by Megan Champion
The movie opens up with a view across the St. Johns River where we see downtown Jacksonville, in the background a thuggish harmony streams the lyrics, “Duval County MotherF-R where the gats be,” as views from all over the city pop in like gun shots to the beat of the music. Directed by Frank B. Goodin II and Bernardo Santana III with Executive Producer Melissa Ross, The 904 is a documentary about the crime in Jacksonville.
Like an informal introduction for what will come, we see images flash by of everything from half- dressed kids in the projects to men in khakis and boat shoes walking in affluent shopping areas. Bits of courtroom footage, yellow and blue lights bouncing off ramshackle houses and police tape, dirty fingers roll blunts of marijuana, interviews with the deplorable and the disadvantaged stream together while the rapper spouts smoothly “Gun shots wake me up in the mornin’ I ain’t even got set no alarm.”
Que statistic: “Jacksonville, Florida – Area Code: 904 – Florida’s murder capitol for the last ten years.”
The continuity of the storytelling is never interrupted by a narrator or reporter which allows us from the beginning to settle into the business of learning who these people are. People such as Richard Collier, a former Jaguars player who sits in a small room, his #76 jersey in the foreground as he gives an account of what happened the night he suffered 14 gunshot wounds, an attack that would cost him most of his left leg, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Another victim we get know is Brian Martin, local business owner, being prepped for yet another surgery. Given an 8% chance to live after his first operation, he chuckles ironically at the thought of going under again. Surgeons still work to repair damage done in a confrontation at his storefront on the Westside that forever changed the way he looks at life.
There’s Beverly McClain, who was driven to start Families of Slain Children, because of the loss her son, his body pulled from the Ribault River after being shot. In her darkest hour, she decided to help others like her and try to prevent more deaths with outreach programs.
On the other side of things, we meet Gerald Dove, a former drug dealer who introduced crack onto the streets of Jacksonville and served three terms in prison. He shakes his head and says “we’re sittin on a powder keg” as he discusses the urgency for things to change.
And a photo of a little girl who stands, hands on her hips, full of moxie; a spirited grin pushing up her plump cheeks. This is Dreshawna Davis, on her 8th birthday, who we learn dies from stray bullets only months later.
One after another, we watch the lives of individuals from all walks of life who have been affected by these violent crimes. Some of the stories are controlled accounts of facts, some of them are tearful outpourings of pain that pull at your heartstrings. You can’t help but grieve with these people.
Brief interviews with child workers, elected officials, community services, activist and professors all have a system-worn tone. The statistics show there is an issue. Everyone has an opinion about how best to solve it and where the problem is coming from. These opinions are portrayed dramatically in a short bit of comic relief by Al Letson of NPR as he jaunts across the screen carelessly shoving Doritos into his mouth as he recites a letter from a Florida Times Union reader suggesting the police simply allow the thugs to shoot it out, last man standing wins.
The film has rays of hope, highlighting initiatives like the clean, brightly painted, Youth Life Learning Center sponsored by former Jaguar player, Tony Boselli. Here they focus on giving kids a safe place to be after school and teaching them simple values about making good choices.
Many people watching the film may question the length of certain cuts and the reason for others, but these things are minor; the documentary was well done.
It leaves you with a sense of urgency, a personal feeling of responsibility and the thought that possibly your small part can make a difference; maybe on a political level, maybe in the streets.
Were things left out? Yes. The point is to give you a glimpse into a reality many of us have not seen, which it does well.
Jacksonville Film Festival Saturday Highlight
by Megan Champion