Five Questions With... Jeremy S. Levine, Director of FOR AHKEEM

After being expelled from her St. Louis high school, Daje is given a final chance to succeed. Placed in an alternative school for delinquent youth, the strong-willed young woman initially excels, but a new relationship with her classmate Antonio changes both their lives. Set against the charged backdrop of Ferguson, Missouri, FOR AHKEEM is an intimate and frank story of the coming of age of an African-American teenager today.

Read more with Director Jeremy S. Levine, and meet him in person at a screening on Thursday, June 22 at 6:30 PM and/or Friday, June 23, at 9:30 AM!

Photo Credit: Caitlin Ochs

NFF: How did you meet Daje? Do you have a connection to St. Louis?

Jeremy: We wanted to tell a deeply personal story about what it means to live your life when so many systems are set up against you, when school discipline policies are used to suspend and expel Black students in huge numbers, when the police and the courts assume you are criminal because of your race. We wanted to root the issues in a personal, cinematic narrative that would resonate with audiences on an emotional level. 

So when our Executive Producer Jeff Truesdell told Landon and I about an interesting alternative school in St. Louis designed to break the school-to-prison pipeline, we knew we had to go see it for ourselves. When we got there, we talked with dozens of students and so many of them had amazing stories to tell—there were so many films that could have been made. We started filming with a few students when Daje—who everyone calls “Boonie”—literally walked into the frame and stole the show. From that point forward, it really became about following Boonie as she navigated these crucial adolescent years. While the issue brought us to St. Louis, For Ahkeem is much more of a cinematic coming-of-age story and a film about what we do for those we love.

NFF: You spent over two years documenting this story - when did you know in your mind that the film had enough footage to be complete? Do you still think there's more story here to tell?

Jeremy: Of course, in real life, there’s always more story to tell. Boonie's life continues—she’s had more triumphs and setbacks since we stopped filming. But at some point you need to stop. With this film, we used Boonie's time at the school as a skeleton for the film, so that helped hone in on the timeline. As we filmed, Landon and I would often map out the story elements we had shot to date and where we thought the story was heading, with the idea that we wanted to flesh out a full narrative arc. Then of course real life would intercede, Boonie's life would be thrown a curveball, and we’d have to revisit what this meant for the film. In some sense, it's like writing and rewriting the script, which continued to happen for the next year in the edit. 

NFF: In our current political and cultural climate, it seems things may good worse before they get better for this community. Where do you see things headed in St Louis? Is there hope?

Jeremy: Well a lot of people are saying that about our country at large, which I think is an optimistic way of looking at things. Look, we were in production during the Obama years, and it was clear that Boonie's community was already left behind in so many ways. But, with the new administration, things are certainly only going to get worse for communities like hers, which are among the most vulnerable when services get slashed. 

Do I have hope that things can get better? Yeah, you’ve got to have hope. Before the election, it was possible for some Americans—mostly white Americans—to ignore or deny the persistence of racism. But Trump changed that. There isn’t necessarily more racism in the US now, it’s just more overt now, more out in the open. And maybe now that it’s in the open, we can start to deal with it.

NFF: What surprised or challenged you the most while you were making the film?

Jeremy: When Mike Brown was shot a year into production, that certainly was a pivotal moment for our country, but it was also a monumental event for Boonie—and the film. And it wasn’t because a Black man was shot by the police. How many Black men were shot by the police during the making of our film? What was extraordinary was that the media paid attention, that the people in Ferguson made the country pay attention. 

You could feel that history was in the making and at times, it started to feel like these events might overpower the film. But ultimately we brought the focus back to Boonie and what the events meant for her. Boonie was pregnant at the time and the situation in Ferguson forced her to grapple with the reality of raising a Black boy in America today.

NFF: Why are you excited to show the film in Nantucket, and/or what do you hope Nantucket audiences will take away?

Jeremy: I grew up spending my favorite weeks of the summer in Cape Cod, so it’s really amazing to be able to bring the film to audiences in Nantucket. I imagine for a lot of folks on the island, Boonie's circumstances will be pretty different than what they experienced growing up. But her story will move you, regardless of your background. Ultimately, we hope the film will inspire people to get involved and fight for a better future for her and Ahkeem.