Discussing the voguing LGBT gang of DC that combines the ferocity of life on the streets with forays into the fashion world
Don’t mess with The Check It. Despite glamming up and urgently parading down K Street – Washington, DC’s red-light district – to fill their pockets with Benjamins by offering sexual favours, this all-gay gang knows how to serve a knuckle sandwich. Armed with switchblades, brass knuckles, mace and, most importantly, their fists, this group of 14-22-year-old gang members is fighting off tormentors the only way it knows how.
Fed up with being the targets of malicious and unprovoked hate, the group formed in 2005. All ninth graders at the time, The Check It soon solidified their rep as a gang best avoided and began enlisting. They now boast more than 200 card-carrying affiliates. The objective of The Check It is simple: to watch each other’s back. The fights they get into aren’t just schoolyard scuffles, either. Many of The Check It’s members are owners of a badass mugshot, having been charged with everything from assault to armed robbery.
It’s on this shaky moral ground that these young kids’ stories are rolled out. Growing up in DC’s most dangerous hoods, they are all simply fighting to stay alive. “These are not thugs, they’re not drug addicts, they’re not any of those things,” says director Toby Oppenheimer, who has been working on Check It for four years with his co-director Dana Flor. “Yes, they have this tendency (to get into fights), but it’s all driven out of a need, a necessity for survival and protecting themselves.”
In one jaw-clenching scene, a Check It member called Day Day gets into an adrenaline-fuelled row with someone who is taunting him. The quarrel is over in the blink of a false eyelash. The aftermath, a nearly passed out Day Day being slapped awake by cops who’ve arrived on the scene, is a visceral reminder of what these men face every day, doing nothing more than being themselves. Much of the film’s runtime is dedicated to another member, Skittles, who trains as a boxer at a local gym. It’s a pastime that’s half distraction from more sinister vices, half practical knowledge for survival. He knows how to take a punch. “It’s important to show that side of what happens, of what they’re getting into,” Oppenheimer explains of the on-screen violence. “I hope that you feel from the film that we try to deal with the violence very sensitively, and non-exploitatively, but it’s important to show it exists.”
Both DC natives, the director pair was floored to discover – over a meal at Denny’s with The Check It’s mentor, Mo – that a group of LGBT teens were being treated like piñatas and selling their bodies just blocks away from The White House. “It’s something that people are not aware of. (These people) are absolutely overlooked, invisible. We wanted to tell that story because they’re the most marginalised of the marginalised. We were just blown away by their personalities.”
“These kids have had every break against them, and every adult in their life basically disappoint them... we care incredibly deeply about their stories” – Toby Oppenheimer
The rollercoaster narrative hinges on those acid-tongued personalities: Star, Day Day, Tray, and Skittles. This movie is fun to watch because they fight for the attention of the camera just as hard as they come at their opponents’ necks. Mo introduces some of the gang to Jarmal Harris, a fashion show producer who puts the ‘camp’ in summer camp. The kids band together to come up with fierce looks for the runway and channel their excess energies into talents that are helping to lift them out of poverty. Rather than wallow in self-pity, they get dolled up and vogue with the hordes of other Check It members roaming the pavements. It’s like a modern-day drag ball, albeit much more violent.
There’s a memorable line from the beginning of Jennie Livingston’s cult 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, about New York’s drag ball circuit, which goes, “You have three strikes against you in this world: you’re black, and you’re male, and you’re gay.” Those words still hold true some 26 years later. Check It echoes the salvos of the drag balls in Paris is Burning, but these ones play out in the streets and there are no trophies for the winner.
But it’s that unwavering hunger for a better life that both the Check It family and the drag houses in Paris is Burning share. Statistically, they may be disadvantaged. (DC has the highest rate of HIV infection in the country, making it ground zero of the Aids crisis in the United States). Yet instead of playing the hands they’re dealt, these gay men are making their own luck and boosting those around them. Mo is even training them to become outreach workers.
The Check It have since traded life on the streets for a burgeoning fashion company, aptly titled Check It Enterprises, which they’re just getting off the ground. “When they’re really presented with a chance, they really glide.” Their story is now ready to be told, and the documentary is backed by the granddaddy of cool, actor Steve Buscemi. “My friend connected us with Buscemi’s partner Wren Arthur. So I sent it to them. And within like a minute, she flipped out, and she showed it to Steve, and he flipped out. And they were on board from that moment on, just incredibly supportive.” Check It has just played to a stunned crowd at Tribeca and is now making rounds on the festival circuit.
“These kids have had every break against them, and every adult in their life basically disappoint them,” says Oppenheimer. “But at some point they bailed out. And we didn’t, and we haven’t, and now we obviously care incredibly deeply about these kids, and about their stories. It’s been a fucking long, long journey! It really was. But damn, it was so worth it.”