Most San Franciscans, like myself, have hardly any reason to spend time cruising through the poor black neighborhood of Hunters Point set on an isolated hill south of the city overlooking San Francisco Bay. For those who live outside San Fran, you'd probably never even know such a roughneck ghetto existed in this fair city of hipsters, tech nerds, bohemians, and Marina yuppies. But through Kevin Epps' often disturbing, sometimes hilarious, and always engaging documentary Straight Outta Hunters Point, you get a streets-eye view of just what this working-class 'hood has been through and where it stands today.
Epps has an unrelenting eye for showing his audience just what HP (Hunters Point, as its more often called throughout Straight) is all about, interweaving video ranging from gang war shooting scenes to sidewalk Bible-thumping revivals to tire-burning car sideshows to bare-chested thugs blingin' for the camera. He even reaches back into HP's painful past; this troubled area almost seemed cursed from its start as a black dock workers' development that sunk into depression after the nearby Navy shipyard closed post-WWII - the same shipyard that was so polluted it would eventually be declared a Superfund site and would cause high levels of illness in the community.
Today, HP is a straight-up real ghetto, according to its residents, suffering from devastating violence and heavy drug use. During the course of filming, 100 shootings took place in HP -- one of which is caught amazingly on film by Epps' crew. Alongside the images of death and flyer memorials to the departed, gangstas and dope dealers flash their guns at the camera, illustrating simply yet alarmingly how lost the message of the city councilors and activists -- whose mannered speech seems like a foreign tongue amongst the "know what I'm sayin'"s of HP's slang--is on them.
But perhaps that's why Epps' film is so very important. As he put it during a Q&A session following a press screening in San Francisco, showing this film in Hunters Point is like "holding a mirror up" to his own community. Not only do we outsiders get an up-close look into what it's like to live in this 'hood, but its own populace has to face its problems, both as victims of poor circumstance and self-inflicted problems. One of the most moving moments comes after an anti-violence meeting when the mother whose child's photo is included in a victims' poster breaks down in tears, pleading, "Why does my baby's picture have to be on this poster?" It's poignant for me; I can't imagine how it feels to be in a crowd watching that in Hunters Point.
In an age when John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood has been done over so many times to the point of cliché, a shot of reality like Straight Outta Hunters Point is just the kind of awareness poor neighborhoods need to improve their situation. And thankfully we have fresh talents like Kevin Epps coming on the scene to provide it.