What was supposed to be a documentary about Dorchester residents enrolled in a humanities course turned into an exploration of racism, violence, and justice in Boston…
In 2014, Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler enrolled in a night course offered at a Dorchester community center. It was The Clemente Course in the Humanities, a nine-month rigorous curriculum that includes Aristotle, Kant, Plato, Woolf, DuBois, and Shakespeare, and that encourages students to read critically and think analytically about the texts they encounter. The Course, started in 1995, is offered to low-income adults who have experienced barriers to traditional education. Both Dixon and Chandler entered the Course with a distrust in educational institutions, but were eager to learn and participate. (Chandler was later elected class graduation speaker.)
James Rutenbeck, a white filmmaker from the suburbs, had the intention to simply document the Clemente Course in Dorchester, and to better understand the impact of this academic curriculum on the community. But he discovered much more than students just interacting with the great works of literature. Instead, he found students grappling with the realities of racism, homelessness, violence, and gentrification that surround them, students who face existential threats every time they stepped out of the classroom.
“I had first imagined Reckoning as an observational film,” writes Rutenbeck in his director’s statement. “I conceived it as a year in the lives of students in the Clemente Course, a rigorous tuition-free night class in the humanities. I vowed to keep my distance and let the students tell their own stories. But…I’d been struggling with the film. My editing attempts, however focused, seemed to be leading nowhere. Despite several workshop screenings, I was at a loss.”
Rutenbeck quickly abandoned his intended project, and instead committed to listening and following the stories of Dixon and Chandler instead, and let them lead him to the story that needed to be told. He accompanied Dixon to housing court after she was evicted, and met others there in danger of losing their housing. Rutenbeck also witnessed firsthand Chandler’s uncertainty in keeping his housing as well. “Although I had planned to anchor the film in the personal transformations of the Clemente students, I came to realize ever-present structural racism was something I could no longer ignore,” writes Rutenbeck. “I hadn’t really understood the lives of low-income people of color and had failed to recognize my own complicity in the structures that were holding them back.”
He eventually brought them on as collaborators and producers, and together they investigate what they believe is a reckoning coming to the city of Boston. Says Dixon of Rutenbeck, “It is only through the life experiences of Carl and I that James has become aware of his blind spots.”
The Boston Book Festival is proud to partner with Mass Humanities to bring a free screening of A Reckoning in Boston to our 2021 Festival. Join us Friday, October 22, at 7:00pm for a virtual screen of the documentary, then join filmmakers James Rutenbeck, Kafi Dixon, and Carl Chandler for a post-screening discussion at. 8:20pm, moderated by Rep. Liz Miranda. Watch the trailer below, then register to see the film, and attend the post-screening discussion.