Check It


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Check It
"A mixture of tragedy, laughter and wildly clashing perspectives makes Check It a compelling subject." | Photo: Holden Warren

The writer Ally Sheldon - better known as James Tiptree Jr - once theorised that the recognition of full human status is dependent on the perceived ability to fight back. Prison lore certainly seems to support this - one doesn't have to win, just to fight. For long decades LGBT people felt too isolated or carried too much internalised shame to resist violence in any significant way, so they were easy targets for every kind of bully and petty criminal. But times have changed.

Washington DC has historically been one of the most dangerous places in American to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In 2014, attacks on LGBT people made up 41% of all recorded hate crimes in the city. Check It formed partly in response to this violence. It's a gang with a distinctive character and aesthetic, a gang whose members are known for their glamorous clothes but also for the speed with which they'll pull knives on anyone who messes with them. Thanks to Check It, young, punkish LGBT people are no longer seen as easy targets, but they are seen as troublemakers; they have exchanged straightforward victim status for a fast track to prison.

Documentary makers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer followed members of Check It at a critical time in the gang's history, when attempts were being made to reach out and rehabilitate them. Experienced youth workers who have seen this cycle of violence before focused on identifying their priorities and helping them develop their skills, giving them the option of a different future. For one young man, that means training as a boxer, confounding opponents who believe that his pink hair means he can't land a proper punch. For another, it means developing her skills as a writer, helping her to be confident about her own voice. For many, it means working together to design their own line of clothing and put on a fashion show.

Young and wayward as they are, the Check It crew are easy to like but difficult to discipline. "I just don't know why she wouldn't want me to dress like this. I'm so hot!" says one young trans woman of her mother, displaying a limited understanding of parental concerns. These are people who have had to fight for the space to be themselves, so understanding the advantage that can come from impressing people in suits is quite a step, and the danger of giving them much-needed praise for their talents is that they lose sight of the need to put in work. Not all of them will be successful as far as their helpers are concerned. But all of them are gaining something from this, if only an awareness that there are people out there who see them as human.

A mixture of tragedy, laughter and wildly clashing perspectives makes Check It a compelling subject. Flor and Oppenheimer often don't seem to do much more than watch, but the magic is in the edit, and snippets of direct interview reveal the intimacy they have managed to establish with people not known for their ability to trust. It's one of those films that's likely to become more fascinating with time. One hopes that, a couple of decades from now, some members of the gang will still be around to tell the tale.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2017
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A documentary about a Washington DC gang made up of young LGBT people.

Director: Dana Flor, Toby Oppenheimer

Year: 2016

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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