Fun fact: I was expelled from preschool at age 4 during a brief stint when my mother and I had moved to Dallas. From the little I recall, I was one of very few black students at my private day school. My expulsion came after I defended myself against another little girl—not black—who’d been harassing me for days. Apparently, after I’d told her repeatedly to stop touching me, I bit her when she once again dared to. I didn’t break the skin, but I was the only one punished. Again: I was 4.
Accordingly, as an adult, I’ve taken a very personal interest in the treatment of black children in schools, and was struck when I heard these words from Daje Shelton, the 17-year-old heroine of the award-winning 2017 documentary For Ahkeem, recently released on Amazon Prime Video: “People been labeling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to do anything; they just expect it.”
Directed by Emmy Award-winning duo Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest, For Ahkeem is the story of Daje’s coming of age in St. Louis as the unrest in nearby Ferguson, Mo., reaches a boiling point.
We first encounter Daje as a so-called bad kid mandated to attend a court-supervised alternative high school, where she is a junior trying to navigate adolescence in her often crime-ridden community. Over the course of the year and a half covered in For Ahkeem, we watch her struggle to prove that she can overcome the odds while losing peers to gun violence, falling in love for the first time with boyfriend Antonio, trying to graduate from high school and observing the events in Ferguson, while simultaneously processing the challenges of teenage motherhood and the dangers of birthing a black boy in America when she becomes pregnant and gives birth to her son, Ahkeem.
For Ahkeem began as an exploration of St. Louis’ Innovative Concept Academy, whose website states that it is “the only school in America overseen by a court system dedicated to the education and rehabilitation of delinquent teens.” Founded in 2009 by St. Louis Circuit Judge Jimmie M. Edwards, the school provides a second chance to students vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline, providing structure and a sympathetic staff to hopefully guide them to graduation. As film co-director Levine explained to The Glow Up:
At the beginning, I think both Landon and I ... had been frustrated and infuriated by this trend in the country of the school-to-prison pipeline, where lots of kids—especially black [and] brown kids—are pushed out of their schools and into [the] criminal-justice system, and so that was really the launching point for us. We heard about this school that was set up by a juvenile judge—the school that Daje goes to in the film—and we thought it might be an interesting model to look at these issues.
And so we flew out there, we talked to probably 30 or 40 students, [and] we had these really pretty amazing conversations. ... We got really deep and just heard all of these pretty incredible life experiences of 15-, 16-year-old kids.
The filmmakers were introduced to Daje through one of the students they interviewed that day, and instantly knew that they’d met someone special.
“I think just her kind of energy and radiance immediately captivated both of us. And from that point forward, it really became her film,” said Levine. Co-director Van Soest agreed:
I kind of see it as our job to try to forge an emotional connection and really sort of put a human face on these broader issues. So while we had the broader issues of education and juvenile justice, we were really looking to tell a story. And I think specifically because we’re clearly not of this world ... we’re a couple of white guys with very different upbringings—we just knew that we needed a really strong partner to tell the story.
And I think Daje just really proved to be that through the whole process she had a real a real charisma about her, but also just a real openness and honesty, a really kind of analytical mindset. That, and she had a real burning desire to tell her own story.
It’s worth noting that in the months before filming began—over a year before the death of Michael Brown (which occurred during filming)—Daje’s cousin, 25-year-old college honor student and activist Cary Ball Jr., was killed, shot 25 times by St. Louis police officers. While his death didn’t garner the outcry and media attention of Brown’s, the officers would ultimately be exonerated in his killing. When I asked the filmmakers if they’d faced any accusations of indulging in “trauma porn” at the expense of Daje’s almost exclusively black and poor St. Louis community, Levine was clear:
From the beginning, we had to acknowledge our role as outsiders—we always had to be checking ourselves ... and I think as we processed what we were doing, as we very proactively worked with some of our collaborators from different backgrounds and had rough-cut screenings—sometimes with only black women—[we] had to really hold ourselves accountable with the images we were portraying.
Van Soest added:
I think, from an issue level, we’re very invested in social justice—specifically issues that deal with education, which are extremely unequal across our society. And I just think, fundamentally, it’s impossible to look at inequality in America without looking at racial bias and kind of acknowledging that that’s the case. So if we’re going to do this kind of work and we’re going to look at these issues, there’s a very strong racial element that we can’t ignore.
Our outlook always was, this is a teenage girl, and her story is as much about teen love and doing well on her test tomorrow as it is dealing with these much larger challenges that we don’t think any teenager should really have to be dealing with. Looking at the obstacles that she faced on top of what every other teenager in our country faces did look kind of insurmountable at times, and I think really kind of shone a light on her resiliency and her incredible drive and all of the positive things that she accomplished to put her on a much more positive path.
When we spoke to Daje, it had been around three years since filming ended, and just over a year since For Ahkeem made its acclaimed debut at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Now 21 going on 22, she is a working mother and college student; in fact, she had just finished her first semester that day, covering general studies, as she works toward her major, ultrasound technology. She chose her future career because of a friendship forged with her own ultrasound technician after the birth of her daughter, Alexis, in 2016; Daje is now a mother of two.
When we spoke, now-former boyfriend Antonio had just met his 2-year-old daughter, having been released from prison the day before after serving two years of a four-year sentence for nonviolent offenses. He’d been transferred to a prison too far for Daje to visit while pregnant.
Antonio’s fate has been in direct contrast with Daje’s. In For Ahkeem, we cringingly watch him plead guilty to a felony after his first arrest for a nonviolent crime, a decision that directly leads to his later conviction for a series of nonviolent and generally petty parole violations. As Van Soest laments, “We don’t think he really understood the implications of that plea.”
When I ask Daje about their future together, she confirms that they’re currently not together before adding: “I hope he [does] right this time. He says he’s gonna do right.”
Of her acclaimed documentary, Daje says that she loved For Ahkeem from the moment she first saw it, and would welcome sequels giving five-year updates on her family’s progress, although there are no stated plans at this point to do so. Notably, she still shares a very close relationship with Levine and Van Soest, whom she counts as part of her support system, alongside her mother and children’s godparents. [Editor’s note: The For Ahkeem website includes a “Support Daje” crowdfunding page set up by the filmmakers to help support Daje as she works her way through college.]
“I tell them everything,” she says. “It’s real; we’ve made a bond, and we’re like family now—and I don’t think it’ll ever change.”
But while Daje’s life has changed significantly, she is still dreaming of escaping her St. Louis neighborhood, and still counting the number of friends killed since filming—including one just three days before. She envisions a five-bedroom house where she can raise her young family safely and happily:
I want [my children] to be happy and comfortable where they are. Right now, [we’re] not happy and comfortable where we are. We still live in the same spot. ... I didn’t think that after this film I was going to still be here, but you’ve gotta work towards what you want to be and what you want to do. Everybody around you can’t always help you; you’ve got to help yourself first.
For Van Soest, bringing Daje’s story to the masses will hopefully bring a human face to the masses of children most vulnerable to the criminal-justice system:
It’s a very specific story about one amazing young girl in our eyes, and somebody, I think, [who] is one of the most important people in my life, and someone that I care deeply about. But you know, in a lot of ways she’s not exceptional; in a lot of ways her story is emblematic. And I just hope that people who see the film can kind of get that from her and fall in love with her in the way that we have, but also see her struggle and be as outraged as we are that she’s having to cope with all of these challenges.
The Glow Up tip: For Ahkeem is now available on Amazon Prime Video.