'Pahokee' Has A Levity and Warmth Often Lost In Documentaries Depicting Black Rural Life [Sundance Review]

January 28th 2019

For years, inner city Black life has been a focus in cinema in both the narrative and documentary sectors. Movies like Menace II Society and Hoop Dreams were marketed as the sole depictions of the African American experience. However, in recent years—particularly in documentaries like the Oscar-nominated Hale County, This Morning, This Evening —there have been numerous illustrations of rural Black life. With their film Pahokee— directors Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan join a new class filmmakers including RaMell Ross, Amman Abbasi, and Margaret Byrn in examining present-day Black life in some of the country’s most rural areas.

Located on the shore of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County, Florida and boasting a population of just under 6,000 people Lucas and Bresnan turn their lens on the town of Pahokee. The audience is given a front row seat as the tiny, close-knit community experiences the highs and lows of the 2016-2017 school year. Out of a class of 103 seniors at the Pahokee Middle-High School, Pahokee follows four students, Na’Kerria Nelson, Jocabed Martinez, BJ Crawford and Junior Wallace who are all navigating their way through their final days of adolescence.

Unlike many documentary films that examine impoverished people of color like Phantom Cowboys or Quest, Pahokee does not peel back the layers of the students' personal lives. Instead, the documentary centers the high school, its numerous extracurricular activities, and the frenzy of Homecoming, the Football State Championship, college acceptance, signing day and graduation.

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The film opens with Na’Kerria Nelson, a popular cheerleader campaigning for 2016's Ms. Phokee High School. We watch as Na’Kerria and her friends attempt to corral their classmates, making posters for her campaign and promising completed homework in exchange for votes. Bright-eyed, Na’Kerria's maturity shines through, whether she’s at school, her job at one of the local chicken spots, or trying to assess the steps she needs to take to begin a career in nursing.

Like Na’Kerria, Jocabed Martinez—one of the school’s Mexican American students—is also looking toward the future. Crowned Ms. International Baccalaureate at Homecoming Court, Jocabed is earnest and determined, often seen helping her parents at their taco shed or hanging with her sisters or obviously smitten beau.

Though Jocabed and Na’Kerria already have many of the responsibilities and coping mechanisms needed to endure adulthood, in many ways, drum major Junior Walker is already a man. Tall and rail thin, when he’s not commanding the Pahokee High School band, he’s playing patiently with his infant daughter, watching her like a hawk and indulging her at the park on the county fair. The child's mother is neither seen nor mentioned on screen. Meanwhile, BJ Walker, a center on the high school's football team, weighs his options for college while his father urges him to come up with a plan B in case football doesn’t pan out.

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Though the responsibilities of the real world are looming, Pahokee is distinctive because it allows these teens to be children, to cling to their last carefree days without crucifying them for it. The community rallies behind the kids during football games, promposals and signing day. Prom in and of itself is a spectacle. For Pahokee, the most crucial dance in high school becomes a world-class event, with Lamborghinis, Mercedes, and glamorously-made dresses placed on display at the town park.

Though the directors shape the narrative, Na’Kerria, Jocabed, Junior and BJ, speak for themselves, using personal confessionals to share only what they want with the world. Despite any curiosity the audience or the filmmakers might have about their home lives, fears or secrets, they are never exploited or pushed to reveal anything more than they are willing to give.

This made the tone of Pahokee refreshing, though almost unsettling. Seeing so much Black pain and terror on display in documentaries for decades has fostered a sense of anxiety. More than once during Pahokee, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe that never drops.

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The levity of Pahokee doesn’t take away from some of the real hardships that many of the town's citizens face. In between the Christmas parade, pep rallies, and Easter egg roll, the real world rears its ugly head. Shots from the farming fields and fishing docks serve as transitions in between scenes. This is the bleak fate that awaits the high school seniors who don’t commit to a college, trade school, or the Army. On Easter Sunday, as the children eagerly participate in a church egg roll and play blissfully in the town’s park,  gunshots ring out, reigning terror on the calmness of the day. Also, a painful loss for the football team threatens to temper the euphoria of the school year.

And yet, Lucas and Bresnan refuse to sit in the cruelty and unfairness that awaits many of those leaving Pahokee Middle-High School. Instead, unlike many documentaries that turn a lens on Black life, Na’Kerria, Jocabed, Junior and BJ, are allowed to be in their teenhood. Adultification is kept at bay, at least for now. Though real-world concerns linger in the back of their minds —the students press forward in the excitement of their final year of high school. Bursting with energy, it is a brief time that seems to keep the community and its children clinging to hope and looking toward the future.

Pahokee was reviewed at Sundance on January 27, 2019.

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide 

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