This review was written by guest author Matthew Nerber.
When we first meet Daje, the subject of Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s heartbreakingly sincere documentary For Ahkeem, she is expelled from school for fighting. Her only option, as expressed by the judge, is to attend an alternative high school for students who aren’t welcome anywhere else. The judge also happens to be the principal at this school; “you make it with me or not at all,” he tells her.
Daje’s mother knows this is her daughter’s last chance, and she lovingly advises Daje that the future is bright, that she has a chance to escape the block, that there is world outside St Louis with things she can’t even imagine. It’s a Hail Mary for Daje, who is a junior with three strikes, and the film follows her over the next year and a half at the new school. It isn’t an easy transition; she is bitter about the switch, feels that the system is against her. She expresses that she has always been labeled a bad kid, and bad is just what is expected of her. It’s a mature observation from such a young girl, but she’s had to grow up fast.
The adults in the film, at school and otherwise, exhibit the kind of tough love that comes from someone who’s gone through the same thing. When one kid is shot to death, an administrator stands before his students, almost speechless, and tries to reconcile his frustration over another senseless killing with his dedication to saving these kid’s lives. It’s an uphill battle with a never ending list of casualties. The film tragically pivots around the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson; the event remarkably happened in the middle of production, and we watch Daje and her classmates find out in real time.
It feels akin to New York students discovering the events of September 11—this has real consequences for these kids; it is life or death. Their history teacher, who elsewhere in the film serves as a mentor to Daje, reminds them that this is the very thing they are learning in class. History repeats itself, he says; you’re witnessing it firsthand. He looks to empower his students with the knowledge of their potential.
But through it all, Daje remains a bright spot in an otherwise bleak portrait of marginalization and tragedy. She delights in telling her mother about the first African American train conductor, and demonstrates a keen social awareness when writing a paper about the Black Panther Party and the parallels to police brutality in her own backyard. She is kind and strong, internalizing her setbacks and pushing forward against a deck stacked against her.
She meets a boy at school, his name is Antonio, and their romance is lovingly captured in quiet moments where the two talk, laugh, and cling to one another with the desperate look of lovers about to separate for war. Antonio says that he knows he won’t live past 18, but he will make sure Daje lives much longer. Watching these children grapple with their own mortality is chilling, heartbreaking, and sobering.
The moments of profundity are innumerable, as directors Levine and Van Soest manage to continually illuminate the haunting realities our subjects’ lives. A normal hangout between Daje and her high school friends, listening to music and doing each other’s hair, is punctuated by a conversation about a boy who was shot and killed the year before; Daje reveals she was shot herself- in the stomach. In her own way, she discusses the psychic trauma: everyone wonders how she can still act this way. It messed with her head, she says; they just don’t understand. When Daje finds out she is pregnant with a boy, she is initially overjoyed, but then solemnly realizes that boys get shot, and her son might well have the same fate.
And yet the film is also filled with moments of extreme beauty, such as a shot of Daje asleep on a desk during in-school suspension, a poster of then President Obama behind her, literally looking down upon the girl, smiling as if to say “it’s all going to be alright.” And there’s Antonio’s tearful declaration after meeting his son, Ahkeem for the first time. He’s going to do everything for this boy, he says. He will get a job and give the child all the things he didn’t have. He swears it.
It speaks to the power of the filmmaking that there were moments when I wanted to shout at the screen, tell the counselors, the judges, the parole officers that these were good kids, that they were doing all they could to survive, and that they deserved a chance at life. It’s also a testament to the sincerity of the film’s subjects: these ambitious, resilient, beautiful human beings. For Ahkeem is an urgent, important, almost transcendent film, and among the best I’ve seen all year.
The film, which was screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, opens Friday at Facets and Cinemas Entertainment 10.