'Romeo Is Bleeding': Film Review

Courtesy of Rooftop Films
A surprisingly moving account of self-expression in a desperate town.

Inheritors of an ancient feud seek meaning in Shakespeare.

The Bard is a MacGuffin in Romeo Is Bleeding, a doc about African-American high schoolers in a violence-afflicted Bay Area community who see parallels to their lives in Romeo and Juliet and, in the course of adapting the play, find opportunities for self-expression. Jason Zeldes, an editor on Twenty Feet from Stardom, makes an accomplished debut as director here, delivering a film whose polished aesthetic matches its social import and potent emotions. It will be a standout on the fest circuit and deserves some big-screen time before moving to video.

Donté Clark is the catalyst here, a former drug dealer who "came to think of hustlin' as killin' your own people." There is no shortage of killing in Richmond, California, where the neighborhoods of North Richmond (Clark's home) and Central Richmond have been warring for so many years that teens don't even know the origins of the feud. Clark recalls being bored the first time he had to read Romeo and Juliet, before seeing how its drama reflected his own: He reads the play's introduction in Zeldes' opening scenes, with news footage of Richmond turf wars playing like a nonfiction echo of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 take on the play.

After he discovered a gift for writing and spoken word performance, Clark was recruited by teacher Molly Raynor to mentor others in an organization called RAW Talent. The film follows a year in that program's life, as Clark helps younger students reshape the saga of Montagues and Capulets in their own image — scrapping original characters and language but retaining its core. (Nobody mentions West Side Story here, but surely Raynor showed it to the group at some point.)

While the play's the thing that gives the movie shape, it's far from the point here. Rather, it's an opportunity to see how being encouraged to write and speak publicly transforms Clark and peers like D'Neise Robinson. Several times we watch fierce, penetrating soliloquies (unrelated to the Shakespeare project) about race, violence and entrenched class barriers; at poetry slams, Clark comes across as an energized Gil Scott-Heron with no time for streetwise cool.

Statistically, that's certainly true: Clark is still very much in danger of being killed in his own front yard, despite having removed himself from the criminal game. In between visits with cops and elders who flesh out the picture of North/Central strife, Zeldes hits us with painful news of its casualties, several of whom he spoke to on camera before their deaths. Inevitably, these killings work their way into the play's narrative; movingly, it's not always in ways you expect.

Production companies: Leo Persham Productions, Circadian Pictures

Director: Jason Zeldes

Producer: Michael Klein

Director of photography: Rajiv Smith-Mahabir

Editors: Kevin Klauber, Jason Zeldes

Music: Michael Seifert, Jake Fader

Sales: Preferred Content

No rating, 93 minutes

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