Documentary on culture of death gives city's youth a voice

On Tuesday at 5:45p.m., a 10-year old boy was shot in the face and leg at his birthday party. Bullets sprayed the gathering at Simon Bolivar Avenue and Clio Street, killing a 5-year old girl and a 33-year old woman.  A few hours earlier, two assailants had robbed and killed a 58-year old man in Mid-City.  Police arrested a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, the latter wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor.

More details will emerge about both incidents. Another summer envelops New Orleans with heat and gunfire. The fortunate will escape to cooler, safer hideouts while others hug to the shade and pray for quiet evenings. In six months or a year, we may hear about trials, verdicts, and sentences arising from this week’s violence. Cell doors will close behind lost children while dead children fade from public memory. The favorite colors of the deceased and the petty beefs that motivated their killers will slip away, known only to family members and neighborhood observers. From media pulpits and comfortable chairs, more powerful people will debate root causes and argue over solutions.

Rare is the effort that seeks the opinions of the crossfire zone’s most vulnerable inhabitants. As a community, we take our sides, point fingers, and play our positions, and rarely consider the vantage point of those wearing school uniforms and sagging jeans. Many claim to care for them, while just as many display fear of them.

In his upcoming documentary, “Shell Shocked: A Documentary About Growing Up In The Murder Capital Of America,” producer and director John Richie takes a bold step: He asks the African American youth of New Orleans what they think about the violence that surrounds them.

A rough-cut screening will take place Tuesday at 6:30pm at the Contemporary Arts Center. For an invitation, email scrubbrush@scrubbrushproductions.com.

Beginning in 2008, Richie worked with local teenagers to record the world as they see it. He found adolescents who, while expressing the usual mixture of awkward bravado and mumbling shyness, told of a world that should shame all of us. He listened as a young man named Matt Gray explained, “In New Orleans, it’s easier to get a gun than a text book.”

He heard children tell stories of police brutality, saw a roomful of students raise their hands when asked, “How many of you know someone in jail?” He watched as the next generation of New Orleanians dreamed of escape but doubted their own odds.  He turned his camera to groups like 2-Cent, the Youth Empowerment Project, and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana that work on the front lines to reverse the nihilism and alienation that plague too many young minds. And he sat with the mothers of those who can no longer be heard.

“Shell Shocked” now is in the last stages of production. On May 22, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities sponsored a rough-cut screening and fund-raiser to cover the costs of final edits. When the film ended, I moderated a discussion with Richie, Lauren Bierbaum of the Partnership for Youth Development and Michael Wilson, an instructor at Dillard University and columnist for The New Orleans Tribune. Along with an audience of 100, we talked about the film and the kids at its center, about Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s State of the City address, delivered earlier that day, about the last few years and the decades that preceded them.

Audience members decried economic inequality and a culture that sensationalizes greed and violence.  One man told of going to jail at the age of 15 for killing a man.  He contrasted his path with that of his more successful brother, both of them fatherless. Heartfelt debate arose over responsibility and the potential for progress.

That evening, “Shell Shocked” touched a nerve. In five years of hosting public programs, I can’t remember a more intimate, respectful conversation among such a diverse crowd. Nor can I recall more concerned looks on the faces of moviegoers.

As Richie told me before the screening, “Shell Shocked” is a conversation starter.  The reason it works, though, is because the filmmaker listened to the one demographic rarely invited to join the conversation.  That evening, the voices of adults echoed with the fear we heard in those children.

I believe “Shell Shocked” can spark honest talk and, most importantly, a greater willingness to ask a young person what they think, what they fear, and how we can help.  It is a conversation each of us needs to start this summer.

Brian Boyles, is the director of public relations and programs at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. 



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  • Erica

    I attended the screening at the Humanities Center and will go again to this screening tonight. These filmmakers have done the work, made the connections with local anti-violence activists and have created a compelling film to be shared widely until our streets are safe again. The conversation after the event was so thought provoking I have to go back and see what else comes up! Support this film and help the filmmakers finish it!

  • Steve

    Any idea if the film will be available for purchase? I was just on the website and didn’t see anything. I’d like to use it in my courses.

  • Bro Keith “X” Hudson

    You know what I like about ‘good white-folks’.. they always profit off of “our” suffering, and just like Pharoah of old, they continue to target our children for their accolades. Yet, when it comes time to legislate, etc., you can’t find not ONE of you bleeding hearts. In Central City, the most violent part of the city, with the highest percentage of people incarcerated in the State, the city of New Orleans REFUSE to re-open a city-owned NORD recreation center, and the newly formed NORDC is doing the exact same thing, the old NORD did: Play politricks with our kids/senior citizens, and yet this great white-man does a documentary, and its so great!!! Typical “massa” mentality! Yet, not once did they say: How did it come to this train of thought!! How, does a city as prosperous as New Orleans, allow its citizens to fall so low on the human relation scale? Why is their a big gap in real power-v-puppet power! How could a mayor who campaigned on “transparency” get away with so much racist/conniving underhanded B.S., and no white media is exposing his hypocrisy!!! Is it because ignorance is taught when it comes to the poor. Deafness is demostrated when the less fortunate cries to the powers that be! And yet, in every facet of this city, you hear shouts of a better city for us all, and we are uniting as one. The slogans are sickening: Who Dat Nation & I’m in!!! Take a ride through Central City, and go pass Oretha Castle Haley, and witness the real world, not supported by 501C-3
    negroes and their poverty pimps! When will the Lens report

  • Ah C

    To Bro Keith “X” Hudson:

    Last time I checked, it was virtually all American WHITE folks that died to end SLAVERY for BLACKS, not the other way around. In fact, I can’t remember any country in recent history that fought a civil war based on color.

    And I WOULD NEVER, EVER allow a NORD recreation center to be opened in Central City and especially Oretha Castle Haley area.

    Why have black kids with no parents associating with the homeless and drug dealers?

  • Bro Keith “X” Hudson

    Ah C,
    Whoever your coward butt is, here’s a note on history, you or the people you claimed to have died for Slavery is a bunch of B.S. I told you I CAN READ, and the history I read don’t say white-folks died to end slavery. It said they fought to save the country, they stole from the Indians! And Lincoln didn’t sign the Emanicipation on behalf of slaves. He didn’t want to divide the country, so
    save that B.S. for the ignorant negroes you are affiliated
    with, I KNOW BETTER!!! When the brother did New Orleans Exposed, white-folks condemned it, and it was the truth, but this great white-man does the exact same thing, and its getting all types of praise. How racist can ya’ll get?
    I guarantee the kids he talked to are off-springs of those
    501C-3 negroes on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. And I know your kind want to keep blacks in the dark about the truth, that’s why you don’t want a center in Central City, so you can say, we’re animals, but you a racist like
    you can’t stop progress!!

  • Ah C

    To Bro Keith “X” Hudson:

    Your own words contradicts your reply.

    You said…”It said they fought to save the country, they stole from the Indians!”

    So the HISTORY YOU READ said it fought to “save” the country from what? Was it the Indians? No cause the Indians were never a threat.

    So WHO did they, the WHITE folk fight to save the country from, if it wasn’t for the Negroes being enslaved by slave owners then?

    If not the Negroes, are you saying Slavery didn’t exist since the WHITE FOLK didn’t fight for the freedom of Negroes?

    Did some WHITE FOLK die for nothing? Maybe the Martians were taking over America?

    (You sound like a hater. And haters, hate, correct?)

    All another Recreation Center in Central City around Oretha Castle Haley Blvd would do is the same as all the other recreation centers in poor black neighborhoods do.

    Sell and DO drugs, indoctrinate the young kids how cool ghetto life and THE STRUGGLE is, shoot each other and give FALSE dreams and hopes that they can become Professional Basketball, Football or Baseball players.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    You say…… “you can’t stop progress!!”

    What kind of “progress” are you Blacks making when all of your Black leaders and Black communities say that the African Americans have already LOST A GENERATION of BLACK MALES?