There’s a strange dichotomy at play in For Ahkeem, a documentary that follows a 17-year-old African-American girl from the St. Louis area. It begins with the girl, Daje Shelton, being court-ordered to attend an alternative high school after committing unspecified infractions. “There are zero options,” the judge tells Daje and her mother. She insists that she cares about school and wants to make her mother proud, but she’s not exactly a model student there, either, seemingly stuck believing the notion that she’s a bad kid.
Daje falls in love with Antonio, another student who feels that attending classes is optional and not for him. And further into the film, Daje gets pregnant. Before this point, one of her classmates is murdered, and while with friends she rattles off a list of black teens who were also the victims of fatal violence. Daje then gives birth right after the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson riots. In voiceover, Daje tells her son, Ahkeem, that although people think he’s cute now, they will view him differently later on in life. Even Antonio has a serious talk with Daje in which he points out that it’s likely he’ll die young.
The arrival of Ahkeem should have delayed Daje’s goals, but she meets them anyway. Antonio is less successful, but he’s determined “to be the best father that [he] can.” So what’s the message that co-directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest—two white men—are trying to convey?
On one hand, Daje and Antonio’s situation seems optimistic—merely the fact that they’re an actual, loving couple is a head start. But there’s a larger implication that Ahkeem will fail to escape the cycle of not finishing his education and leading a life dominated by legal troubles and violence. The film’s final words may be hopeful, with Daje telling the infant Ahkeem that she wants him to be a good kid, “the way I’m trying to raise you.” And Levine and Van Soest fill their documentary with lyrical imagines—balloons drifting, sunlight peeking through strands of Daje’s hair—as well as profound moments of quiet. Perhaps it’s because the Black Lives Matter movement is too immediate, but none of this beauty can permeate the feeling of dread.
Why the filmmakers luckily chose Daje to begin with is unknown; her eventual story arc was written for the movies. And although you want to know what will become of her, they also leave details a little too vague to communicate what’s going on. We don’t know why she was kicked out of her regular high school. When she’s disciplined at her new one, the reason is no more specific than “trouble.” Her lack of concern makes it difficult to believe that she does care about succeeding, as she claimed at the film’s start. She tells a school counselor, “Not everybody can be helped.” When Daje gets pregnant and starts going for sonograms, though, she becomes a different person, happy to the point of giddiness. The best conclusion one can draw is that even when a person is facing terrifying odds, a little sunlight can still peek through.
For Ahkeem opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.