As long as documentary filmmaker Michelle Parkerson can remember, the 14th Street NW corridor has divided black D.C. and white D.C. Today’s small businesses along the corridor are mostly black-owned, but there was a time when the neighborhood’s black residents shopped at stores largely run by whites until April 4, 1968, the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The 14th Street corridor went up in flames, forever changing the racial and economic landscape of the strip.
Parkerson, 45, has set out to chronicle the story of that night and the three days of rioting that ensued. The award-winning filmmaker’s best-known work, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lord, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. For her latest project, tentatively titled 14th Street: 1968-1998, Parkerson gathered 10 teenagers from Martha’s Table, the nonprofit community center, and fed them a steady diet of documentary film throughout the summer, from MTV’s Real World to Eyes on the Prize, immersing them in the craft of documentary filmmaking. With a $20,000 grant from Woolly Mammoth Theater’s Outside Woolly project, Parkerson has taught the kids, who range in age from 14 to 18, the basics of linear editing, camera operation, and interview techniques at DCTV’s studios.
The students, Parkerson explains, spent three days meeting with “local heroes and sheroes” in the neighborhood. For 10 weeks afterward, they turned their experiences from those three days into five- to eight-minute “minifilms,” which Parkerson is stringing together into one half-hour-long documentary.
The involvement of teenagers is crucial, she says, because it lends a more honest perspective to the story. “A lot of the energy of the riots was galvanized around 14- to 18-year-olds,” says Parkerson, in the immaculate 13th Street NW office that doubles as her home. The filmmaker waves her hands wildly as she vents her frustration over the typical portrayal of the corridor on the local news and in the mainstream press. “14th Street means drugs, guns, pathologies of all forms,” she observes. “Why doesn’t the beauty of the street reach the air?” —Guy Raz
14th Street: 1968-1998 is scheduled to premiere on Oct. 24 at Woolly Mammoth Theater.