If Welcome to Durham never truly forges any new paths towards understanding and solving the problems of African-American youth gang culture in urban America, it’s not for lack of heart or determination. Both a love letter to a blighted city and a plea for the same city’s youth to turn both themselves and their home around for the better, this earnest little documentary is best viewed as a work of local activism rather than a film proper. It’s the sort of program that should be shown in schools and on local cable stations rather than at film festivals. It’s a film about a specific place and time and it’s clearly for a very specific audience situated within that place and time. Though at the end it strives for universality, Welcome to Durham‘s true strength manifests itself precisely in its local focus.
Produced by Durham DJ/Producer Mike “Nice” Wilson and Christopher “Play” Martin (not the leader of Coldplay, mind you, but the Play half of Kid n’ Play fame – he also directs), Welcome to Durham mostly progresses along a familiar course. We are presented with a brief history of the city of Durham, North Carolina; from its founding in the mid-19th century, through its economic apex as a center of the tobacco trade, to its current composition as a city divided along race and class lines.
During the first half of the 20th century, Durham was notable for its vibrant and successful African-American community, the Hayti District near the city’s center. The home of numerous African-American businesses, restaurants, arts centers, clubs, hotels and banks for decades, it was also a natural center of civil rights activism in the ‘60s. And yet, ironically, it was just at the end of the ‘60s that the entire district was razed to make way for a freeway. The resultant fragmentation, while not necessarily leading directly to the current state of affairs in Durham, is at least symbolic of, if not exactly instrumental in, creating the city as it is today.
And so to delve into the city’s current make-up, Welcome to Durham shifts mostly into standard interview mode; surveying the scourge of gangs in the city via a chorus of diverse, but not necessarily disparate, voices. The usual suspects found in such documentaries emerge: gang members; community leaders; police officers; ex-gang members trying to go straight; teachers; parents of victims of gang-related violence; local rappers. And though separated by economic background, worldview, and various degrees of eloquence and erudition, the same ideas emerge among them all as to the reasons for the ubiquity and escalating violence of gangs: broken homes; lack of education; proliferation of guns; reinforcement by reporting in the media; rap; and on and on.
The film is less interested in shedding a unique light on this state of affairs than in simply bringing up issues and concerns that have been articulated over and over before, in other similar films, programs, news stories, and articles. What is of prime significance, though, is that the focus always remains squarely on Durham itself. The film doesn’t try to veer off into some socio-cultural investigation towards universal root causes, but rather, it tries to dig solutions out of this locale where the problems have taken root. And thus the solutions that are offered up are just as mundane and common sense as you’d expect, but the hope is that by continuous reiteration, something will finally stick and hold fast.
Martin, who appears to be a minister, spends a good amount of time on religion as a substitute for the discipline and order that youths are finding in gangs. Education is trotted out, as always, though perhaps in vain. But the most hopeful avenue for effecting positive change is in Durham’s burgeoning music scene. Wilson is the ringleader of an outfit called the Butta Team, which has operated for a decade as both a production house for local rappers and as a group of community organizers, trying to lure the youth off the streets and out of the gangs via their love of rap. Though perhaps ultimately futile, this notion that music can be activist, can act as a positive centripetal force within a community, rather than merely a reflection of the bleak state of things, is at least noble in its idealism.
And so, like I said, all of this, for the most part, is rather unremarkable. But where Welcome to Durham gets really interesting is in some of the curious asides and off hand remarks several interviewees make throughout the film. Though on its surface the film sounds to be unconditional in its assumption of the severity of Durham’s gang problem, listen to what some of the people questioned – gang and civic leaders alike – say in passing: Well, yes, we’ve got our problems, but they are really no worse than anywhere else. You read about shit going down in the papers, or hear about it on the news, you never really see anything all that bad on the streets, no matter of the neighborhood or time of day. Yes, things can definitely change for the better, but it’s not like the city is poised to descend into utter chaos.
At first, all this sounds like the sort of specious vaguely myopic boosterism you’d hear from a mayor, or a police chief, who wouldn’t want to admit the severity of the gang problem to the camera, or would at least choose to look on the positive side at the expense of reality. But look at who actually are making these comments: Vick, the sagacious barber whose shop is right smack dab in the middle of the worst part of the hood; numerous ex-gang members (many of whom sporting severe wounds from bullets); teachers on the front lines.
At first I found these testaments curious and contrary to Welcome to Durham’s whole thesis, but then I realized that the film was savvier than it presents itself at first, and that it was calling into direct question how me make the assumptions we do about African-American youth, gangs, urban decay, etc.—assumptions propitiated by films and programs just like this one. It’s like the film is at once calling us to look directly at the problem and take it head-on, but also telling us that we shouldn’t just take its word that there IS actually a problem. It’s a pretty ballsy move, and, intentional or not, goes a long way to giving Welcome to Durham the extra moral oomph it needs to stand out and make a case for its necessity and importance within at least its own community.