” Among other things, the film followed women in a beauty shop on 59th and Ashland as they discussed how they hold their valuables in their “titties” and all their other antics and also chronicled a few days in the life of a colorfully expressive grandmother who lived on South Perry, raising some young men who seemed to lack direction. To the grandmother’s credit, she worked hard to raise anybody who walked through her doors. Dowlatshahi also followed the driver of a local jerk chicken restaurant food truck, as he went on his rounds to sell what some of his past clients deemed as “spoiled jerk chicken.”

“Takin’ Place” and “70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green” were both screened during the Black Harvest Film Festival. Catherine Crouch, writer/editor, explained that although this documentary took the director 20 years to complete, it would also be nice to follow the people who were prominent in the film for another 10 years or so. The documentary showed the uphill battle that former Cabrini Green residents had in getting their “piece of the Plan for Transformation pie.” The majority of them felt left out of the process and felt as if they were forced into other neighborhoods, with which they had no connection after having been in the Near North public housing project for generations.

The African Diaspora International Film Festival comes to Chicago in mid-June, and there is always a great selection of films curated by Columbia University’s Reinaldo B. Spech and his wife, Diarah N’Daw-Spech. I am grateful to have been a part of the panel and hope that some good things were shared about Chicago’s South Side. The couple has run this festival for more than 20 years in New York, Chicago, Paris and other cities, and its mission is to “enhance the cultural DNA of New York City and beyond.” For information aboutADIFF, visit www.nyadiff.org.

Looking to Advertise? Contact the Crusader for more information.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here