Directed by Martin Bell
I really feel sorry for adults who think the United States of America is good for anything. How privileged & wilfully ignorant one must be to hold onto those myths in the face of stark reality. There’s not one single moment we can pinpoint as the event when it all went to shit, just mile markers of misery along the way. One of the most significant points in the nation’s history was the election of Ronald Reagan. The American public had already been suffering an extended period of intentional governmental failure and corporate takeover of what had previously been for the public good. The ascension of Reagan and his accompanying religious right-wing zealots secured America’s final descent into Hell, a pit each successive president has made sure we’ve stayed in.
I grew up homeschooled, a life chosen for me by two adults who were rightfully terrified by the rancorous, hateful world around them. Yet, instead of searching out ideologies & perspectives that pushed back against that darkness, they became part of the masses that cheered conservatism into power, frenzied howls in favor of restoring fascism. I grew up oblivious, and they even tried to foolishly continue keeping me blind by insisting I attend a private Christian college. It helped that my university was in the middle of Nashville, Tennessee, and was my first step in learning what this world truly was, what had been hidden from me for eighteen years by warped & irrelevant religious texts filtered through a lens of predatory capitalism & white supremacist nationalism. The United States is a festering pile of shit, and Streetwise is a condemnation of what we do to our children to appease our appetites.
In 1983, a Life magazine pictorial shot by Mary Ellen Mark was published. The text, written by Cheryl McCall, chronicled the lives of homeless youth living on the streets of Seattle, Washington. Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, was so moved by meeting these kids as he went out with his wife that he, in turn, made Streetwise, a documentary attempting to show what life was like for them. We meet Rat, a dumpster diver with ambition. There’s DeWayne, a fifteen-year-old in the body of a little child with the mannerisms of an old man who has seen too much. No one could forget Tiny, a fourteen-year-old sex worker who dreams of having a big family one day but spends most of her time servicing degenerate men. This documentary is an inquest of the American Dream, a hefty dose of truth to cut through the fantasia we’re force-fed from birth about the exceptional nature of the country.
If you’ve followed my blog, you know I was an elementary school teacher for over a decade. I still write and sell educational supplements aimed at that 2nd-5th grade block I loved to teach. So when I watch a film like Streetwise, I can’t help but feel profound despair & rage. Nothing surprises me in this picture, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t slash deep into my soul to watch it happen. We can know of horrors, but seeing them play out in real-time is entirely different. Unfortunately, very little has changed to prevent these things from happening. Social services are still underfunded, case workers are still being burnt out on overwhelming caseloads, and any existing programs hand out a pittance compared to the investment needed to end the problems. It’s relatively hard to profit from helping children when you are a corporation; they don’t have jobs, so they can’t pay you. This is why pediatric ICU beds are being cut in the United States at this moment despite an ongoing respiratory plague that is sending more & more kids into hospitals.
Streetwise is a series of fragments: interviews, conversations, and spontaneous interactions on the street. The purpose is not to tell a narrative or clean character arcs but to paint a picture of life for children living in the underbelly of a wealthy society. There were a lot of cops back then and even more now. Police have been handed homelessness as if they can do anything to solve a problem other than shooting at it. It’s the same with drug addiction. These are not concerns of public safety but of human dignity. Public safety only seems to apply to the nice white middle-class or wealthier families. The security of poor families always comes second or not at all.
Here are some of the moments we are allowed to witness:
DeWayne visits his dad in the county lock-up, the elder trying to be “fatherly” and eventually yelling at his world-weary son over nothing. The two are reunited at the documentary’s conclusion when the father attends his son’s funeral. DeWayne hangs himself a few days short of his sixteenth birthday when it becomes clear his chronic medical conditions will worsen over time.
Lulu, a young lesbian/possibly trans or gender fluid, shouts down intimidating men she sees threatening other young women. Lulu will be your hero by the end of this film. Sadly, she was stabbed to death at an arcade two years later while…you guessed it, defending another young woman from a violent man. That shit certainly hasn’t improved since 1983. Young men are still conditioned to be violent with young women. How many presidents have we been through since then? Are they doing anything other than enriching weapons manufacturers at this point?
A shouting match between a well-meaning street preacher trying to raise money for a homeless shelter and a Black homeless youth that has learned not to trust any white man he meets (and honestly, why should he?). It’s a heartbreaking exchange that showcases how capitalism has won in the U.S. by ending any chance of meaningful solidarity among those who need it the most.
Erin “Tiny” Blackwell is the center of many moments that will stay with you. She’s so childish in her behavior because she was a baby when they filmed this. We watch her get in the car of the same old degenerate fuck who picks her up on the street. One moment shows her getting in and then immediately dropping her head below the view of the passenger window, where we can assume she is performing oral sex on the man. There’s her talking about her dreams for her life. Rat is kindling a relationship with Tiny, only for her to watch him kissing another girl just feet away days later. Then him hugging and abandoning her in the juvenile detention center, doing what every man who would come in & out of her life did.
This isn’t a film about explaining why the problems exist but about showing the people caught up in them with honesty & beauty. These are incredible children who deserved so much more than the shithole of a society they were born into was willing to offer. These tableaus of human misery are why I am a communist. I can’t accept any system predicated on the survival of the fittest because that leaves out droves of vulnerable humans that deserve to live with dignity. If to achieve this, if to prevent children from selling their bodies to disgusting men, if to prevent children from digging through trash to find a few morsels of food, if to prevent children from getting stabbed to death or dying from AIDs, it means we have to throw some millionaires and billionaires into the old wood chipper, well then so fucking be it.
There is nothing exceptional about America aside from the exceptionally delusional mindset of the population. This is why I couldn’t keep lying if I were to teach children again. I won’t pile on horrors they can’t handle, but I will speak to them honestly. I will not sugarcoat or defend an economic, religious, and governmental system that does not have them or the people they care about’s best interests at heart. The very reason why so many people’s lives get tossed into landfills every day in America is predicated on the fact that we do not talk to each other honestly about what is going on. Instead, we cling to the toxic positivity, clapping our hands to show “we do believe in capitalism.” The homeless serve as a warning for the rest of us, made destitute so that the institutions in power can cow us into killing ourselves over often meaningless labor.
Fuck the United States. Let it burn.