Documentary is an infinite form, but — at the risk of being terribly reductive — most documentary subjects can be divided into one of two groups: People who are too exceptional to resist, and people who are too ordinary to ignore. The former hinges on interest, the latter on empathy. A black teenager in a run-down suburb of St. Louis, Daje Shelton not only falls into that second category, her story defines why we need it.
Seventeen years old and already convinced that she’s already doomed to a dead end, Daje is a student who’s teetering on the edge of becoming a statistic; she’s growing up in the state that kicks more black kids out of school than any other, and she can’t help but feel the inertia of that fact. “For Ahkeem” lucidly captures that feeling as well as any non-fiction film since “Hoop Dreams,” even if it’s too thin and distant to hit with the same impact.
When directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest first pick up her story, Daje is newly expelled and standing before a judge who offers to enroll her in the court-supervised alternative high school he runs for troubled youths. She accepts the deal — she has no other choice — but the trauma of her upbringing has already left its mark. “People have been labeling me a bad kid all my life,” she mutters. “You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it of yourself.”
Daje is a vibrant girl, a total world-beater when she wants to be, but it’s clear that Levine and Van Soest are most interested in her for the face that she puts on a series of systemic problems. Their uncompromisingly vérité film orbits around Daje for more than two years, drifting away whenever something else catches their eye, and snapping back whenever her circumstances might help to articulate the cyclical crisis that she’s used to represent.
Initially, it seems as if the unorthodox school she attends might become emerge as a greater focus, and that the judge-principal will be construed as a less charismatic version of the educational reformer that Morgan Freeman played in “Lean on Me” (“Mr. Clark don’t play!”), but it’s the open-hearted lunch lady who ends up receiving more attention than the rest of the faculty, and she only appears twice. In these scenes, absence is emphasized over presence, whether Levine and Van Soest are pausing to observe the shooting death of a student, or detailing the lack of hope via its pointed omission. What kind of future can these kids make for themselves if they sincerely don’t expect to live past 18 — or for them to matter even if they do?
For Daje, that question all but answers itself when she starts hooking up with Antonio, and becomes pregnant with his child. Our protagonist, perceptive and street-smart, quietly recognizes the cycle that she inherited from her mother, who was expelled from school at roughly the same age and became pregnant with Daje not long thereafter. By the time baby Ahkeem is born, the people of Ferguson are beginning to riot, reflecting back at Daje the bigoted prejudices that have shaped her formative years. The film pauses to include footage of protestors being fired upon by police, providing a rare breath of context in a documentary that prefers to earn its empathy via personal identification.
That moment, however, is enough to suggest just how much more insightful “For Ahkeem” might have been had it done more to locate Daje’s predicament in the context of St. Louis’ uniquely clear-cut stratification, or its racist school policies, how the city’s broken institutions create wedges to trap its black citizens.
But thanks to Levine and Van Soest’s persistence — and Nicholas Weissman’s supple, intimate cinematography — the film effectively leverages the experience of its teenage heroine in order to illustrate that “bad kids” are a product of our failures, and not their own. Many films have made that argument, but few have done so without being condescending or didactic. By simply documenting Deja’s humanity, “For Ahkeem” offers a vivid example of the incontrovertible fact that black lives matter.
“For Ahkeem” premiered in the Forum section of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.