Romeo bleeds as Richmond rises

Michael Klein/Courtesy

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It’s easy to let apathy turn into silence or into defeat. But through the documentary “Romeo is Bleeding,” Donté Clark reminds the young adults of Richmond that their voices can heal wounds, their actions can erase turf boundaries and their love can resurrect a community.

“I’m inspired by everyone around me. Everyone played a role in this. From the person driving the bus to the person who just came home. If everybody can play their part, it’ll make your part that much easier to do,” Clark said to the group of enthusiastic fans crowding him after the El Cerrito High School screening Aug. 19.

His words touched the elderly who witnessed Richmond’s transformation from the days of Rosie the Riveter. His words gave parents hope that their children would have the same opportunities as anyone else. His words inspired young children who desperately needed someone to look up to.

Despite the pointed marketing, “Romeo is Bleeding” was not a movie meant to turn a city into a statistic. It wasn’t even a movie meant to pity underserved communities. It was a movie meant to demonstrate the importance of regaining control by loving yourself and your community.

“Love is not the word you say. It’s a hug. If I knew I could knock on any door and get fed because I’m hungry, I wouldn’t do anything illegal to feed myself,” Clark said to the audience. “If we knew people would give in our community, we wouldn’t take from it.”

Though his ideas may sound utopian, Clark stresses the importance of using love to break the innocuous barriers that often separate communities. In the documentary, Clark and other Richmond residents admit that the issues between North and Central Richmond were so far before their time that the problems are no longer tangible. Instead, the fight that started at a questionable date morphed into a game of tit-for-tat with guns. But the kids who have witnessed these hardships are the same kids who want out — and Clark helps them find a way.

As a Richmond native, Clark recognized the systemic injustices that could have led him to a life of crime, so he felt empowered to advocate for his community. He used the trust placed in him — by co-founder of RAW Talent, Molly Raynor — to show other children that all was not lost. Together, they helped a team of young men and women find their voices to raise Richmond through spoken word.

Inspired by William Shakespeare’s infamous “Romeo and Juliet,” Clark and members of RAW Talent rewrote the play to fit the story of Richmond: two communities of similar backgrounds, separated by one inconsequential incident.

Though RAW Talent no longer exists, Donté Clark is determined to connect with the people of Richmond and remind them that they were once a community.

As director Jason Zeldes shared in an interview, “I think a problem that drives a lot of these issues in a lot of communities like Richmond is that there isn’t a lot of dialogue between community members, police officers and etc. However, through the magic of cinema, we can create the dialogue.”

By choosing not to stay silent, the students of RAW Talent created conversation. They asserted their desire to “choose life,” unlike the characters of Romeo and Juliet. They stood up for themselves, which more people should do, according to Clark and Zeldes.

You need to be more in control of how you tell your story, how we tell our story,” Clark said during an interview.

Though it’s true that a white director and producer were essentially responsible for telling a Black story — Clark’s story — their unifying cause helped shaped the movie’s message.

Even the people who are supporting it, raising the money for it, filming it, may not fully understand who I am and what exactly I’m representing — and that’s when I realized, ‘Dang, you’re speaking from a privileged place,’ ” Clark said. “You coming from a place of not understanding, just because we’ve worked on this film together, I was thinking, ‘You would get it,’ but they don’t get it.”

However, this realization did not deter Clark from his ultimate goal of reaching out to the young adults in his community. Even though Clark sometimes disagreed with the film’s direction and the depiction of his story, Clark understood the power of the film — and the bigger picture they were all fighting for.

According to Clark, Zeldes explained that, “When the world sees the harsh reality, it draws people in more. If people saw just you smiling and dancing, it’ll be no different than the characters of the Sambo and the Mammys and all the people that ate watermelon cause, ‘Look, slavery didn’t bother them,’ and that’s when I realized the power of art. You gotta show both. I just cried about my brother getting killed, then I made a joke and went right back to crying.”

Though Clark admitted wishing he could call another place home at times, he also admitted Richmond wasn’t all bad. He had good times with good friends, but those moments don’t excuse the hardships he had to face.

According to Zeldes, this movie was intended to serve as a wake-up call for the privileged bunch who are separated from Donté Clark’s struggles, among other things. He wanted to help outsiders become aware of how they may be stereotyping communities incorrectly and remind them that “the exit on the freeway you speed past is actually the home of the next great American artist of super important, relevant stories.”

Clark added that this movie was also meant to serve as a tool for reflection. It’s meant to remind the youth to speak up so that everybody could evaluate their role in the system.

“I just want you to sit with yourself and see what it makes you feel and what you can do with that,” Clark said.

Staying silent amid troubling times implies the acceptance of injustice. But according to Clark, speaking up — acknowledging and using one’s power to lift up a community — is what creates a home.

Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected].