Daje Shelton and her mother Tammy in juvenile court, as seen in For Ahkeem (The Orchard)

For anyone who has worked with inner city youth, Daje “Boonie” Shelton’s story will be familiar. In fact, despite the documentary’s focus on Daje’s personal experiences, the filmmakers manage to portray her as an everywoman of North St. Louis. However, during the filming, the racially and demographically determined predictability of her trajectory combines unexpectedly with the shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, giving this documentary its impact.

Filmed over the course of more than two years, the film opens with 17-year-old Daje heading into juvenile court after being once again expelled from school for fighting. The judge assigns her to a court supervised alternative school where he feels she’ll have the best chance of graduating. The Innovative Concept Academy was created in an effort to stop the school-to-prison pipeline that the public school system’s zero tolerance policy has fostered. Though resentful at first, Daje is driven to try to make a better future for herself and knows a diploma will better her further than a GED.

The ICA provides a caring and supportive environment, but rules are non-negotiable. Daje starts off doing well, but when she falls in love with a fellow student, her drive and focus shift. It takes an unplanned pregnancy to get her back on track, though her mother, angered that Daje’s has become pregnant, throws her out. She then moves in with her boyfriend’s family, but he has dropped out of school and winds up in jail after unwittingly climbing into a stolen vehicle with his friends.

Directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest do not spend time dwelling or explaining. They move through the incidences in Daje’s life matter-of-factly. The director of photography, Nicholas Weissman, pans with seeming indifference over neighborhoods of boarded up houses, empty store fronts, deserted streets, and students gathered to grieve at friends’ funerals. After one such event, Daje displays a scar from her own gunshot wound, but no details are provided.

When she sits in front of the TV, holding her child and watching events unfold not four miles away as riots break out after police are acquitted for Michael Brown’s death, the implication is obvious. Will she or her son be able to survive long enough to have a future? By revealing the everyday normalcy of injustice in North St. Louis, For Ahkeem provides a crystal clear view of how the deck is systematically stacked against people of color there and, by inference, in cities all over the country.

An important documentary that needs to be seen by a broad audience.

Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest
Released by the Orchard
USA. 90 min. Not rated