Aspen Ideas Festial: In ‘Romeo is Bleeding,’ a community finds hope in Shakespearean tragedy

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The documentary "Romeo is Bleeding" will play Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Romeo is Bleeding,’ presented by the Aspen Ideas Festival

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Sunday, June 26, 8 p.m.

How much: $12/public; included for Ideas Fest passholders

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

The deadly feud between the Montagues and the Capulets parallels a generation of conflict in a predominantly African-American Bay Area community in the documentary “Romeo Is Bleeding.”

The film, which screens at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday, June 26, centers on Donte Clark of Richmond, California, as he goes from drug dealer to city poet laureate. Clark finds the ability to express himself in an after-school poetry program. In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he discovers the story of his own violent home. “Romeo Is Bleeding” follows Clark and a group of talented high schoolers as they adapt the bard’s work into the Richmond-centric, slam-poetry-driven “Te’s Harmony.”

On the journey to opening night, the film offers a visceral portrait of a desperate community and the power of art to transform lives.

“I always envisioned myself being someone important,” Clark says early on in the film. “I wanted to be the biggest drug dealer in Richmond.”

In eighth grade, Clark started writing poetry with the local nonprofit Raw Talent. His first poem was good enough that fellow students assumed he stole it off the Internet. When he graduated from high school, he went to work for the organization to teach and inspire his peers. Clark, whose family history is entwined with the local turf war between North Richmond and Central Richmond, crosses boldly into enemy turf to teach and perform. “Romeo and Juliet” hits close to home.

“When I read it, I’m like, ‘That’s my life; that’s our life!’” Clark says.

For director Jason Zeldes, the play serves as an entry point into the tumultuous history of Richmond — from the segregation of black dock workers there in the 1940s to the crack epidemic of the 1980s to the recent adoption of “gang enhancement” laws that, the film suggests, allow local law enforcement to harass and arrest young black men with little justification. The city, with a population of 104,000, has seen 38,000 arrests since 2004.

“If that’s what you call a reduction in crime, I call that the extinction of a people,” Clark says in the film.

Zeldes — who edited the Academy Award-winning documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom” — found the story through his cousin, Molly Raynor, who co-founded Raw Talent, teaches in Richmond and is featured in the film. The film’s genesis came at their grandmother’s birthday party three years ago.

Clark and Ravner are both in town for Ideas Fest and will participate in a post-screening Q-and-A on Sunday at Paepcke Auditorium.

“She told me about how he was adapting ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and how closely it parallels the realities of Donte’s city,” Zeldes recalled in an interview last year when the documentary played at the Aspen Filmfest. “And it all sounded very cinematic to me, so I said, ‘Should I come with a camera?’”

On the first day of filming in 2012, a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond exploded, filling the air of the economically depressed and predominantly black community with toxic fumes. Rates of adolescent asthma in Richmond more than double the national average. Many point to the refinery as a cause.

“That opened up a can of worms about the bigger social-justice issues that are so at play in the city,” Zeldes said. “It was a really visceral reminder.”

Zeldes and his small crew ended up renting a Bay Area apartment for a year and filmed daily in the Raw Talent workshops and around Richmond.

“If you don’t build that trust with people, you’re not going to get very good access,” he said. “But the fact that we moved there, it proved to everyone we were following that we were serious about it. And that level of commitment comes through, as they’re willing to share some intimate and painful moments with us.”

The approach makes for an emotional viewing experience, culminating in the aftermath of a Raw Talent student’s murder.

“Romeo Is Bleeding” began making the rounds on the festival circuit last year as the “Black Lives Matter” movement and a national conversation about race, violence and inequality took hold.

“The film wrestles with this question of what role does art play in such a chaotic, unpredictable and often violent place?” Zeldes said. “For those who saw the play, it started a conversation, and it’s been picked up and carried on with the film.”

The filmmakers have additionally designed a school curriculum around “Romeo Is Bleeding,” which high school teachers can use to help students relate “Romeo and Juliet” to their own lives as Clark did in “Te’s Harmony.” The first schools using the curriculum are in Oakland and Los Angeles.

“It would be silly to make a film like this and not pursue an educational-impact campaign,” Zeldes said. “I think it can make a difference for students across the nation and be a tool for teachers to make a connection between students and classic texts.”

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