Judge Brendan Babish doesn't understand why these people fight so hard just to live in Ohio.
On the front lines of gentrification, there's no place like home.
Flag Wars, a documentary by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras, is a disturbing depiction of Olde Town East, a traditionally African-American working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The neighborhood is full of multiple-story homes, many of them dilapidated and populated by individuals and families unable to afford proper maintenance. Both real estate agents, who wish to buy the property, and public officials, who are unable to ignore the flagrant zoning violations, harass these inhabitants, whose numbers are clearly dwindling. Strangely enough, the new residents of Olde Towne East are predominantly white gays and lesbians, and are themselves escaping the intolerant attitudes towards their lifestyle that is prevalent throughout the rest of the state.
So what we have here is a neighborhood in which one repressed minority is being pushed out by another, slightly more affluent repressed minority. What's a bleeding-heart liberal to make of all this? There really are no easy answers, as the film effectively shows. There might not even be any answers, period; certainly nothing that would satisfy both communities vying to reside in Olde Towne East. To try to give us a better understanding of the human toll of gentrification, Flag Wars profiles several residents of the neighborhood, and presents them objectively, without commentary. Unfortunately, for those of us seeking to demonize those we disagree with, just about everyone comes off sounding reasonable.
Linda, an ill and seemingly aged (we find out at the end of the film she is not yet 40 years old) woman provides the emotional soul of the documentary. She lives in a particularly dilapidated house in Olde Towne East. She is clearly in violation of several zoning violations, not least of which is that she has three non-functioning vehicles on her lawn. Several times in the film Linda meets with Judge Pfieffer, an overworked government employee who has the power to condemn her property. Pfieffer is a prime candidate for antagonist in this film, if only he weren't so insufferably reasonable in granting Linda several extensions to clear up her violations. Of course the judge knows, Linda knows, and we know she has neither the means nor the will to bring her house to compliance. It is tragic, inevitable, and perhaps even reasonable, that this woman lose her home to wealthier tenants who will be able to better tend to the property.
Though others are profiled, Linda's predicament perfectly encapsulates the dilemma facing much of the neighborhood: several longtime residents are living in squalor, while potential buyers are lining up for the chance to turn their hovels into beautiful houses. Of course evicting a woman from her family home is unsavory business, but at some point doesn't negligence of one's property warrant such drastic action? That said, in the land of the free it somehow seems contradictory for the government to dictate home ownership requirements to private citizens; but then again, should the authorities wait until the house actually falls down to take action?
Further complicating the matter is the obvious group identities formed amongst the indigenous African-American population and new homosexual homeowners. In addition to the squabbles over rainbow flags and African tribal signs that the film depicts, towards the end of the documentary we hear of a spate of violence and thefts aimed at homosexual households. This is not surprising, but still disheartening.
With so much of the popular media being taken over by opinion journalism, in which simplified arguments are put forth with raised voices and pointed fingers, Flag Wars is a welcome voice of objectivity. Gentrification is an acrimonious issue that has become even timelier with the Supreme Court's ruling in 2005 affirming local government's authority to seize property to make way for private economic development. While Flag Wars may be used to support the arguments on both sides of the debate, it challenges them as well. The movie won't settle many arguments, but it will elevate the discourse; and that's just about all you can expect from a good documentary, which this surely is.
While Zeitgeist Films deserves credit for releasing this film on DVD, and maintaining its theatrical aspect ratio, a few extras would have been nice. Flag Wars was released in 2003; an update on Olde Towne East and/or some of the key figures profiled certainly be appreciated. I guess I'll just have to make do with Googling them instead. Still, I don't want to be too critical, lest anyone choose not to see this film because of its lack of extras.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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