In evaluating a documentary like “Check It,” it’s important to remember that what some might call an “unbelievable” story is in fact, to the film’s subjects, everyday reality. Though the film tells a compelling story — and one that should be seen — it’s not the whole picture.
“Check It” follows members of “the Check-It,” a street gang of queer and transgender black teenagers living in extreme poverty in Washington, D.C. Often made homeless by parents who do not accept them, or skipping school to avoid violent attacks, the kids spend much of their time on the streets. Targeted simply because of the way they walk or talk, a group of 9th graders founded the gang in 2009 as a way to retaliate and protect themselves from the violence they experienced daily. The group quickly grew so large that the founders no longer know everyone’s names.
The film doesn’t dwell on its subjects’ storied pasts, though their short fuses are evident in a few exchanges. “Check It” prefers to paint its subjects through their passions and dreams, and the film’s narrative emerges from the peaks and valleys of their ambitions. Practically the definition of a gentle spirit, Tray sports long dreads and speaks softly about their shifting gender identity. Tray has two modes of survival: Walking the streets as a tough guy, or working the streets as a pretty girl. (K Street, a few miles from the White House, is where groups of trans girls engage in sex work; one interviewee was as young as 15).
Tray’s real love is fashion, which they and a few other members are able to explore through a summer fashion camp. Run by the lively Jarmal Harris, who grew up in the neighborhood, the camp provides the film’s narrative backbone. Harris is serious and professional as he pushes the kids to work hard, and takes no guff when tempers rise. A formerly incarcerated social worker, Ron “Mo” Moten also checks in on the teens, connecting the skinny but scrappy Skittles with a boxing coach named Duke. As Skittles’ enthusiasm for training wanes, we later find Duke living out of his car — a reminder of how fragile the support system is. A brief shot of Duke dancing in a desolate parking lot offers a sliver of hope.
D.C.-based filmmakers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer filmed their subjects for six years, a very respectable length of time as far as documentaries go. Understandably, the film jumps in time, leaving a few narrative threads hanging. (The fashion camp obviously occurred over one summer, but stretches to fill the time). Flor and Oppenheimer do their best to remain hidden, but — as with all documentaries — their perspective is unavoidable.
The subjects’ vast spectrum of gender variance feels brushed over, even though most identify as trans or gender nonconforming. Equal if not more screen time is given to Duke, who insists that “underneath” Skittles’ flamboyant veneer “he’s still a man.” He says this lovingly, as a way to boost Skittles’ drive for the sport, but he’s painted so glowingly in the film that the statement feels supported. Though Skittles does not identify as trans, it’s odd for such a surface statement about gender in a film populated by so many trans voices to go unchallenged.
In her review of the film for Wear Your Voice, black and trans author and activist Kuchenga writes: “The film is lazy in showing us who is a gay cisgender male; who is transgender; who is gender queer; who is questioning. We only see as far as the white gaze allows us to see — a group of feral cross-dressers who are highly unemployable.” Given that this film is only getting seen beyond the festival circuit (it played Tribeca in 2016) because Louis C.K. released it through his website, appraisals like Kuchenga’s demand consideration.
“Check It” is a powerful and electrifying film, full of characters who exude wisdom, authenticity, and bravado. Their lives beg telling, but this is only half the story.
“Check It” is available for purchase here.