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Surviving the Inner City
Life in the inner city for children and adolescents is often precarious. Still, their fate isn’t predetermined—options for a more fruitful and stable life do exist. But it takes either a coherent, loving family, or the intervention of a caring outside institution like a school, or the assertion of a powerful individual will, to resist the street’s destructive culture.
Two recent films provide very different takes on growing up in the inner city. The less known and less popular film is directors/writers Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik’s extremely realistic video production, On the Outs—set in a gun and drug-ridden, squalid Hispanic and African-American section of Jersey City. Doing their research in the Secaucus Juvenile Detention Center, the directors and cast shaped their film from the stories of young women who had experienced the volatile lives enacted on film.
The film centers on three young women—all of them trapped in a cycle of alienation, violence, and self-destruction. The film is less notable as an exploration of individual character than as an evocation of a world devoid of hope.
The youngest of the three girls —Suzette— is a protected 15- year- old being brought up by a single mother who loves her. However, in rapid succession, Suzette becomes pregnant after her first sexual experience, and then falls into a gun-toting, brutal world of young street criminals—ultimately heading for prison. It’s all brought on by her smooth-talking, utterly callous, older drug dealer boyfriend whom she slavishly follows.
The second girl, Marisol, is a pathetic crack addict and single mother who loses the toddler she adores to her addiction. At the film’s conclusion, her only life choices seem to be suicide or a descent into further degradation.
The most together of the three girls is Oz—a corner drug dealer who exudes toughness and self-confidence and has the respect of the street. Oz is warm and motherly towards her retarded brother, but is almost undone by his death and her mother’s inability to break from her own drug addiction. Still, despite Oz’s feeling that there is no way out of this hell, the film offers us a glimmer of hope in the last scene— where we see her throwing away her drug stash while looking out at the Statue of Liberty. It’s a contrived and banal climax, but what one remembers is the film’s portrait of inner city adolescent life as one shrill agonizing scream of imprisonment.
The other film I saw, the very sweet and totally upbeat Mad Hot Ballroom, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, projects a totally different vision of being young in the inner city. When I viewed it at the Great Barrington Triplex, the appreciative audience applauded. The film focuses on a dance contest held each year for 5th-grade students at more than 60 New York City public schools. It is sponsored by American Ballroom Theater, which provides semester-long dance classes that culminate in a citywide competition dubbed "Colors of the Rainbow."
Mad Hot Ballroom concentrates on three schools—one in Manhattan’s upscale, trendy Tribeca, another in Brooklyn’s lower-middle-class Italian and Chinese- American Bensonhurst, and the third in upper Manhattan’s Dominican neighborhood— Washington Heights. The film spends time with the children in all three schools, but it’s the one in Washington Heights—the eventual contest winner—that leaves the most distinct impression.
There isn’t that much difference between the world of Washington Heights, and the one depicted in On the Outs. In the Washington Heights school, nine out of ten kids live below the poverty line, and many come from single parent families or are raised by grandparents. And the 11- year- old girls are fully conscious of the drug dealers and sexually predatory men that pervade the neighborhood’s streets.
But Mad Hot Ballroom is not a film that deals with the dark side of inner city life. The dancers are cute 11 year olds (and the film trades on the charm of the children as they, in turn, play to the camera), who have not been seduced by the street ethos. When the girls talk about future relationships with boys—they say they’ll be looking for the kind of boys who don’t use drugs and who will respect them. The neighborhood is seen only in daylight, and except for the sound of police sirens, the area seems filled with outdoor markets selling succulent fruit and men playing dominos on sidewalk tables—a vital, viable place to grow up in.
And the dance competition (despite a few of the teachers becoming a bit too emotionally invested) provides the children with confidence, discipline, and greater ease with the opposite sex. It’s a free program that makes New York’s ordinarily disparaged public school system and its teachers look first-rate, And the ethnic and racial diversity of the participants projects, at least, the illusion that the city is a racial and ethnic idyll.
Of course, there is no knowing what will happen to the Washington Heights kids once they reach adolescence. A few will probably be absorbed by the perniciousness of the street culture that surrounds them. But for the moment there is innocence, joy, and hope in the future.
Neither film pretends to give us a complete picture of the inner city. And there is no denying the dangers and social problems that confront the young on the streets of both Jersey City and Washington Heights. Still, Marisol’s fate in On the Outs is not the norm. The inner city kids in these films may have more limited alternatives than the sophisticated young of Tribeca, but possibilities of a better life do exist. They just need more institutional help, luck, and personal strength to achieve them.