New Film 'For Ahkeem' Puts a Human Face to Difficult Social Justice Issues

Filmmakers Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest talk about their new documentary and how some youths labeled as bad kids are a product of larger failures in society, not their own.

by Sean Hutchinson
Oct 20 2017, 3:30pm

Everyday, in basically every city in America, the country's youth are left behind. They're products of a system stacked against them because of race, income, and other socioeconomic factors despite their best efforts to make it through. One of those youths is Daje Shelton, a black teenager from St. Louis who is the subject of the new documentary For Ahkeem by New York-based filmmakers Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest.

At 17, she's already convinced she will never make it, just as her friends and family have increasingly become statistics. We first pick up with her story as she's standing in front of a judge who offers to enroll her in what is effectively a last resort: a court-supervised alternative high school for troubled students. Through a verite lens that follows her on her journey, Levine and Van Soest's film captures her experiences while illustrating how youths labeled as bad kids are a product of larger failures in society, not their own.

VICE Impact caught up with the filmmakers to talk about portraying the human cost of bigger social issues, the Black Lives Matter movement, and telling an effective story as outsiders.

VICE Impact: I'm always interested in what sparks creators to begin projects, so what was the thing that made you want to make For Ahkeem?

Jeremy Levine: As articles and research were coming out about the way that we over-incarcerate kids--and at what a crazy young age it starts -- that was the spark. Then we heard about Innovative Concept Academy in St. Louis through our producer, Jeff Truesdell, who works at People Magazine and had written an article about the school and Judge Jimmie Edwards and thought there was a film there.

At the time, it was the only court-supervised public high school in the country and came from Judge Edwards who got sick of sentencing the kids of the parents who he sentenced in the adult court. He recognized this cycle and tried to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

Landon Van Soest: The film is really about one girl and her experiences, but at the broadest level were our interests in education and justice.

Conversations about mass incarceration and how unequal that is isn't really a mystery to anybody who's paying attention. If you're a black man you're three or four times more likely to be incarcerated, but what was fascinating to learn, and at the genesis of this project to me, was those same policies and trends hold true all the way back to elementary school. At the earliest age we're conditioning young, poor, black kids to believe that they're criminals. The suspension and expulsion rates kind of mirror the incarceration rates for adults.

Van Soest (left) and Levine (right).

This film is incredibly intimate. Why focus on Daje instead of, say, the Judge?

LVS: Some of it has to do with the type of film we like to make and like to watch, but we wanted it to be an immersive experience with a strong protagonist. We specifically wanted to find a student at that point in their life facing these challenges and seeing how they deal with that in extremely critical years of being a teenager. We talked to about 30-40 different students at the school.

JL: The Judge is fascinating, and that could have been the route we took. But, in so many ways, he's self-realized. He's done all the hard work. But for Daje, while we were filming, everything was on the line in terms of what these systems of oppression were like. It was obvious she had so much trauma in her life already without any real outlet for it. We eventually discovered she had this amazing journal that she wrote in every night, and she eventually opened that up for us, and it became the narration that's the heart of the film.

LVS: If we'd focused on the judge we could have just preached the statistics, but what we're interested in doing is showing the humanity behind them by getting to know someone who is clearly charismatic and articulate who's trying to make her way through it.

Daje and Antonio in 'For Ahkeem.'

How did you gain that kind of access, especially when people like Daje's boyfriend Antonio enter the picture who you probably didn't know about when you began?

LVS: Specifically because we're two bearded white guys from Brooklyn coming in to an almost exclusively black neighborhood in St. Louis, we recognized from the get-go that we needed a strong and active partner to tell this story. Whereas a lot of kids were understandably closed off, she wore her heart on her sleeve with a real desire to tell her own story. Still, of these kids we met, we could have just as easily told the same broader story with them. But the openness from her was absolutely vital to the film we made.

Antonio was amazingly open too. It was kind of incredible. In a lot of ways Antonio's story is what we were kind of expecting. It sounds callous, but he holds true to a lot of those statistics. But getting to know him and all the nuances and challenges of his life with the odds stacked against him was just a completely different experience.

As two white guys from Brooklyn, was there any pushback about being outsiders?

LVS: By and large, no. A lot of that is credit to the school. People would ask, "Well, what the hell are you doing here?" But you mention you're working with Judge Jimmie Edwards' school, and people would be excited because they were glad the school was there. We were also just around her block so much that everybody kinda just knew who we were.

When the Ferguson protests and the shooting of Michael Brown and the verdict happened, did those kinds of things change your process at all?

LVS: Ferguson was such an explosive moment. It was about a year after Trayvon Martin, and a lot of anxieties were bubbling up, and then it became a powder keg. We knew it would change the story, but at the time it was difficult to figure out how. But we'd always go back to how this story was about Daje's journey with raising her son and staying in her world.

We still spent a lot of back and forth about how it affected her, and how she internalized events like that. In the film she isn't surprised Michael Brown was shot, and she pulls up an article on the computer about how the same thing happened to her cousin, and the officer wasn't prosecuted. She was more surprised that it got national attention and that Al Sharpton came to St. Louis.

Judge Jimmie Edwards.

JL: From the beginning we were making a film about how black and brown kids are cast off from society. But here was yet another example that caught the national attention. And the Black Lives Matter movement burst onto the national stage, and forced the country -- at least in some ways -- to deal with police brutality and the way we treat huge segments of our country. The hope is that you can see the film and understand where this is coming from.

LVS: It's just so easy to dismiss someone or something you don't know. 90 minutes is not a lot of time, but the culture is different from where I come from, and there's so much ignorance just because people have never had certain experiences. We just want to try to give a brief window into what it's like to live through these things and to come of age in a system stacked against you.

What do you hope viewers will take action on after seeing the film?

JL: We certainly hope people are outraged by the way we treat black and brown kids in this country. The hope is that it motivates people to get involved. We need to reform some of the insane state-by-state laws called "Zero Tolerance" policies that don't give school administrators any other choice but to suspend or expel or send kids to court for pretty minor offenses.

In Daje's case, because she got into a fight with more than two students involved it was labelled a gang fight. That basically meant there was no choice but to suspend and expel her. Ultimately the school in the film shouldn't need to exist.

READ MORE: If You Care About the Success of Young People Support These Mentor Programs

But do you see these kind of special schools as a positive, potentially temporary, stop or solution in the issue?

JL: It's so complicated. We really set out hoping that the school was an answer to a giant problem. We think Judge Edwards absolutely has the best intentions and is doing everything in his power to try and combat this issue. But it shouldn't get to him. He shouldn't have to deal with it to begin with. The root of the problem goes so much deeper, probably all the way back to that point where Daje's gets suspended in kindergarten.

LVS: It should be immediately obvious that these issues exist, that there's extreme bias in schools and in our judicial system. The polarization of our political system means we never get past that. We can't ever cede to the data. But that's where the power of documentary lies. We're looking beyond numbers on a sheet of paper to people caught up in this terrible situation. The first step is acknowledging that, and then focus on the policy we can get behind.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Support Daje's college fund directly.

Become a mentor by contacting an org like the National Mentoring Partnership or your local school or school district. Join the ACLU in asking teachers to take the Safe Classroom Pledge, or join the call the "Ban the Box" to remove questions about convictions from job applications so that people can be judged first on their qualifications. Learn more from the Children's Defense Fund and Safe Quality Schools about how you can get involved in helping to end the school-to-prison pipeline.