Where the Pavement Ends
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Where the Pavement Ends opens with an overture of sorts. The voices of interview and archival subjects are woven into a chorus in which the past and present of Ferguson, Missouri, and Kinloch, its lesser-known sister city, converge. One pivotal voiceover repeats: “Alas, I have been daydreaming.” It’s from a letter written in April 1968 by a resident of the predominantly African-American city of Kinloch. The letter was sent to a Lutheran church in conjunction with a march protesting the barricade that still separated Kinloch from the whites-only suburbs of Ferguson, four years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
The letter also marks the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and footage from his “I Have a Dream” speech appears for a few seconds as the line is read again. The tragic irony of the juxtaposition is compounded as the film cuts to the flames of protest in downtown Ferguson, which followed the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown.
The rest of the film is similarly nonlinear, circling back over key historical motifs again and again, so the full scope of the narrative emerges gradually. The troubled relationship between Kinloch and Ferguson serves as a microcosm of segregation’s long tail. Director Jane Gillooly, who grew up in Ferguson, speaks with current and former residents of both cities. The blockade and the racial divide it represented were unquestioned facts of life throughout their childhoods. After the physical barrier finally came down in the late seventies, Kinloch was practically dismantled, first by redistricting, then by a mass buyout of most of its homes by the city of St. Louis, as part of a noise-abatement program for a nearby airport that was never completed. Kinloch became a ghost town, losing more than 75 percent of its population by the turn of the millennium. Some of the most affecting scenes follow residents down wooded footpaths as they describe the commercial districts that used to be there.
Gillooly excels at showing the emotional realities behind the official narrative of integration, as well as bringing to light the little-known history of a city that has come to represent the persistence of institutional racism in the U.S. Strikingly, both white and African-American residents of Ferguson and Kinloch reveal a certain nostalgia for segregation and the sense of community it offered, however compromised. “We got what we wanted … but we lost what we had,” one Kinloch resident says about segregation’s aftermath.
Gillooly initially conceived of Where the Pavement Ends as an experimental short, but then extended it after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson police. The connection is a bit tenuous, and the uneasy balance between narrative issue-based documentary and impressionist essay film creates the expectation for more direct causality. Still, the contradictions at the heart of America’s race problem are made crystal clear: Simply tearing down borders doesn’t make them go away, and the longer we refuse to do the real work of building a humane society, the more attractive they can seem.