The press notes for Kevin Epps' new documentary begin with a bold claim: "Most San Franciscans, even long-time residents," Epps tells us, "have never spent even 5 minutes in the notorious, conveniently isolated neighborhood known as Hunters Point."
It might seem like he's goading an unspoken, politically incorrect comeback: From the looks of the place, who would want to? But Epps' agenda with Straight Outta Hunters Point 2, which closes out Black History month in a week-long run at the Roxie, is direct and sincere. He wants to show us the looks of the place.
An extension of its 2003 predecessor, his new film makes another roving expository survey of the battered community that Epps calls home. Unambiguously, it's a rough neighborhood. The scene set by Straight Outta Hunters Point 2 accords with the sickeningly common image of a black urban ghetto blighted by violence and cyclical despair. As one agitated interviewee says, "You ask me about my life. What's the point? Feel me?" On some level, this really is the ravaged, futureless 'hood.
The film doesn't flinch from authenticity. It lacks production values, and narrative coherence, but in an affecting way. A portrait too slick or tidily packaged would be at odds with the very rawness of this raw material. The standard of living here is not glossy, nor even, on many occasions, intelligible. With deadly violence looming and high school graduation rates plummeting, the mood is often funerary.
Epps does a lot of hanging out. Without always making proper introductions, he brings us around to greet the neighborhood: kids, cops, a kind-eyed minister, a bleary-eyed parent, a hard-eyed thug. We don't spend much time with any one person, and there is a lot of posturing, but everyone we meet seems crucially like a person and not just a type.
Lacking jobs, affordable housing, hope, health, some Hunters Point residents feel preyed upon from without by corporations, utility companies, and too-aloof city officials, just as they feel preyed upon from within by gangs. It is not hard to understand the sad-angry irony with which Epps calls the neighborhood "conveniently isolated." If it is too true that San Franciscans from other neighborhoods never visit this place, so it is the other way around: for some people, there's just no getting outta here.
Yet there is resiliency in Hunters Point, in the tireless grope for community, for positivity. It flickers unexpectedly, in a raucous street rally, say, or the rare contemplative quietude of a community garden (albeit one that feels as haunted as a cemetery).
He could have been wholly glib about this. He could have said, "Kevin Epps sets foot in Hunters Point so white folks don't have to." But the point of his film, and the reason it's a sequel, is the persistence to resist closing off -- to find, instead, some opening.
Straight Outta Hunters Point 2 plays Friday, February 24, through Thursday, March 5, at the Roxie in San Francisco. For tickets and more information visit roxie.com.