Filmmaker James Rutenbeck came to Dorchester in 2014 planning to observe adult learners in a rigorous humanities curriculum. In the process, he learned a lot about himself and about deep inequities that exist in Boston. The participants were enrolled in the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which provides free humanities education to motivated first-time college students who might not otherwise have the opportunity for higher education.
In a small classroom at the Codman Square Health Center, where the group of 20 was discussing Socrates, LeRoi Jones and James Baldwin, he looked for students with transformative stories.
Rutenbeck’s films focus on exposing inequities. Starting his career at GBH in 1984, he has gone on to make his mark exploring the lives of unemployed coal miners, small farmers and itinerant evangelists. His work describing health disparities in the United States in Not Just a Paycheck, an episode of the PBS series Unnatural Causes, won him an Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award, one of the most prestigious journalism awards.
In this newest film project, Rutenbeck started spending time with two students: Carl Chandler and Kafi Dixon. The lessons they shared with him about their lives were the basis for A Reckoning in Boston, an Independent Lens film. A Black man of Indigenous heritage, Chandler is in his 70s and living on a small pension in one of Boston’s most dangerous neighborhoods. He had been a single father and was now helping to care for his grandson. For Chandler, the Clemente Course was an empowering experience, Rutenbeck said. “It was a place where his self-education and intellectual prowess was in free-form and evident for everyone to see.”
A bus driver, Dixon dropped out of school when she was 15. In her 40s, she is a mother of three. “Kafi was much more of an activist, someone who wanted to take on the inequities of her life and the lives of the Black women she knew in Boston who were struggling in so many ways,” he said.
Rutenbeck began to see the obstacles they were facing every day in their lives. He followed along when Dixon went to the Boston Housing Court and the welfare office. “I went to all these places that were essentially hidden from me—a White person living in the suburbs—and I realized my own inadequacy,” he said.
A phrase Chandler would often use to describe himself was “I am common,” Rutenbeck said. “I would say, ‘OK, I get the point,’ but you know, I didn’t really get the point,” he said. “What he was saying, which I finally understood, is that there are many, many people in Boston like Kafi and Carl, gifted individuals whose potential hasn’t been realized.” To survive the insecurity that swirled around them, Chandler and Dixon—and ultimately Rutenbeck with the production of this film—found that it was important to make space for themselves and other people experiencing a similar situation. “For Carl, nurturing within a family structure is a way to create a kind of safe space,” Rutenbeck said. “Kafi worked with the women in her neighborhood to create a cooperative so that they could have a safe space to feel free,” he said. “They both were always looking to create a place where people could flourish,” he said.
Rutenbeck said he started to feel like he was not the right person to be mediating these stories. “There was so much I didn’t understand,” he said. So, he brought Dixon and Chandler on contractually as producers of the film, and they began meeting regularly and collaborating as partners. But after many years, the film was not really taking shape. “I was intending to keep the focus on them to tell their story—but it always would have been just their story. There’s a limitation to that,” he said.
At that point, Rutenbeck said he was urged by his collaborators to be as vulnerable as they had been for him. “When I became vulnerable, it became our story—a story about structures and systems that we all participate in,” he said. “And if we don’t try to challenge them, nothing is going to change.”
Boston is a prosperous, progressive place with well-educated people, Rutenbeck said, “and yet we are not attending to our history or to the difficulties some of our citizens face.” These kinds of conversations where we learn from each other are really productive, he said. “They can be uncomfortable at times, but they can lead to greater understanding and may even help to address some of these big issues that affect us all.”