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It is reasonable to assume that Philadelphia native Samuel George, who has lived in Bologna, Italy, and Seville, Spain, and traveled extensively around Latin America in his role as a documentary filmmaker for the Bertelsmann Foundation, knows a little bit about cities. In 2011, when he moved to D.C. to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he quickly noticed that something seemed off, both in his Columbia Heights neighborhood and in other areas around the District.
“I remember feeling like everything was brand new and kind of fake. High-end restaurants and boutiques that were extremely expensive but didn’t have cultural depth or breadth. Luxury high rises that seemed out of place next to row homes,” George says. “For me, the history of a location is extremely important. I love feeling the roots of a place, and at first, I couldn’t recognize that history here.”
Even as a newcomer, George could easily perceive gentrification’s profound impact on D.C., and he wondered whether he, too, might be considered a gentrifier. And so he deliberately made an effort to learn about the city’s Black culture and communities. This led him to attend go-go shows, and over time, make connections with go-go artists, including EU’s Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott. Through them, he gained a greater understanding of his new city.
As he embarked on filming the documentary that would become the 2020 production Go-Go City: Displacement and Protest in Washington, D.C, George knew go-go would help him tell a broader story of how gentrification has eroded the District’s Black communities. “For me, this documentary really came from a place of love and anger,” he says. “The love was for the music … the city’s long-standing cultures, communities, and roots. The anger came from seeing the breakneck pace of gentrification erasing that; it just seemed to be knocking over everything that had been built over generations.”
In the late spring of 2020, George had already filmed sections of the documentary depicting how gentrification impacts small Black-owned family businesses, but his focus shifted in the days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd while other officers stood by and watched. As a result, Go-Go City spotlights the role that go-go played during that summer’s protests against systemic racism in policing. Go-Go City is part of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s documentary series; since its completion in late 2020, it has been shown at various events, community screenings, and festivals. On Sunday at 5 p.m., the documentary receives its broadcast premiere on Maryland Public Television, and subsequently, it will be available at no charge on the PBS website.
The protests he filmed near the White House are some of Go-Go City’s most riveting moments, as George captures the intensity of those demonstrations and all of their righteous fury.
“I thought it was relevant because there was a racial injustice aspect of the gentrification, and that was part of why people were so fed up,” he says. “Also the themes of placement and displacement are relevant when people occupy the street.”
Go-Go City moves between the protests and local developments that preceded them, including the Don’t Mute DC and Long Live GoGo movements that blew up in the spring of 2019 after one or more residents of a nearby luxury apartment successfully shut down the go-go music that had played for decades on speakers outside the Central Communications shop at 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW. The film also briefly documents the final days of Horace and Dickie’s, the beloved H Street fried fish carryout that was forced to close its doors in March of 2020 and relocate to Glenarden; the recent death of owner Richard “Dickie” Shannon makes this footage all the more heart-wrenching.
Part of what makes Go-Go City so compelling is the way it presents a distilled political, social, and cultural history of the District’s Black communities as crucial context for a look at gentrification’s wide-ranging impact. At just over 51 minutes, the doc doesn’t have much time for go-go’s remarkable history, focusing instead on how the music’s dynamic beat provided the soundtracks for many of those street protests. George ably connects the dots between systemic anti-Black racism and relentless gentrification, reminding viewers that just as Black lives matter, so, too, do Black neighborhoods and Black-owned businesses.
A skilled filmmaker who deftly juxtaposes images to underscore his themes, George also makes excellent use of interviews with Don’t Mute DC’s Ron Moten and Natalie Hopkinson, Long Live GoGo’s Justin “Yaddiyah” Johnson, anthropologist, community activist, and artist Sabiyha Prince, Backyard Band’s Anwan “Big G” Glover, Sugar Bear, Trouble Funk’s “Big” Tony Fisher, and others.
During the weeks that followed Floyd’s death, protests across the country seemed to suggest that America is finally ready for a reckoning on racial injustice and systemic anti-Black racism. In Washington, those protests were fueled by rage, defiance, optimism, and go-go, as bands played on flatbed trucks that moved through the city.
“These were protests against systemic racial inequality initially as expressed in the criminal justice system and with police brutality,” says George. “But they quickly expanded to include systemic injustices in other areas, such as employment, healthcare, and education. In Washington, D.C., I think one manifestation of that systemic injustice is in the process of gentrification, which pushes people, businesses and culture out. So, by using go-go, the community was quite literally leaning on the culture to make their presence felt in the street; to once again occupy streets that folks had been displaced from.
“In this sense the music in the streets was reaffirming; it was a statement that the culture still belongs here,” he adds. “And in that sense, it felt like a celebration as well as a protest; a celebration of the culture, and an affirmation that it is still alive and not going away.”
Go-Go City: Displacement and Protest in Washington, D.C. airs at Feb. 20 at 5 p.m. on MPT and streams on the PBS website after that.