The audience was silent as “The Wire’s” Michael Kenneth Williams appeared on screen across from four incarcerated young people. In the barbershop-like room, they opened up about their time in and out of the juvenile justice system, some starting as young as age 12.
“I was 15 years old,” Jabar told Williams in the documentary, “Raised in the System.” “Just five years [after] I was believing in Santa Claus. I mean, I’m going on three years—and I got 50 more.”
Issues of youth incarceration, community violence and police brutality were highlighted last Friday night at the Sankofa Film Festival, Dauphin County’s first African American film festival.
The evening featured Williams’ and activist Dominic Dupont’s documentary, “Raised in the System,” and the novel-turned-film, “The Hate U Give.” Even though the event was just two days after Christmas, the State Museum of Pennsylvania was packed with people waiting to see the films.
The festival opened with “Raised in the System,” which showed the causes and effects of the mass incarceration of young people. According to the documentary, as many as 200,000 juveniles have been tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults in the United States. Those featured in the film said that crime was all they knew growing up.
“I don’t know how to be a doctor because there are no doctors in my community,” one of the young people said. “I don’t know how to be a lawyer because there are no lawyers in my community. All I know are gangsters.”
Williams himself grew up around violence in his neighborhood of East Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y. Though he never went to prison, he began visiting people he knew in prison since he was 17, he said.
Things were different for his “The Wire” co-star Felicia Pearson, aka “Snoop,” who appeared in the documentary. Pearson talked about how growing up around drugs, gangs and limited resources ended up with her getting a second-degree murder charge at age 15.
“I’m thinking I got to go to war as soon as I get in here because I’m locked up with adults,” she said. “This ain’t no place that a child is supposed to grow up.”
The documentary highlighted some of the issues these young people faced, but also some of the programs and people who are trying to help. There was an Ohio judge who makes it her mission to try to keep juveniles out of incarceration and “Pay for Peace” in Richmond Calif., where youth can earn up to $1,000 a month for community work and good behavior.
“We put all those things against young people,” Williams said. “We have become a nation that criminalizes adolescence.”
A panel discussion followed the documentary, featuring Williams, Dupont and Johntrae Williams, local filmmaker and founder of 3atrical Productions. The three talked about their past run-ins with the law and what they learned since filming and watching “Raised in the System.”
Dupont, who was featured in the documentary, served over 20 years in prison before he was granted clemency. Since being released two years ago, he has worked with Williams, local law enforcement, juveniles, community members and others to try to create or get involved with programs that target at-risk youth. He even joked that he spent more time in prison speaking out against youth violence and mass incarceration than he did when he was serving time.
They then opened the floor to the audience for questions. One attendee shared how he was in and out of prison for 22 years before turning his life around, and another asked Williams how he went from a kid in the streets of Brooklyn to an Emmy-nominated actor.
“Instead of me worrying about how I got here, God asked me, what am I going to do with this?” he replied.
The next screening was “The Hate U Give,” based on the book by Angie Thomas of the same title. The film follows the fictional tale of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), whose friend Khalil (Algee Smith) was shot and killed by a police officer while he was unarmed. The killing becomes national news and, from there, the film tackles racial tension, the failures of the criminal justice system, protests, riots and more.
“To see it and to hear these kids, the same age as my son, I have a 17-year-old, then I also have a 9- and 8-year-old, and to hear what they’ve encountered and what they’re living through, and how one mistake can not just ruin but alter the course of things so intensely, it’s just so heartbreaking,” said audience member Manuela Hooper.
Along with the film, the festival featured many local vendors such as The Cupcake Lady, Reign & Tay’s Lemonade and the Harris Family Brewery, as well as numerous community groups.
Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick gave the Sankofa team a special recognition by declaring Dec. 27 Sankofa Film Festival day in the county.
“Tonight was inspirational,” he said. “The ability to partner with Sankofa and bring real-life history to the stages of Harrisburg and making sure the African American experience is represented in a real way is a true blessing.”
For more information on the Sankofa Film Festival, visit www.sankofatheatrehbg.com.