Being a teenager is tough. Especially now. Especially if you’re black.
Three recent documentaries have made that point. Jonathan Olshefski’s “Quest” shares 10 years in the life of a poor but determined and gifted African-American family in North Philadelphia. In the background, moments from three presidential elections and incidents of racial strife are broadcast on the news. The reality of violence intrudes tragically when their teenage daughter is shot.
Amanda Lipitz’s “Step” follows for several years the lives of three teenage girls in a special school in Baltimore. They have the advantage of a well-designed educational program that includes expert, empathetic counseling and a Step team — an African-American traditional form of dance and performance art. As the girls work hard to graduate and win an upcoming competition, personal difficulties and the crisis surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, in 2015, threaten to disrupt their goals.
Most recently, Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s documentary “For Ahkeem” begins a year before the 2014 turmoil that occurred in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Daje Shelton, a 17-year-old living in nearby North St. Louis, had been repeatedly disruptive in her high school; she and her mother anxiously set out to juvenile court to find out what the judge has decided. As they wait in the courtroom, they recite Psalm 23.
The judge gives Daje a second chance — to finish her courses and get her diploma by attending the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy (ICA), a school that complements its strict discipline and high standards with compassionate, hands-on counseling. At first, she is doubtful about the challenge; but encouraged by her mother, and with no other options, she agrees.
It’s not easy going. Having been singled out — unfairly, in her opinion — for classroom discipline since kindergarten, Daje adjusts with some difficulty to the new regimen. A boyfriend — the well-intentioned, sometimes wayward 17-year-old Antonio — complicates matters, as does the birth of her son, the Ahkeem of the title.
The news about the death of Brown and the subsequent protests and violence taking place just a few miles away in Ferguson enter this unstable situation, but instead of disrupting Daje’s focus it seems to intensify her efforts. She is no stranger to teenage boys dying violently; she grieves over the loss of many friends, and a fellow student is murdered during this time; we see the funeral. The senseless carnage angers her, but it also makes her aware that this might be the environment her son will be facing in a few years if she doesn’t do something to improve their situation.
Levine and Van Soest relate Daje’s story with an impressionistic intimacy, catching her in key moments, sometimes with diaristic voice-over narration. The film is edited with a subtle, elliptical economy that is equal parts poetry and direct cinema. It is also beautifully shot — images of the streets of Daje’s neighborhood at night wreathed by the sulfur-yellow of street lights speak to the poverty, but also show a community that people call home.
“For Ahkeem,” along with “Quest” and “Step,” reminds white audiences that it is not enough to agree that black lives matter, but that it is also necessary to try and understand how black lives are lived.
“For Ahkeem” can be seen on PBS’s “America ReFramed” on Tuesday at 8 p.m.