Give Us This Day

When a city earns ignominious honor of “murder capital” of the United States, most folks shake their heads with a wary mix of despair, sadness, and resignation. However, beyond stock crime scene footage, seldom do we ever get an in-depth look at the people struggling to survive and overcome the violence choking their communities. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s searing new documentary Give Us This Day gets beneath the cold statistics to show us a year in the lives of six people — three police officers and three young men — living in East St. Louis, Illinois which has had the highest homicide three years running in America. Far from a right/left wing polemic calling for tighter gun control or more stringent criminal penalties, the directors give voice those living and dying on margins of an American city.

The film opens with a flyover of distressed, dilapidated houses and empty lots. This East St. Louis, Illinois. Spanning 89 blocks with some 27,000 residents, in 2016 the city had a homicide rate three times higher than Chicago, 24 times, higher than New York City and on Earth second only to El Salvador. In the year 2017 police chief and associate pastor Michael Hubbard hope this is the year that East St. Louis will turn a corner. And so begins the viewer’s journey over twelve harrowing months in this small midwestern city. 

“…the city had a homicide rate three times higher than Chicago, 24 times, higher than New York City and on Earth second only to El Salvador.”

Our guides include: James Samuel, a 24 year old drug dealer with his first child on the way; Debra Wood, a 55 year old police officer and mom who joined the force in her mid 40s; Rich Sharp, a one-time, “law and order” LA cop who — as the film’s only white protagonist — came back home to the midwest to join the East St. Louis police department; DeShaun Jones, a wide-eyed 12-year-old enrolled in a cadet program in his school with aspirations of becoming a police officer; and Dortavus Boey Jr., a promising 18 old year old senior and baseball star who was the unintended victim of a shootout that claimed the life of his best friend. As the film opens in 2017, Chief Hubbard draws wipes clean last year’s whiteboard which catalogs the city’s murder rate (a staggering 27 people in 2016) with the hope for a better year ahead. 

“…shows us the protagonists in full, as they deal with the mundane, the terrifying, and absurd.”

Like the best documentaries of its ilk (Hoop Dreams, Restrepo), Give Us This Day shows us the protagonists in full, as they deal with the mundane, the terrifying, and absurd. Friends are buried, dreams are achieved, proms attended, careers thwarted. Life, it is said, is unscripted. And like the best narrative films, there are several unexpected twists in the film that uplift what might otherwise have been an unyielding downer: Dortavus wins scholarships at several colleges, James gets out of the drug game and lands a job, and Officer Sharp mends fences with his daughter. In the end, however, the crushing realities of poverty, insufficient law enforcement resources, and the ready access to guns and drugs take their toll, pushing the East St. Louis’ murder rate to 35 by the year’s end — five times higher than Chicago, 38 times, higher than New York City and two times greater than of El Salvador.

Challenging though it is, Give Us This Day  demands to be seen. How the filmmakers were able to film several scenes of such incredible emotional intimacy testifies to their skill and, undoubtedly, affection for each of their subjects. With its superb pacing and tight narrative structure, the viewer, too, is soon rooting for each of protagonists—and the city itself. I also applaud the filmmakers for not bluntly pushing forth an “easy” one-size-fits-all solution to the violence plaguing East St. Louis. They are confident enough to step back and the viewer arrive at his/her own conclusions. If I have one criticism, it is that the film would have been made stronger still if one of the subjects had been a young woman trying to navigate her way through this minefield of a city. Nonetheless, this is a masterful, film, Shakespearean in scope, that anyone with a measure of empathy can relate to. Don’t miss this gem of a documentary.

Give Us This Day (2018) Written and directed by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist.

9 out of 10 stars

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