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Kartemquin Films 50: ‘Trick Bag’

Editor’s Note

Kartemquin Films is a not-for-profit organization in Chicago, which has been producing innovative documentaries to inspire democracy and action for 50 years. To celebrate this milestone, the collaborative group is featuring a film they produced every week, from now until the end of 2016. Each film is available to watch for free until the next film in their catalog is posted every Friday.

From this point onward, I expect to highlight each film with posts aimed at calling attention to the important work Kartemquin has done and how the group has impacted the art of cinema over the past half century. Two films from the early years, “Home for Life,” and “Inquiring Nuns,” have already been featured. I will publish posts about those films in the coming weeks. —Kevin Gosztola

It is the 1970s. Blacks and Latinos are pushed out of Chicago neighborhoods by bigoted landlords and white residents, who fear what their presence will bring to their community.

“Trick Bag” is a short film from Kartemquin that explores how Vietnam veterans, factory workers, and gang members confront racism. The film also marks the beginning of a new era for the collaborative film organization.

The period from 1970-1978, according to Kartemquin, was the “Collective era.” Co-founders Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal expanded the crew of individuals involved in making “activist films.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of “Trick Bag” is the fact that members of the 1960s activist group, Rising Up Angry, appear in the film. Rising Up Angry was “designed to bring radical politics away from the campuses and into the heart of white Chicago, to the working-class neighborhoods that seemed so hostile, reactionary, and forbidden to much of the campus-based New Left,” according to the Chicago Reader.

A goal of the group was to convince “white working class youths to stop fighting other youths and unite with the Black Panthers and others ‘to fight the real enemy.’ Or, if possible, the group hoped they could at least persuade the youths to not fight anti-racism activism.

Stylistically, the film employs a cinéma vérité style and is still like the early films from Kartemquin. The tradition of “cinematic social inquiry” continues. However, with “Trick Bag,” it is one of the first films to feature radical politics and unambiguously suggest the activists featured in the film are right to be promoting resistance.

In the film, white youths address the fights gangs are getting into with each other over petty issues. A peace treaty is established, and it brings some sense of security because people can walk the streets without looking over their shoulder. It is also suggested the youths, black and white, may eat, drink, smoke, and get high together—a sign of the times.

Vietnam veterans share stories from when they were deployed in the war. Only whites were promoted in their units to command positions. One veteran shares how he stood up to a commanding officer to build solidarity with black men in his unit.

Working class residents, who work at the Schwinn Bicycle Company’s factory, candidly describe what it is like at their workplace. Whites are told to take what is offered to them at the factory or else blacks might get their job. Blacks are passed over for promotions and other opportunities. And both blacks and whites are well aware of how Mexicans, or Latinos, are used to drive a wedge in between them.
The statement from one working class resident that the race problems are really class problems is relevant to the current politics in the United States. It points to the contentious debate over identity politics and whether addressing wealth inequality, unemployment, privatized healthcare, and lack of welfare programs can meaningfully impact systemic racism.

A consensus forms that the system is at fault, and together, these groups must rise together to fight for change.

There may be no specific solution proposed, but the filmmakers clearly endorse those who are taking it upon themselves to organize against racism in Chicago communities. Sadly, about forty-five years later, if one were to revisit gentrification in the city (which the group has actually done throughout the past decades), one would find some of the racial dynamics in this film still exist to an alarming degree today.

Watch “Trick Bag” for free at Kartemquin Films’ website. [Available until February 18.]

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."