Independent Film Festival of Boston 2017: Street Fighting Men, by Sarah Brinks
Street Fighting Men is a documentary that takes a close-up look at three men’s lives in modern Detroit. Detroit is a city with a troubled past and a troubled present. It is a city that is struggling with poverty, drugs, and gang crime. Street Fighting Men takes a close look at how three men in modern Detroit are making it through day to day life over about a three-year period of time.
The first subject of the film is an ex-police officer named James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson. As a civilian, Jack Rabbit works as a tow-truck operator but what we mostly see is his life as an avid member of his neighborhood watch. Jack Rabbit has all the knowledge and skills he gained as a cop and he uses them in his efforts to keep his neighborhood safe. He drives around in his big, diesel truck and video tapes suspects, writes down suspicious license plates, and patrols the streets day and night. You see how his neighbors often call him instead of the police when they see suspicious things in their neighborhoods or when they need help. He is a kind man who looks out for the little guy and goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep his neighborhood safe. Jack Rabbit is the heart of the film and a fascinating subject in the film.
The second subject is a man named Deris Solomon. He is motivated at the start of the film by the birth of his daughter to turn his life around and get educated and find a good job. He starts off well with a group called Young Detroit Builders. But he falls back into old patterns and you see how he loses momentum, returns to a life selling drugs, and ends the film in prison.
The final subject is a man Luke Williams, who has sunk all his money and time into renovating an old, dilapidated house. With his dog as a side-kick he works tirelessly to fix up the house. He is often exhausted and he is frustrated with the theft in the neighborhood as he tries to fix things up. Tragically the house goes up in flames and he loses everything except his car and his dog. He does land on his feet working in an elder-care home but he has to hit absolute bottom first. We see him at the end of the film working on a new house that is even bigger than the one that burned down. Clearly he has a dream of owning a home in Detroit and he will not be deterred.
The timing of the film feels very pertinent after last year’s best picture winner, Moonlight, addressed very similar subject matter and as our president bemoans the problems in the inner cities without actually having a plan to help them. There are many conversations in Street Fighting Men about the cycle that leads people to deal drugs in order to feed their families and keep their homes. The emphasis that regular employment is essential to keeping people off the streets is a repeated theme throughout the documentary, as are the many reasons that people are not able to get those jobs whether it is a family at home or an invalid ID or an inability to read an application.
Street Fighting Men embraces some heavy subject matter but it shows the natural ebb and flow that exists in people’s lives. There are some really sweet moments with Deris and his baby daughter but there are some tragic moments too like when the drugs he is selling get stolen and he gets beaten up or him watching his friends graduate from Young Detroit Builders while he sits in the audience. After Luke loses his house he gets his dog back you see him completely break down as his dog licks his face and wags his tail. Luke tells his dog that they lost everything in the world in that fire, but at least they have each other. The single shot goes from happy to sad naturally.
Street Fighting Men is the first solo directing effort by director Andrew James. James proves his ability to make a competent and compelling documentary with Street Fighting Men. There is no real narrative to the film and no one ever speaks to the camera but it tells a clear story. James’ camera captures some moments of natural levity, some deeply touching moments, and some moments of real horror and sadness. James also catches some really beautiful shots like Luke lit by the firetrucks lights as they try to put out the fire in his house or Jack Rabbit fixing a kid’s bike.
If Street Fighting Men comes to theater near you it is worth your time to check out, especially if you liked Moonlight last year.