Don’t believe the hype.
The Public Enemy lyric immediately came to mind as I watched a News 14 Carolina report on a new documentary film called Welcome to Durham that was set to screen at the Hayti Heritage Center the following evening. The news segment showed clips from the film. Black teens throwing gang signs and police tape cordoning off a crime scene. They were setting it up as a Boys in the Hood for Durham. Yes. Don’t believe the Hype. It’s been 15 years since Public Enemy put out that record and hip-hop has lost its status as the pure outsider voice–witness this year’s Grammy awards–but when dealing with local media bias against Durham, it’s still good advice.
But the hype worked. The Hayti’s parking lot was full and there was a stream of cars circling the block. I’ve been to events at the Hayti before, but I’d never seen it this crowded. As I entered the lobby I was asked “who I was with” and since it was decided I was media I was ushered by a young woman in a black dress to the balcony. I had brought my camera and noticed that there were signs taped everywhere prohibiting them. I tried to get answers from a number of young men in suits who were all connected to the film in some way or another and the best I got was that they were afraid someone would make a bootleg video of the film. I pointed to my still camera and was grudgingly given permission to photograph, but not during the film. This nightclub style, velvet roping-off of the media was not going over well. I heard more than one guy schlepping camera equipment and muttering profanity. The filmmakers had successfully lured the media to their event, and proceeded to do everything possible to thwart them.
This was definitely an event you wanted to photograph. A bizarre, only-in-Durham happening. Sharing the balcony with the media was a large chunk of the Durham Police Department from Chief Steve Chalmers on down. Also in attendance were a number of our elected officials including Mayor Bill Bell, who sat in a far corner of the balcony–a good place to be if you’re uncertain how something’s going to go down. Everyone else was down in the main theater. As the packed audience waited way too long for the film to start, those downstairs craned their heads to look up at all the cops in the balcony. I was relived when the lights finally went down.
Welcome To Durham goes about like this: The first 10 minutes give us historical information about Durham’s Hayti neighborhood and how it had once been home to a vibrant, self-sufficient African-American community. Your typical Ken Burns stuff complete with old timey music. Then the narrative explains how in the ’50s the Durham Freeway effectively severed Hayti from the rest of the city and it went into decline. At this point the film abruptly begins a 45-minute barrage of random vignettes of Durham gangbangers hanging out on street corners, waving guns around, and smoking blunts–the clips the local news stations couldn’t wait to put on the 11 o’clock news. This bleak imagery of handgun toting teens is occasionally interrupted by Chief Chalmers or some other random Durham official verbally throwing their hands up in the air. The film ends with a tepid plea to “find a solution” to this problem.
I’m still not exactly sure which problem that would be. Gang violence? Guns? Drugs? The complete lack of jobs and options for these kids? That seemingly unmendable concrete rift that places the wealth of Duke University on one side, the Durham County jail on the other?
To ask whether or not Welcome to Durham is a “good film” seems secondary to what this fledgling group of entrepreneurs at RDU919 have pulled off. Despite the fact that they didn’t quite know what to do with the media when they showed up (an advertised post-film press conference failed to materialize) they created an event that was uniquely Durham, and despite all the hype, valuable. These guys initially started business to put out hip-hop records, and with few resources and a lot of ambition they packed a theater full of cops, teens, community organizers, social workers, and a dozen or so of the people that make decisions in this town. For all I know the film was nothing more than a vehicle to promote their recording artists (yes, Welcome to Durham has a soundtrack). But that seems too cynical. No one is going to claim Welcome to Durham has the persuasive power of a Bowling for Columbine, but when an entire city focuses its attention on five of its young men as they proudly display their various guns (the most disturbing scene in the movie) we might be getting a little closer to prying the gun out of Charlton Heston’s cold, dead hands.