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Friday, February 24, 2012

Kevin Epps on His Life-Changing Straight Outta Hunters Point Documentaries

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge Kevin Epps. - FLICKR/FAMSF
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  • Kevin Epps.
The impact of Kevin Epps' 2003 documentary Straight Outta Hunters Point runs so deep in the neighborhood where it was filmed, kids who have never met the director have the title of his film tattooed on their arms and backs. Its long-anticipated sequel, which debuted at last year's San Francisco Black Film Festival and starts tonight (Friday) at the Roxie, shows a shade less overt violence than the original, which kickstarted a nationwide trend toward harrowing 'hood videos. But it is no less chilling in its exploration of the deep and systemic issues that continue to plague the neighborhood and its residents. These include gut-wrenchingly low high school graduation rates and a palette of ailments such as asthma and cancer that some attribute to the screaming problem of hazardous waste from the PG&E power plant and the contaminated vestiges of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

Epps, who's a Fellow at the DeYoung and curates different film series and panel discussions at the museum each month, calls the sequel an homage to his home and the fuel for a diverse career in film and television. He also labels it a snapshot of a neighborhood that's quickly changing under widespread redevelopment. We spoke with Epps a few days ago.

Describe the impact the first film had on your life.

Well, I was caught in the cycle of all of the black market activity, I wasn't separate from that, so I was trying to figure out what direction to take my life to. And that film affected my life like it affected some people who participated in it, where it gave them a mirror reflection of who they were and what was going on around them in their community. Even though I created it, I was also a spectator in terms of being able to learn from the community and get a lot of insight from different people who could share something that was meaningful. It was all that kind of stuff that came out of it for me in terms of it being a learning experience.

And then being able to have this sort of groundbreaking underground film, just the notoriety behind it, I was the center of that notoriety so I received a lot of recognition and invitations and travel and film festivals. All of that was an educational experience for me and opened my life up to opportunities that I probably would have never had the opportunity to experience. Like they'd fly you to a festival in Miami or Brazil and they'd pay for your round trip tickets and hotel accommodations.

All that kind of stuff, I mean, what more could you ask for? That was something that came along with that ride that I didn't even conceive or think about, like I'd do this film and have a chance to hit the red carpet and do all this other stuff. I was thinking about being creative, because I was working with the Film Arts Foundation and I had an interest in public access television and doing all of that stuff over the years. And it all climaxed into this story about being in Hunters Point.

A lot of people praise it because you brought the cameras into places where people can't just go, and the after-effect is that it brought you to places where you probably thought you'd never be able to go.

And the community along with me, because I was able to showcase the film at all these different film festivals and people that would never know about Bayview-Hunters Point could get a view of it in that context. So it was a win-win; I was there, but I was also showcasing the community in front of hundreds and thousands of people. And millions probably now because of bootlegs and all the technologies.

I put my life on the line in so many ways because I wanted to tell an authentic story. There were times of danger and times when there wasn't [overt] danger but it just comes with the environment.

With so much land-grabbing and redevelopment there now, how are some of the ways that the sequel shows a community that is already starting to look different?

Redevelopment is on the fast track in that community. You see in the film that they've already broken ground with West Point, where I grew up -- a lot of the projects there are torn down already. It's still there but it's changing fast and people are being pushed out and moved to different cities like Antioch and Oakland and Vallejo. There are a lot of kids in Bayview-Hunters Point and that brings a certain amount of vibrancy, but it's not looking good in terms of how it's gonna look five years from now. It will all be new development, and I'm not sure that the people who live there will be the ones who occupy that new development.

Why do developers believe the neighborhood will be appealing to other sectors of the community when there's so many problems relating to environmental waste, which is an issue illustrated pretty vividly with testimonials about health problems in the film? Are they banking that people won't know about that?

Yeah, they're banking on that and they've been really savvy with marketing and promotion and the changing of streets and sections. They're changing the name of certain sections and saying a lot of deceptive things. Like, it won't be Bayview-Hunters Point and they'll have a whole other name. Golden Gate Fields, or something.

Dogpatch Heights?

They'll change the name and there are people from different professions within the tech sector coming here from all over the world who are not from here so they're not familiar. They don't know the history of the community. They just know it's a convenient space to where they need to work. So that's how it's happening.

When did you first start seeing kids tattooing Straight Outta Hunters Point on their bodies?

There were a couple of occasions with the little homies. First a friend of mine that worked at juvenile hall told me about a young dude who had Straight Outta Hunters Point tattooed on his elbow, but I didn't really pay it any attention. And then I was in my hood -- West Point, Middle Point Road -- it was a hot day, and some young homies on the block had on wife beaters and I saw one [from a distance] that said "Hunters Point" and I looked closer and saw the "Straight Outta." I was [shocked] but it wasn't a big thing to them.

I asked, "When did you get this tattoo?" And he said, "Aw, I been had one and whatshisname got one, too." There were people I knew who had them, but I heard there were about five or six people that I didn't know who had them, too. That really struck a chord with me and told me that this has more impact than I think. Someone got a tattoo of the film that you made? That lets you know that people take ownership of it, too.

But you don't even have it as a tattoo?

I don't have a tattoo at all, ha ha! My cousins and little nephews all wanted us to get a tattoo of the brain logo of my company Mastamind. They're all in the streets and they wanted all of us, like 50 of us, to go and get them at the same time. I was like, hell nah!

I'm gonna rep my hood 'til I die and no matter how far I go, I can't really get away from it because the connections are like family, the roots run deep. All I can do is try to be an example by what I do in terms of my livelihood. I'm not into any illegal or illicit activities like drug sales. I do it a different way and that kind of helps them see that you can use your God-given talent to make it work for you.

Straight Outta Hunters Point 2 screens Feb. 24 through March 1 at the Roxie Theater.

Follow us on Twitter @ExhibitionistSF, follow Tamara Palmer @teemoney415, and like us on Facebook.

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