Judge Dan Mancini says you can't go home again. Or maybe Thomas Wolfe said it. Whatever.
Neighborhood on the verge?
Stephanie Joshua is not a filmmaker by trade. That didn't prevent her from putting together a truly gripping short-form documentary. Bushwick Homecomings is about the radical transformation of Joshua's Brooklyn neighborhood from a hotbed of drugs, crimes, and poverty in the 1980s and '90s to a center of gentrification and urban renewal in the first decade of the 21st century. Joshua—who kept her head down and stayed out of trouble during her childhood and teen years, then went on to earn a degree in Applied Mathematics from Stony Brook University—returned to Bushwick as part of her work on a Master's thesis in Sociology from City College of New York and interviewed five men about life in the old neighborhood and the recent changes taking place. She then assembled her interviews, along with some framing material, into Bushwick Homecomings, a 37-minute documentary that made a splash at the Best of the African Diaspora and Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festivals, as well as winning documentary awards at both the Motor City International and Swansea Life Film Festivals.
As the film opens, Joshua deftly establishes Bushwick's history of economic depression beginning in the 1970s and the devastation of looting and arson during the New York blackout of 1977 that sent the neighborhood spinning into a downward spiral of poverty, drug dealing, and violent crime that culminated with the rise of crack cocaine (and its many associated social ills) in the 1990s. But when Joshua returned to her neighborhood from college, she discovered urban renewal, the construction of homes and businesses in lots that had been vacant her entire life, and a noticeable drop in violent crime. The rapid and radical transformation prompted her to explore the history of her childhood home, and to examine the sociological forces that had made Bushwick a breeding ground for tragedy and hopelessness when she was a kid. Why was Bushwick violent and crime-ridden during the '80s and '90s? Why was it changing now? Would the people who lived through the neighborhood's darkest days be able to find a place in the new Bushwick?
Joshua moves from her introduction to interviews of five men, all in their 20s or 30s, all lifelong residents of Bushwick. Each of the men is thoughtful, reflective, and honest. They tell stories that range from harrowing to depressing to genuinely funny. All of it is raw, evocative, and thought-provoking. The stories culminate in the men's reactions to the 2002 drive-by homicide of 23-year-old Mister "Poohbear" Smith, a good kid whose unnecessary death seems to have rocked the residents of Bushwick to their cores.
My only complaint about Bushwick Homecomings is really a backhanded compliment: I wish it were longer. While touching on a complex series of economic, sociological, socioeconomic, and racial topics, Joshua mostly maintains a detached objectivity that allows the men to tell their stories with a minimum of directorial commentary. Her framing material as well as an interview with Ric Curtis, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose research on the spread of AIDS among drug users in Bushwick has given him a keen understanding of both the history of the neighborhood and the lives of its residents, provide a modicum of sociological analysis. But Bushwick Homecomings is less interested in offering answers to the difficult questions that it poses, than giving voice to the neighborhood's residents. That's a strength, not a weakness, but the movie left me wanting to hear more of the what the men had to say.
Bushwick Homecomings looks like it was shot on consumer-grade video equipment. Some of the footage is rough, with weak color reproduction, poor detail, and a shaky, handheld feel. Much of it, though, is pleasing to the eye. Four of the five interviews are shot in daylight and sport a stable image with reasonably accurate colors. The transfer of the limited source is free of digital artifacts. Considering the interview footage wasn't originally shot for inclusion in a documentary, my critique is beside the point. The substance of this documentary is far more important than its style.
Supplements include a director's statement that provides information about the genesis of the film, a trio of brief interview reels that weren't used in the final documentary, and a trailer.
Cinephiles and fans of documentaries should make it their mission to seek out Bushwick Homecomings. It's well worth 37-minutes of your time.
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• Director's Statement
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