In reflecting on life in the Afro-Cuban community of Liberty City, Miami, 14-year-old James remarks that “sometimes it feels as if the odds are against you.” One can understand this sentiment when observing the daily life of the eighth grader in Dorian Emerson’s documentary short Negros. Despite his aspirations of a career in waste management, the harsh realities of being a Black male in America hang over James like a persistent raincloud.
Even simple pleasures that come with teenage life, such as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day bike ride around the city with his friends, are dampened by the inevitable presence of police. As Emerson’s film effectively captures, the over-policing of Black lives in Liberty City, frequently depicted on the daily news like a never-ending horror story, is one of the numerous hurdles the community must frequently navigate. There is also the issue of poverty, violence, gentrification, years of systemic racism and the fact that those who live outside of Liberty City frequently use the region as their personal trash dump.
Given the heavy burdens and traumas placed on the backs of the community, it is a testament to the inner strength of individuals like James who refuse to let them weigh him down. Emerson uses James as a beacon of light shinning through the bleak darkness that systemic injustice brings. The young subject helps to give the film an overall sense of hope. A reminder of the continual perseverance that is rarely highlighted when exploring the historical hardships placed on predominantly Black neighbourhoods.
Infusing just the right amount of historical context into his experimental short film, Emerson does a good job of showing how the people of Liberty City have endured decades of being treated like second class citizens. While the focus is wisely kept on James, pushing the talking heads to voice overs, Negros’ striking visual flare, which includes a vibrant colour palette and moments of animation, occasionally drifts into the realm of the obvious. Scenes involving James painting a red line on the pavement, to signify the “Redlining” that is occurring as developers poach properties for gentrification, and shots of James with a bag over his head, to symbolize the suffocating nature of being Black in America, feel more distracting than thought-provoking.
Despite these brief moments when the imagery is a little too on the nose, Emerson’s film paints an uplifting portrait of a resilient community. Negros is both a piercing call for change and a necessary reminder of the humanity and sense of innocence frequently stripped from young Black men.